Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes on the Structure of the Hebrew Verbal System

These really are just notes, not a full-fledged think piece.

The issue with the Hebrew (I mean Biblical Hebrew prose here) verbal system (HVS) is accounting for the different uses of qatal and yiqtol at the appropriate level of generalization. It's not that difficult to list all the different functions of these verbal forms, but finding a way to characterize the whole thing has proved controversial.

Everyone agrees at this point that the HVS is not a tense-only system. This can be demonstrated with one fact:
(1) If HVS were tense-only, then yiqtol could never receive a past interpretation. But it can receive a past interpretation in prose (with the past habitual use).
There is much less unanimity that HVS is not an aspect-only system. In fact, my impression is that this view is held by the majority. Nevertheless, this approach also fails, for the following reason:
(2) If HVS were aspect-only (e.g., perfective/imperfective), then qatal could receive a future interpretation. But in fact, it does not receive a future interpretation in prose.
Hence it seems that HVS is a combined tense-aspect system, with qatal being both past and perfective, and yiqtol being past imperfective (habitual), future (either perfective or imperfective), present (general, not actual) and modal.  Many languages of the world combine tense and aspect (e.g., Greek and English) so there's nothing weird or unwelcome about this. Nevertheless, there is still a hankering (in me, at least) to find some feature of the qatal/yiqtol opposition that licenses its several interpretations without any appeal to the arbitrary.

To me the most important clue lies in an argument made by Jan Joosten (in this JANES article), that yiqtol never indicates the actual present (similar to English present progressive), only the general present (gnomic or habitual). I find Joosten's argument convincing, although you can still find statements in the grammars to the effect that yiqtol can function to indicate the actual present. If Joosten is right, then there are not any functions of yiqtol where it refers to an actual, instantiated verbal action (event, state, or process); that is, it is non-referential in that there is no particular action that it picks out.

Here, then, I think is the opposition. Qatal is referential, yiqtol non-referential; again, by referential, I mean that it points to or picks out a particular instantiated action. If qatal is referential, then that entails past tense. The entailments of yiqtol are not as constrained as those of qatal; not having referentiality means that it can be used for a typical action in the past (habitual) or the present (general present) or for a non-instantiated action (such as the future or modal). Hence the wider range of interpretations or readings (in the semantic sense) that are available for yiqtol.

"Referentiality" is usually discussed in terms of nouns and noun phrases, and verbs are not considered in that context. Nevertheless, I think one can argue that verbs can be referential (like a definite noun phrase) or non-referential (like an adjective or an indefinite noun phrase).

This doesn't explain the workings of what I call the "secondary" HVS, that of wayyiqtol and we-qatal.  I'll discuss those at a later time. Also it leaves open the use of qatal and yiqtol in poetry, where some possible counter-examples to (1) and (2) above can be found. I don't believe that they are true "defeaters" of my proposal, because quite often, in my view, what seem to qatal and yiqtol in poetry are actually forms of we-qatal and wayyiqtol that vary because of the peculiar modes of coordination (and conjunction reduction) available in Hebrew poetry. Again, I'll leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that in the final analysis I think the HVS is ultimately uniform in prose and poetry.


mike said...

Please don't confuse the status quo with all your facts. ;)

I think you're right on the money.

John said...

Although I agree with you that the HVS is neither tense-only nor aspect-only, I'm not sure I follow your arguments. In the case of (1), Joosten (JANES and also Hebrew Studies 1999) would be the first to dismiss it as groundless since habituality is a irrealis/modal use that receives its temporal interpretation from its context and is therefore moot with regard to the issue of tense and aspect.

In the case of (2), I'm not sure why perfective aspect would preclude a future interpretation of qatal; in fact, arguments appear in the grammar to the opposite—that being aspectual allows past, present, and future temporal interpretation of the form.

What is crucial in understanding the tense-only aspect-only debate (as misguided) is the idea of "default temporal interpretation" of aspectual forms as discussed in Carlota Smith's work (in particular, Time with and without Tense. Pp. 227–50 in Time and Modality, ed. Jacqueline Guéron and Jacqueline Lecarme. Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory. Dordrecht: Springer, 2008.) On such a basis one can argue that, e.g., qatal is perfective aspect and defaults for past temporal interpretation but that in highly marked environments it may be interpretable as otherwise than this default interpretation.

To illustrate, how many students of BH actually stumble over discerning cases of future perfect qatal? They don't because the context makes it clear that the event must have a future temporal interpretation. What is really needed is a comprehensive study of *how* precisely context clues in the reader to the proper temporal interpretation of aspectual forms.

As for referentiality, while qatal and yiqtol might be said to contrast in this way, but then so does the predicative participle and yiqtol, so I wonder how crucial or useful of a distinction is it by itself.

Chip said...

Dear Ed,

I'm not tied to the aspect theory personally; however, some in that camp may question your second note by pointing to certain non-past or "future"-type usages of qatal. I'm thinking particularly of the so-called epistolary and prophetic perfects.

Looking forward to hearing more about your referentiality theory, how the waw-consecutive forms interact therein, and some discussion of typologically similar languages!

Best wishes,

EMC said...

Dear John, I think you have misunderstood what I said. I didn't say that perfective aspect precluded a future interpretation of qatal. On an aspectual theory, that is just what we would expect. But in fact it does not occur (n prose), i.e., there are not any unmistakable examples of qatal (that are not conjunction-reduced we-qatal, at least) with e.g. future time adverbials. If the system were aspect only, you could have qatals that receive a future interpretation. Again, I'm leaving poetry aside for the moment for the reasons stated.

Chip, thanks for your interest. My ultimate goal is precisely to explain (or explain away) the apparent future (or random-seeming) qatals in poetry. Time will tell if I can or not.

John said...

Thanks for clarifying Ed; I did indeed misread you mention of "future" as *any* future when you are intending a simple future sense. Clearly the latter does not appear in prose for qatal. I'm in hearty agreement with you that the prose and poetic verbal systems are not two distinct animals. I'm of the opinion that there simply are not as many future qatals in poetry as is assumed by the grammars. The reason for this seems to me to be too much ad sensum translating of verb forms in poetry (in commentaries and translations) without a strong expectation that the verbs should conform largely to their prose meanings.