[b-hebrew] Tense

Rolf rolf.furuli at sf-nett.no
Fri Dec 14 04:22:48 EST 2012

Dear John,

You wrote:

 > I understand you when you describe Rolf's approach, but I don't find his approach well reasoned. Given that wayyiqtol appears 90% in past narrative, we have to ask several questions: Why is this verb form preferred for past narrative if not because it grammaticalizes past tense or perfective aspect (these are the most frequently used verb forms in past narrative in the world's languages)? If the context only determines the past tense meaning, then is wayyiqtol semantically vaccuus? How precisely do we know we are in a PAST narrative context apart from some tense indicator—which generally appears with the verb (to paraphrase Aristotle: the verb is that part of speech which, in addition to its lexical meaning, involves some element of TIME). 
> > 
> > In other words, behind this approach is viciously circular reasoning that has been trenchantly criticized by linguists: how do we know that a verb form indicates a certain discourse type except that we can independently determine both verb meaning and discourse type, in which case what is the point in having the verb form signal the discourse type if we already know what type it is?

RF: We agree that in living languages preterits or perfective verbs are used as narrative verbs. But this does not mean that the same is true in dead languages. Several times you have appealed to "common sense." In our study of dead languages we must use sound linguistic principles, but if "common sense" means that we view dead languages in the light  of modern ones, our interpretation of the data can be disturbed.

Regarding the Karatepe inscription, you say:

"4) So, to clearly address your question: on the view that the Inf. Abs. (or whatever the form) is a sort of serial verb form, we have a verb that does not grammaticalize past tense but appears in narrative. However, it is dependent on a leading form in order to maintain the past temporal location of the narrative. Without this leading verb, how could we know that the text is relating a past narrative as opposed to, say, a future prediction: 

I am Azitiwada, the blessed/vizier of Baal, servant of Baal whom Awarku king of the Danunians made strong (PFV). Baal made me (PFV) a father and a mother to the Danunians. I revived (INF ABS) the Danunians; I widened (INF ABS) the land of the valley of Adana from the rising of the sun to its setting. (I ll. 1-4)."

RF: Whether the infinitive absolutes, or "serial verb forms" as you call them are dependent of a leading form or not we cannot say. If you carefully read the text, you will see that the lexical meaning of the words and the time markers show that the setting is past. Moreover, kings made inscriptions in order to boast of their achievements, and not about what would happen in the future.  I appreciate that you admit that the "serial verb forms" have past reference but that they do not grammaticalize past tense. 

Your question above in connection with WAYYIQTOL can now be applied to the Phoenician "serial verb forms": "Why is this verb form (infinitive absolute or serial verb) used for past narrative if not because it  grammaticalizes past tense or perfective aspect? Your own words above show that this question is unnecessary, because  Phoenician uses a verb form that is not grammaticalized past tense or perfective as the narrative verb.

I will also refer to an Ugaritic example. Some years ago I taught Ugaritic to a group of students for 4 semesters. The purpose of this course was to translate the Ugaritic texts into Norwegian. The result was a book that was published, where the students translated some texts and I translated a great part. One of the documents I translated was the saga og Keret (Kirta), and I was very happy with its verbs.  The first part of this saga has a future setting—what Keret will do is described; the second part has a past setting—what Keret did is described. And most interestingly, the same verbs having same verb forms— for the most part YAQTUL forms— are first used with future reference and then with past reference. It is worth noting that  the YAQTUL form is believed to be a forerunner to the short Hebrew preterite YIQTOL, which is believed to be a forerunner to the preterite WAYYIQTOL.

How can we apply modern common sense to Ugaritic and the saga of Keret? Perhaps we should abandon modern common sense in the study of the verbal systems of the dead Semitic languages and approach the languages from new directions.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli

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