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Sunday, August 22, 2010

On the history of Hebrew YIQTOL and the Hebrew verb

I read an interesting article this weekend by Alexander Andrason, “The Panchronic YIQTOL: Functionally Consistent and Cognitively Plausible.” 62 pages.

It is rather top-heavy with metalanguage from Cognitive Linguistics so I will try to summarize and interact with the main points, plusses and minuses, in language that gets halfway back to common English, including some comments for Hebrew learners. Unfortunately, talking about a language is always more complicated than using a language, so the reader needs to bear with me.

I like the flexibility in Andrason’s approach and his synchronic starting point is a breath of fresh air. Cognitive Linguistics has room in its theory for things in language that defy overly simplistic labels. The Hebrew verb is one of these things. Some background comments of my own: as many scholars, maybe most, are at least intuitively aware, the Hebrew verb fuses the parameters of Tense/Aspect/Mood/Textual relationship [i.e. TAM + the ‘sequential’ system] into the four and one-half categories of the indicative Hebrew verb. (qatal, yiqtol, wayyiqtol, and we-qatal are four, qotel is the 'nominal' that was added to the verbal system, making five.) Despite that, many studies spend a lot of ink trying to fit one label on a Hebrew verb category, Tense or Aspect or Mood. As is mentioned in our chapter “The Hebrew Verb: A Short Syntax” in Selected Readings (Biblical Language Center, 2006), such ‘single label’ attempts ultimately fail in a similar way that particle or wave interpretations of light fail by themselves. Light can be a particle ‘when it needs to be’ and it can be a wave ‘when it needs to be’. In fact, it is simultaneously/potentially both. (Physicists are still sorting that out, though String Theory went a step in that direction.) The Hebrew yiqtol conjugation can be a Tense and an Aspect and a Mood as the situation demands. Such is reality and such explains how a person would have learned Biblical Hebrew in antiquity. The formal categories of the verb (qatal, yiqtol, wayyiqtol, we-qatal, qotel, plus the volitionals eqtela, qtol, yaqtel) are mapped by the language users’ experience to the whole realm of human communication and to any referential worlds. Derek Bickerton was one of the linguists of the last generation who re-enunciated this by claiming that the ‘meaning’ of a verbal category in a language will be determined in part by how many pieces ‘the cake’ is divided. He pointed out that many theoretical linguists lose sight of this. Nevertheless, many try to postulate one semanatic parameter for yiqtol and qatal that is mitigated by context. Instead, Hebraists should have been calling a multi-dimensional spade, a multi-dimensional spade. After adding the ‘sequential’ forms, the resulting four and one-half categories (plus the volitionals eqtela, qtol, yaqtel) have a complex ‘mapping’ into their various semantic usages and spaces in BH. Such is reality. Such was the reality of the ancient user and this basic framework needs to be the reality of the modern user.

Fortunately, Andrason develops and posits such a semantic mapping, which is why I called this a breath of fresh air. He also avoids getting himself tangled up by the names he is using for the tense-aspect-moods. Andrason, p. 17: "it is thus not surprising that all attempts to reduce the yiqtol to one well-defined and unambiguous semantic-functional verbal domain (i.e., to one taxis, one aspect, one tense, or one mood) have failed and will always lead to oversimplifications." More background comments from me: probably the majority of materials written for beginner and scholar alike call the yiqtol an ‘imperfect’ or an ‘imperfective’. Those labels have a potential to mislead a person in BH future contexts. In future contexts the overwhelming majority of references are to situations that are being conceived of perfectively [!] as ‘complete/whole’, howbeit in a future time. If someone says ‘maHar yavo ’ מחר יבוא “tomorrow he will come”, the default reference is not to “he will be in the process of coming”, the default implication is that the person ‘will arrive tomorrow’. In other words, in Hebrew the yiqtol refers to future contexts without specifying the aspect, least of all imperfective! As Andrason writes, future yiqtol “is an aspectually neutral tense” (Andrason, p. 53). This is exactly the opposite to what some students and too many scholars assume, based on the name ‘imperfect’. Many scholars have avoided this pitfall. The Jouon Muraoka reference grammar is based on Jouon 1923 where he intuitively called the yiqtol a ‘future’. The problem, though, is that the yiqtol is also a past imperfective. Hence, we encounter the need to recognize a fusion taking place with the parameters of time and aspect in the Hebrew yiqtol. Mood interacts with yiqtol too, but it is more complicated to define and will not be highlighted in this brief discussion and review. See “The Hebrew Verb: A Short Syntax” for further integration of yiqtol with mood and the Hebrew volitional system.

Now back to Andrason. On page 15 of his article Andrason presents a nice, summary, semantic ‘map’ of the indicative yiqtol that includes its basic functions. He also presents a modal map on page 16. As with all maps, the reader should be aware that the graph will change slightly depending on how coarse or refined one wants to make the boxes. But the point is that yiqtol does in fact ‘map’ onto all of these meaning areas. And linguistics does not have good names for the specific ‘fusion’ of TAM that is found in a language like Hebrew. Any single name based on one TAM characteristic may potentially mislead a student. (So naming the form is often the best shortcut: yiqtol, the “yiqtol conjugation”.) Yet the multivalent mapping system works. Andrason, p. 18, "It should be emphasized that the prefix conjugation is not just an accidental amalgam of any functions but, on the contrary, possesses a well established set of time-aspect-taxis-mood and textual uses which are actualized in a particular context." When Andrason summarizes his synchonic view of yiqtol at the end of the article he concludes with an inclusive 'both-and' approach to previous views: “all so far proposed frameworks are to some extent correct” (p. 57). This is a good start.

One item needs correction, page 8. Andrason needs a different example for 2c future imperfective “I will serve you seven years …” (Gen 29:18). Andrason supports his imperfective interpretation based on a Polish possibility. However, his Arabic example 13k on page 51 should have given him a more Semitic perspective, “He spent [suffix conjugation] 40 days in the wilderness.” Since a demarcated time period in the past is normally presented as perfective in Hebrew, it is only consistent if future, demarcated time periods are also considered to be perfective. Thus, Gen 29:18 is not an example of a future imperfective but only provides an example of a durative Aktionsart within a perfective aspect, within a future context. This item does not change Andrason’s overall schema since he elsewhere says that the yiqtol future is neutral for aspect. (The Arabic example 13g is not imperfective either: “Tonight his head will be done away with.” [my translation--RB])

So far so good. Andrason is trying to formalize the Hebrew verb within the theoretical framework of Cognitive Linguistics. As such, it gives theoretical backing (even for those who may not want to venture into reading Cognitive Linguistics) to what may be called a Tense-Aspect-Modal fusion.

The continuation of the paper gets into more speculative territory. It is for theorists rather than language users. Andrason is trying to give a historical linguistic account of how the yiqtol developed into the shape, semantics, and functions in which it is found in Biblical Hebrew, and he is fitting the discussion into Cognitive Linguistics. Persons who read this article will need to be prepared for discussions of ‘trajectory’, Proto-Semitics, Akkadian, Arabic, and Modern Hebrew. His conclusions about a split “imperfective-modal diachrony” and a development from an Akkadian *yaqattal+u are interesting and may be correct (see figure 7, page 55). At the same time, they may confuse the non-linguist learner/user of Biblical Hebrew. Fortunately, Andrason is not arguing that *yaqattal actually existed in Biblical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew did not have *yaqattal, and yiqtol would only be a metamorphicized, fused, morphological remnant. Of course, one should be aware of not reading etymological meanings into the semantics of the BH verb. In support of Andrason, he avoids this in this article.

The article is a rewriting of part of a dissertation that Andrason has written. When discussing the ‘imperfective-modal’ trajectories from a "Central Semitic" to Biblical Hebrew in this article, he pointed out that any theory that projects correctly into Biblical Hebrew needs to project correctly into other Central Semitic languages, too. However, there is an oversight in the discussion on Arabic, pp 50-51. Arabic includes a past imperfective as “kan ‘be [past]’ + yiqtol [!]”. For comparison, the integration of the participle into the BH verbal system [BH qotel] already by First Temple times needs to be included in the overall framework. This is a major disjunct between Arabic and Biblical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew developed a past imperfective in “haya ‘be [past]’+ qotel [participle!]” while Arabic developed its past imperfective as “kan ‘be [past]’ + yiqtol [!]”. Since this article focussed on yiqtol in BH, not Arabic, I would hope that these diverging trajectories will be dealt with in any section on BH qotel in future publications. In the meantime, it should be noted that this may be evidence that the development of Hebrew peaked and included time in one of the trajectories at an earlier stage than Arabic, though both Arabic and BH already included a non-past yiqtol without aspect. Furthermore, because qotel penetrated into the BH verb system, it appears that proto-BH *yiqtol-nonpast became simply BH yiqtol-future. The so-called present-tense examples of yiqtol appear to be instantations of a modal yiqtol and habitual/timeless yiqtol. See Randall Buth, “The Hebrew Verb: A Short Syntax” in Buth Selected Readings (138, 142).

A person may access the original article at
Panchronic Yiqtol

For Biblical Hebrew learners, my advice is to keep working directly on the internalization of BH itself. The BH system is the reality and the grid that Hebrew readers need to use when using the language, however it developed historically. It is also the grid that any historical explanation will need to include. For those with interests in historical or theoretical linguistics, this work of Andrason will provide some great reading and an excellent stimulus. It is a remarkable contribution by a PhD student and will likely cause more than one Semitist to wade into the waters of Cognitive Linguistics.


Raymond C. VanLeeuwen said...

Thanks, Randall. This is a lucid and helpful account of the basic issues.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Good to read your thoughts about this article!

hebrewandgreekreader said...

Thanks Randall!

Very insightful review.

The only comment I can offer is that while the diachronic part of the article is, as you say, theoretical, it is the basis for the synchronic taxonomy, and thus cannot be regarded as a secondary issue. The point of a panchronic methodology is not to end up with just a taxonomy but an explanation of it.

Thanks again for the review. It was a great read.


Randall Buth said...


Yes, the theorectical, diachronic part is part of the methodology. However, in real life one works on reconstructing the trajectories from both directions. Both 'end points' and 'starting points' are evidence that must be placed in the jigsaw puzzle, so that when a puzzle is complete (there may be more than one, 'non-unique' solution due to sparsity of evidence) one can say that the starting point of the diachrony is the 'basis' for the synchronic taxonomy, but etymology by itself does not predict a later synchronic semantic mapping, as the Arabic and Hebrew disjunction shows. And the areas with the most solid evidence become anchor points for the areas with more ambiguous evidence.

Nicholas said...

Thanks, Randall. Great read, and exceedingly helpful.