Sunday, October 25, 2009

Toward a Theory of Hebrew Poetic Tenses

A simplistic take of the Hebrew verbal system is that there are two conjugations, the prefix-conjugation (or imperfect), or PC, and the suffix-conjugation (or perfect), or SC. Formally, this is not far from the truth, but it is generally recognized now that there are actually three different PCs: the imperfect (PC1), the preterite (PC2) and the jussive-cohortative (PC3). All of these have diverse historical origins. Although formally they often fall together in Biblical Hebrew, occasional differences in morphological form are discernible between these three.

There are also two kinds of SC: the perfect (SC1) and a second form (SC2) sometimes called the "converted perfect," or just we-qatal (because in prose the SC2 is usually preceded by the conjunction ו). My impression is that the SC2 is currently the most discussed of these forms. Although SC1 and SC2 may have the same historical origin, they function synchronically in different ways, and should always be distinguished.

The workings of these five conjugations is pretty well understood now in prose texts: PC1 for future, general present, modal, or past habitual; PC2 for narrative past; PC3 for volitional mood. SC1 is also used for past tense when narrative sequence is not in view, while SC2 is used in the same way as PC1 with the added feature of sequentiality. There are various fine-tunings of all these functions, but the broad outlines are agreed upon.

As I said, this picture is valid for prose only. When it comes to Hebrew poetry, the outline is not so clear. Various conjugations appear in neighboring poetic lines without clear difference in function. PC1 appears to sometime be used for the past, SC1 for the future. Plus "odd" uses of SC1, such as the precative perfect or the prophetic perfect, are claimed to appear in poetry.

Without going into the whole history of discussion, I propose that Hebrew poetry is more like prose than usually thought, but with the difference that word order is variable and the usual conjunctive particles that in prose differentiate the conjugations are either absent or replaced with different particles. More particularly, I think that the "odd" uses of the SC1 are often actually "normal" uses of SC2. The reason this has been hard to notice is because usually SC2 in prose occurs with the conjunction ו, but in poetry the ו is optional. In other words, in poetry you can have the וקטל without the ו. This accounts for some anomalies in Hebrew poetry.

For instance, in Ps. 23, all the finite verbs are PC1 except for v. 5, ‏dishanta. (The questionable form veshavti in v. 6 I leave out). Although dishanta is SC, it is almost always translated in accordance with the presumed general present tense of the other verbs: "thou anointest (my head with oil)." Here it makes most sense to take this SC as SC2, continuing the tense of the PC1. In prose, the line would read as follows: תערך שלחן -- ודשנת בשמן וגו , "you prepare a table ... and anoint with oil," etc.

Another example is from Ps. 11:2: הרשעים ידרכון קשת כוננו חצם , "the wicked string the bow, they set their arrow (on the string)."** Most English translations again use the general present for both verbs, although the first is PC1 and the second is SC. In prose, the second verb would be וכוננו , "and then they set," etc. It is SC2, not SC1.

The picture is complicated, of course, by the fact that SC1 is also used in poetry, both in a past sense and, depending on the Aktionsart of the verb, as a present. Plus it should be asked whether there was some kind of suprasegmental differentiation (such as stress accent) between SC1 and SC2 in poetry. In a future post, time permitting, I might go into these issues and also the question of the prophetic perfect and the precative perfect as poetic usages of SC2, but this necessarily brief survey gives the general idea. Comments and reactions are welcome.

**Many translations obscure the fact that the idiom דרך קשת means "to string the bow" (by stepping on one end and bending the other end down to attach the string), not "to bend the bow (for shooting)." Hence stringing has to precede setting the arrow, and the second verb cannot be taken as past or as conceptually prior to bending.