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Dunash ben Labrat

Ali Ahmad Said

Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew

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I think this is also a simpler way to teach ancient Hebrew verbs. Perfective/Imperfective language is confusing for newbies and leads to bad habits. Might there be a designation for the prefix conjugation that describes what it does, as "imperfect" tried to do, and does not connote tense-only senes, as in "future", and avoids the morbidity of qatal? Teaching students how to say and write all the forms of "kill" might not be the best first time experience. I know its a strong verb, but its not the only one.


Hi Daniel,

I don't like the verb qatal either. I learned on katav for the qal, and I still prefer it for that binyan. I like the idea of picking different verbs to learn on for different binyanim, but that's just me.

Randall suggests 'future' for yiqtol and 'past' for qatal in terms of labels in English. But I'm not so sure we need labels.

Randall Buth

Actually, I prefer using
he-`atid and
and sometimes "qatal" "yiqtol" in live classes.
Basic principle: do in Hebrew and reinforce in Hebrew whenever possible, which is almost always.

on the above, without checking context, your example 3 might have used he`avar in the subordinate clause. See examples 31-32 in the cited article, a chapter in Selected Readings with 500 Friends (Living Biblical Hebrew, Part 3), with audio MP3. Jerusalem, BLC, 2007.

Randall Buth

Ken Penner

I agree. In my dissertation on tense, aspect, and modality in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I demonstrate that the qatal-yiqtol opposition is one not of aspect, but of tense or modality (if future and habitual actions are modal). A waw-prefix is "conversive." It's available at

I teach Biblical Hebrew yiqtol as modal, and qatal as past (except for semantically stative verbs).

You dared someone to prove the yiqtol-qatal contrast is aspectual in nature. I would like to hear your review of two works, one by our respected UWMadison friend John Cook (, and one by Rolf Furuli (


Robert Holmstedt


(My first comment didn't go through.)

I could not disagree more. I think John Cook's aspectual model is the best explanation given so far (note the reference that Ken gave). He not only explains the BH data but he, in my opinion, is the only one who has adequately dealt with the various linguistic models and cross-linguistic patterns.

I teach the model we promote in our textbook* and my students rarely have a problem with it. And students that have already studied a language other than English *never* have a problem with it.

You ask for proof -- you'll not get it (and you haven't given any "proof" for your model, either). But, if you do want to a model that is scientific**, you'll need more than a deep knowledge of the biblical texts and a comparison one one other language, you'll need just as deep a knowledge of TAM systems -- and how they develop diachronically -- in Semitic and in non-Semitic languages. And again, you'll spend an American PhD worth of time trying to better Cook's theory -- and I doubt it's possible to produce an alternate theory that explains the data from all angles as elegantly as John's.



**If you bristle at my use of "scientific," then I recommend this good article: Pedro Beade, (1989), "Falsification and Falsifiability in Historical Linguistics," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 19:173-81.

John Cook


Notwithstanding Rob's valiant defense, I will add the following comments regarding your challenge to "prove" otherwise:

1) Your 6 examples are all direct speech. While the verb forms appear to contrast with each other in terms of tense in direct speech (i.e., qatal = past, qotel = present, yiqtol = future), this model does not work for non-speech.

2) Randy's examples with MXR do not prove that qatal is not past tense; they only prove that it is not non-past tense. Both conclusions assume tense a priori: either qatal is past tense or it is non-past tense.

3) Most of your discussion is based on simple intuition, and all by people (you, Randy, Ken) whose native language is tense-based. No wonder the language appears to "work" as tense—that is the character of the metalanguage.

4) As a result, I find statistical studies such as Ken's and Furuli's (despite the great differences between their conclusions and the generally much more sound linguistic foundation to Ken's) provide me with no more than a statistical tallying of their particular intuitive interpretation of the verb in its various contexts. Statistics give a false sense of objective proof in semantic study.

5) So why the differences of opinion on tense versus aspect with regard to qatal? I believe it is due to the semantically close relationship between past tense and perfective aspect as noted by Dahl 1985: 79 (available in pdf online: Dahl states that cross-linguistically 'past time reference' characterizes the typical use of perfective verbs.

(The case is similar to the English "will": Is it future or modal? Linguists disagree, but I side with McCawley that since certain statements about the future are judged by people to be "true" or "false," there must be a non-modal future to be referred to by tensed "will." Another way to argue the case is that future-time reference always accompanies the use of "will" whereas a modal sense is not always apparent. Similarly, perfective aspect always accompanies the use of qatal, whereas past temporal reference is typical but not exclusive of the form, on which see below.)

6) So how then can a case be made for perfective aspect at all? It would appear from Dahl's observation that all perfective forms could easily enough be treated as past tense and then we would eliminate another one of those pesky TAM categories. My response is that there are two types of evidence germane to BH, and which are derived from cross-linguistic analysis and not intuitive interpretation:

a) the first is that the qatal form is regularly used for present-time reference performative statements, such as Gen 15:18: לְזַרְעֲךָ נָתַתִּי אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. This is directly contradictory to the notion that the qatal is past tense, whereas it makes sense with a theory that recognizes that qatal is perfective aspect that typically has past-time reference but in cases such as this can have a present-time reference.

b) Cross-linguistically past tense verbs and perfective verbs interact differently with stative predicates, thus providing an objective basis for distinguishing the two. The pattern is a privative marked one: past tense verbs with stative predicates always express states or inchoative events with past time reference, whereas perfective verbs with stative predicates express either past or present time reference, depending on the context. That is why we find in the Bible examples of YD' in qatal expressing present states "I know" (e.g., Gen 12:11: הִנֵּה־נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת־מַרְאֶה אָתְּ). By contrast, wayyiqtol always has a past temporal reference (e.g., Gen 3:7: וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם).

So, just to reply to your "dare," goodnaturedly of course, I "dare" you to explain away this important typological data with your intuitively-based tense interpretation.

For discussion of this typological data, see: Bybee, Joan
1998 "Irrealis" as a Grammatical Category. Anthropological Linguistics 40: 257–71.
Bybee, Joan L., and Östen Dahl
1989 The Creation of Tense and Aspect Systems in the Languages of the World. Studies in Language 13: 51–103.
Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca
1994 The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dahl, Östen
1985 Tense and Aspect Systems. Oxford: Blackwell.

On yiqtol in particular, see my exchange with Joosten in JANES:

Cook, John A.
2006 The Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Do Express Aspect. Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 30: 21–35.
Joosten, Jan
2002 Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect? Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 29: 49–70.


Now that you've weighed in, John, I should just head for the locker room and call it a day. Whenever you talk about these things, I feel like I'm watching Eli Manning throw the football.

But I'll come back to the topic after I lick my wounds. The game is too much fun, especially among friends.

Thanks Daniel, Randall, Rob, Ken, and John for joining the discussion. I will take up some of John's points in future posts.

Randall Buth

I'll deal with some of this later on another blog. Let me just clarify an obfuscation by John Cook:
") Randy's examples with MXR do not prove that qatal is not past tense; they only prove that it is not non-past tense. Both conclusions assume tense a priori: either qatal is past tense or it is non-past tense."

This quoted sentence is a nonsense built around a 'sense' unit that is trying to be hidden. (the definition of 'obfuscation'.)

Let's start at the point of agreement
"they [Buth's examples-RB] only prove that it [qatal-RB] is not "non-past"."

Folksies, that admits that there is a time-component in there somewhere, that there is a time-feature in the verb. There is a positive interactive with 'non-pastness'. It is exactly the smoking gun that 'aspect-only' theorists pretend doesn't exist. 'Aspect-only' would say that the context marks the time, like the word 'tomorrow' in the examples, and the verb would mark the aspects. But 52 to zero the Hebrew verb refuses to use a particular "aspect" with that TIME word. A-priori-ness has nothing to do with this conclusion. It is simply a false/bad prediction of "aspect-only" theory. That is why the Hebrew verb MUST be defined as a Tense-Aspect-Mood, not a pure aspect, not a pure mood, and not a pure tense. To wrangle about which of the three was first, is a wrangling about etymology, not meaning, to wrangle about which of the three is 'more prominent' is a subtle repetition of the same etymological philosophising and is irrelevant to a language user and to the synchronic system. Once the whole TAM is in the simple verb system, the whole TAM is in the system.

People just don't seem to understand the impact of closed systems in the language world, illustrated in Bickerton's research into Creole and TAM. Creole's tend to start to morphogrammatize 'perfective' (so don't be surprised to see 'aspect' at the base of IndoEuropean or Greek, or child development), but if the morpho-structure stops there, the verb system will use those "aspects" for time as well as mood. The meaning of a system is determined to a large extent by have many pieces the cake is divided, and the cake includes aspect, mood and TIME. Cross-linguistic tendencies are nice, but not water-tight and sometimes done by people who are ignoring "Bickerton's cake." Bhat warned people not to use his classification system as a water-tight predicter of semantics. Another example, if sequential tense systems typically have only one person-inflected verb structure, and we find two in biblical Hebrew, would that negate what Hebrew is?

I will expand on my blog next week.

Jan Joosten

Hi John,
Thanks for calling this discussion to my attention. I'm sympathetic to your proposal. I teach my students that the basic meaning of yiqtol is to express the future. But to my mind that is simplification. In a discussion among grammarians I would rather define the basic meaning of yiqtol as the expression of irrealis: yiqtol means the process expressed by the verb is not (yet) begun at the moment of speaking (or at reference time); it is contemplated.

In reaction to some of John Cook's points (hi John) I would say, firstly, that, yes future yiqtol forms occur in direct speech: where else would you expect them? Since narrative is situated at a point in the past, it does not allow the use of the simple future. Where the "future in the past" is to be expressed, in narrative, yiqtol is used (2 Kgs 13:14 Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he was to die [yamut]).

Secondly, I'm not an English speaker, but I don't think it's true "will" statement always refer to the future. John Cook will say that, of course; but English "will" like BH yiqtol is also used in the expression of general truths and habitual processes.

I agree that qatal is not a past tense (although, again, I do teach my students that qatal expresses roughly the past). In my view, qatal is a perfect: it depicts the process as anterior to the moment of speaking (or to the reference time where this does not coincide with the moment of speaking). But a grammatical perfect is not the same as a perfective.
Performatives, in my understanding, should not be used to argue grammatical meaning because the function is wholly dependent on the pragmatic context. Natatti can mean "I have given", and does so very often; only the speech situation (the felicity conditions) may lend it a meaning that we render in English with a present tense.

Finally, and just for fun: wayyiqtol does not always have past temporal reference. Ps 45:8 ahavta tsedeq wattisna resha', "Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness". This usage occurs with the verbs batach, gil, yare', yada', nibhal and la'ah.

Jan Joosten

Randall Buth

shalom Jan,
I, too, am sympathetic to your "future", a.k.a., "irrealis".

I think that I see you doing what Jouon did almost a century ago, using terms that are incongruent, in order to implicitly expose the complexity/simplicity of the system. Jouon juxtaposed perfect/future (an aspectual term and a time term) while you are juxtaposing perfect/irrealis (an aspect and a mood).

In a chapter that helped trigger this discussion in "Living Biblical Hebrew, Selected Readings", I used a term 'indefinite', meaningless by itself and too lo`azit for a classroom, in order to include both time and aspect, and implicitly mood, in the label of the Hebrew yiqtol. I think that it is helpful for all concerned to follow Bickerton's advice not to try to 'straightjacket' something into one dimension of a multi-dimensional usage and reality. The problem or power of the biblical Hebrew TMA is that it "underdifferentiates", but still covers all the bases, including TIME. In one sense it is using a binary switch in a three+ parameter world.

Actually, bH uses an emerging three-position switch, since I agree with you that the participle, contrary to Arabic, had already become a real present tense in First Temple Hebrew. (Though a couple of modal lexemes HAFETS YAXOL, lagged behind and only expanded into the three-layered TMA at the end of the First Temple e.g. 1 Ki 21:6 im Hafets ata ... also LBH. (And benoni y-k-l only in bib Aram.)

For the record, we use "ani Hafets, enneni Hafets" in our biblical ulpan ( alongwith a binary "ani uxal, lo uxal". We have debated going '1st temple only' which would result in something like a present situation: Hafatsti ak lo uxal "I want to but I can't." (Maybe we'll adopt it this summer, I'll talk with teachers again. We let in words like kevar.) But the point isn't time-machine purity, but rapid language acquisition for biblical Hebrew, especially for those not starting from modern Hebrew.

Jan Joosten

Shalom Randy,
the participle of ykl may be attested in Arad (Aharoni) 40:14
איננו יכלם לשלח
"we can't send".
This would be First Temple (colloquial?). But the reading is admittedly doubtful.

Jan Joosten

Arad (Aharoni) 40:14 has 'ynnw yklm, "we can't" (followed by an infinitive). This would be First Temple (colloquial?). But the reading is rather doubtful.

Randall Buth

Thank you for that, Jan. I knew I was forgetting something out there. The reading is actually solid for YKLM, it is only the [']NNW that is partial. It just reinforces how the participle had taken over for the present tense, because HAFETSIM and YEXOLIM were among the last holdouts.

John Cook

Randy and Jan,

I can't resist responding to your previous post.

1) Randy, your argument is a non sequitur. Although I claim that qatal-yiqtol form an aspectual opposition, it does not follow that I deny the BH verb the ability to express TIME. Indeed, I am in full agreement with your reasonable claim that the BH verbal system is Tense-Aspect-Mood; to wit, wayyiqtol is past (narrative) tense, qatal-yiqtol opposition is aspectual (perfective-imperfetive), and VS ordered qatal and yiqtol, as well as the imperative, are irreal mood. You've chosen to ignore a most important datum in Dahl's observation that prototypically perfective verbs have past TIME reference.

2) Your dismissive comments regarding "wrangling about etymology" is misplaced, as is your trivializing of cross-lingusitic tendencies. In the first case, typologists are now recognizing that, to quote Moravcsik, “Indeed, the only possible causal explanation for a language system is by reference to history: how a given system evolved from something else.” (2007: 38). Thus, historical explanation cannot be dismissed from the discussion of the Hebrew verb. The results from those who claim a "synchronic only" approach over the past century have proven as much. In the second case, in the absence of native speakers I would posit that cross-lingusitic tendencies are the closest we come to an objective basis for analyzing ancient verbal systems. Thus, we should have to come up with better dismissals of the validity of these tendencies than intuitive or traditional interpretations or pragmatic arguments regarding the easiest approaches to teaching and learning. While pragmatic decisions are bound to play a part in language teaching, they should not be confused with accurate descriptions of the language (this goes to Jan's points as well; e.g., even though Rob Holmstedt and I teach qatal and yiqtol as aspectual/modal (based on word order) in our grammar, we do give our students—mostly native speakers of tense-prominent English—rudimentary clues to begin translating these forms that are based in the grammar of their native language, such as use past tense or a form of the English Perfect to render qatal, and use present or future to render yiqtol.

3) In response to your comments Jan (thanks for joining in with us), your example from 2 Kgs 13:14 demonstrates that point. I can't think of any sample languages that allow a future-tense marked verb form to function with past reference—even if it is future-in-the-past (I would appreciate if anyone does know of an example). I think that examples such as these support instead taking yiqtol as aspectual (imperfective) or as modal, as you have; other factors lead me to argue the former rather than your latter option.

4) Point taken that perfect and perfective are not the same thing. However, perfect forms do develop into perfective forms, and in the process they may not lose their earlier perfect meaning. Thus, I explain to my students that qatal is perfective (prototypically with past time reference, hence translatable by Past Tense in English and other tensed languages), but that it has held on to its earlier perfect meaning, so that it expresses both depending on the discourse context, verb sequence, etc.

5) I cannot agree though with your dismissal of the importance of qatal in performative statements. Perhaps though I could have been more clear. The issue is not simply one of temporal reference, but also aspect: performatives cross-lingusitically use punctiliar type verb conjugations (such as perfectives) rather than durative or progressive. Thus, in English the person presiding over a wedding will say "I (hereby/now) pronounce you . . ." but not "I (hereby/now) *am pronouncing you . . .". Thus, the evidence goes towards arguing that qatal expresses perfective aspect (even if one still claims that it is past tense); but further, the fact that the performative statement has present time reference remains a valid argument against a past time interpretation of the form. (Unless you persuade me otherwise; I'm not entirely clear on why you object to the argument).

6) Finally, comments on English 'will' not having future time reference and wayyiqtol sometimes not having past time reference both deal with gnomic or generic type statements. I have argued elsewhere (see Cook 2005) that gnomic statements (cross-lingusitically—sorry Randy) allow for a wide range of verb tenses (see esp. Carlson and Pelletier 1995). Thus, Gross some years ago already noted the use of wayyiqtol in gnomic expressions. That said, I would argue that 'will' in gnomic expressions portrays the event in a particular light: as a future prediction of what will happen based on the way the world 'works' (there are several different models for explaining gnomics, but the point is valid in any case). As for the Ps 45:8 example, I don't think that wayyiqtol is non-past there. I render it in English, "You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore, God your God has anointed you . . .". The perfect interpretation of the qatal holds for the wayyiqtol as well, just as in the case of flashback story-lines in BH narrative, where the initial qatal expresses past perfect and the following wayyiqtol past narrative forms continue the storyline (e.g., Gen 39:14: וַיְהִי כִּרְאוֹתָהּ כִּי־עָזַב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס הַחוּצָה׃ or 2 Kgs 13:13–20). On this phenomenon, see both Randy's (Buth 1994 article and my own (Cook 2004).

Buth, Randall
1994 Methodological Collision Between Source Criticism and Discourse Analysis: The Problem of "Unmarked Temporal Overlay" and the Pluperfect/Nonsequential wayyiqtol. Pp. 138–54 in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, ed. Robert D. Bergen. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
Cook, John A.
2004 The Semantics of Verbal Pragmatics: Clarifying the Roles of Wayyiqtol and Weqatal in Biblical Hebrew Prose. Journal of Semitic Studies 49/2: 247–73.
Moravcsik, Edith A.
2007 What is Universal about Typology? Lingusitic Typology 11: 27–41.


Randall and Jan,

This idea that the participle by itself marks the present tense bothers me. If that is what you two are saying, I have problems with that. The topic is certainly worth returning to.

I want to draw everyone's attention back to some statements by John Cook:

[QUOTE]The case is similar to the English "will": Is it future or modal? Linguists disagree, but I side with McCawley that since certain statements about the future are judged by people to be "true" or "false," there must be a non-modal future to be referred to by tensed "will." Another way to argue the case is that future-time reference always accompanies the use of "will" whereas a modal sense is not always apparent. Similarly, perfective aspect always accompanies the use of qatal, whereas past temporal reference is typical but not exclusive of the form, on which see below.[END QUOTE]

John put all of that within parentheses, which is what scholars tend to do with their best thoughts. But I still don't see why it's wrong to suggest that yiqtol in ancient Hebrew and "will" constructions in English are alike in many ways. Conversely, I do not find it helpful to explain the verbal system of ancient Hebrew by analogy with verbal systems in which aspect is regularly marked, such as those of Russian and ancient Greek.

For the rest, I'm not convinced that qatal natan in John Cook's Gen 15 example is best analyzed as a present tense performative. I understand there to be past reference: "To your offspring I have assigned this land." It's a very interesting case, because the semantics of what is being talked about allows for "staging" along opposite lines. It would have been possible to relate the very same action in future terms; indeed, that is what is done in Gen 12:7 (yiqtol!). The promise could just as well have been related in present performative terms, but that, in ancient Hebrew, would have been with hinneh + the participle (cf. Jer 32:3).



sorry our posts crossed in the mail. I agree with you about the importance of cross-linguistic comparisons and I love historical explanations, but not all, to say the least, are especially convincing.

Jan Joosten

OK, John (Cook), here is another example of wayyiqtol not referring to the past:
‏אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם מִי־אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת
I, I am he who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die? (Isa 51:12).
This is not gnomic (nor is Ps 45:8, in my understanding).

John Cook

Hi Jan,

Without doing some research on it, my initial reaction to the example is that I agree with you that it is no gnomic. But you will agree that it is one of the very few examples one could dig up of wayyiqtol + stative with non-past temporal reference, and I would be inclined to argue further that you have a distinct possibility of confusion between wayyiqtol and yiqtol: "Who are you that you are afraid" is exactly the context that we would find what Jouon calls an "indirect volitive" yiqtol, is it not? Alternatively, perhaps it is best to follow the LXX, which renders it as having a past temporal reference (aorist indicative): "you were afraid . . ."

Jan Joosten

Dear John,
it's a pleasure discussing with you. I agree with all three the points you make.

John Cook


Couldn't find some good examples to demonstrate the "inappropriateness" of wayyiqtol in the usual rendering "that you are afraid . . .," but leave it to Delitzsch to pull out the relevant examples: Ex 3:11 מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה and Judg 9:28 מִי־אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וּמִי־שְׁכֶם כִּי נַעַבְדֶנּוּ. In light of these examples, I would argue even more strongly that in Isa 51:12וַתִּירְאִי should be amended to a weyiqtol or else interpreted as past with the LXX evidence.

Jan Joosten

I wouldn't say wayyiqtol is inappropriate in Isa 51:12. Several verbal forms may fit one and the same syntactic slot. A question may be followed by a modal clause:
Ps 8:5 ‏ מָה־אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי־תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ
What is the human being that you should remember him?
Or it may be followed by wayyiqtol:
Ps 1443 ‏מָה־אָדָם וַתֵּדָעֵהוּ
What is the human being that you do know him.
Here of course the past meaning is feasible: "you have taken cognizance of him" (if this is English).
With verbs like yr' and yd', the "immediate past" and the present are very close to one another.

Randall Buth

Thank you, John C, for trying to deal with the data and explaining yourself. For the record, I too love crosslinguistic explanations. They just need to be done correctly, and they cannot override a specific language's system. So to substance:

you stated
"1) Randy, your argument is a non sequitur. Although I claim that qatal-yiqtol form an aspectual opposition, it does not follow that I deny the BH verb the ability to express TIME. Indeed, I am in full agreement with your reasonable claim that the BH verbal system is Tense-Aspect-Mood; to wit, wayyiqtol is past (narrative) tense, qatal-yiqtol opposition is aspectual (perfective-imperfetive), and VS ordered qatal and yiqtol, as well as the imperative, are irreal mood. You've chosen to ignore a most important datum in Dahl's observation that prototypically perfective verbs have past TIME reference."

This evades the point that I made about QATAL. You have just included time with vayyiqtol, for that I congratuate you, (though you seem to deny that a vayyiqtol//veqatalti' opposition exists. more below.) But I was talking about QATAL in the previous note, and it is QATAL that needs an answer from you first. The maHar evidence suggests that both vayyiqtol and QATAL have time features inside them, not just vayyiqtol. (this is only the tip of the iceberg, of course, because most of those 'conversational' yiqtol referring to future events appear to default as perfective, more on perfective futures below.)

It is certainly not a 'non-sequitur' to say that you deny a time component to QATAL. You just did so again in the quote. You did not explain why there is no QATAL with maHar but instead accused me of a non-sequitur. Now what do logicians call that? Respectfully, this might be called "evading the question." But you still haven't given an answer. (PS: there are some answers, not good ones in my eye, but there are always 'options'.)

And Dahl's comments are not relevant to this. Why? Because true perfectives can be also used in future contexts. Far from being confused by 'past' and 'perfective', some of us are keeping them clearly in view. Note QA GRAPSW 'I will write' modern Greek perfective future. (unambiguously not imperfective future 'I will be writing, which would be QA GRAFW.) There is no problem with the close correlation of past and perfective in languages around the world. I only have problems with claiming that there is no time in the qatal//yiqtol contrast. That is what the maHar evidence was showing. So, for Dahl's comments one can only say "ma li velo?"

Finally, far from being 'intuition' or 'pragmatics', this is what the language teaches about itself, through actual attestation and usage, which is how everyone learns their own language. Even ancient Hebrew speakers. (wow, what a novel idea, the language teaches itself.) If qatal//yiqtol were pure aspect markers, then ancient Hebrew would accept "*maHar bati". I just don't like following a system that mispredicts onesidely in a 52 to zero fashion, especially when future systems themselves have a leaning to perfectivity. Note again modern Greek where this perfectivity is morphologized, something not very common crosslinguistically in comparison to marking within past systems. But not having perfectivity commonly marked crosslinguistically in future morphology does not rule it out of Greek. Incidently, ancient Greek grammarians grouped the aorist (simple past and perfective) with the future, aspectually. Makes sense, since both developed -s- morphology.

So back to the issue, it is QATAL that never occurs with maHar, showing that time is a feature included within QATAL, causing it to react with maHar.

And it is veQATALTI' that is the opposite of vayyiqtol, and that is frequently in complementary distribution with X-YIQTOL and both with (vayyiqtol vis-a-vis X-qatal [including with lo]). (Exodus 25-40 is a classic.) Bickerton's cake would suggest that if vayyiqtol contained a time feature, then veQATALTI' would likely have a time feature.

If your system were to freely predict *maHar bati, then I am afraid that we would be using two different languages. One of us would be building a 'leaning tower of Pisa'. (warning, here comes some intuition: I still believe that never using a system is a sure way to build a system that doesn't work. I've seen that a lot in Africa, where outside linguists would often try to fit a language to a theory. There are even quite a few 'aspect' languages cited in cross-linguistic studies, that on closer inspection were not 'aspect-only', just underdifferentiated "Bickertonian cakes" that outsiders needed to label as non-Indoeuropean.)

And for something really fun for you to shoot at, in most contexts where YIQTOL has future reference the situation covers the 'whole event' and would receive perfective marking in an aspectually sensitive language like Greek. Greek is very sensitive to aspect marking, Hebrew is much less sensitive to aspect. Now I will admit that these last observations are interpretations, mappings of situation to form, but they are an iceberg in size.
And because of the iceberg size of this, I would agree with John Hobbins, enough of 'aspect-only' explanations to qatal-yiqtol. In old-fashioned metalanguage: they were wrong.

When we understand how biblical Hebrew works we can turn to its typology cross-linguistically and explain where it fits, where it doesn't fit, and pose reasons why. That is really a lot of fun. You will remember that even Bhat recognises mixed-scales within typologies.


I think your point, Randall, about complementary distributions is very important.

Like you, I try to understand a system from the inside out. I have my doubts about cross-linguistic explanations most of the time, but I find cross-linguistic analogies - and dis-analogies - very helpful. The contrast between ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek when it comes to aspectual differentiation, for example, is instructive. But you know and could explain that much better than I.

John Cook


I will make this brief since your argument is mainly aimed at my take on QATAL (I'm not going to get into WEQATAL now). I think we must be talking past each other (most innocent interpretation). First, I have never in print nor elsewhere claimed that BH was an aspect-only language, and yet that is what you seem to be attacking me on. Wayyiqtol is past TENSE, SV qatal and yiqtol express IRREAL MOOD. But, as long as it is still recognized that qatal-yiqtol is the core opposition of the system, that core opposition is aspectual.

Second, I haven't heard from you a good reason to dismiss Dahl's observation that past temporal reference is a "secondary feature" of perfective verb forms. This explains perfectly why QATAL does not combined with MXR, because past temporal reference is implied by perfective verbs in many languages, including, I would say, Hebrew.

Third, if you are going to continue to simply throw out the MXR case, then I should just continue to throw at you all those instances of YAD'TI 'I know' and the like. Why are they not all past tense if QATAL is marking past tense?

Thanks again for a great exchange. Always stimulating!

Randall Buth

John, you should run for office. Seriously.

You didn't answer the maHar data, for the umteenth time. Why don't you just admit that the Hebrew qatal-yiqtol is a mixed tense-aspect?

Once you accept a mixed tense aspect then yada`ti is not a problem. when focusing on time one says yode`/yoda`at, when focusing on decisiveness one says yada`ti, if you want it Englished, 'I have realized' 'I fully know'. Yes this is a classic 'perfect' something completed in the past with present results. In a binary system that is frequently encoded in the "past". (Note quotation marks, I do not claim that qatal is a pure past. It's only the straightjacket people, to paraphrase Bickerton, that would do that. Yet sometime I hear you trying to misread me that way!)
And for Dahl, I do recognise that perfectives generally line up with pasts in binary verb systems. there is no point of argument here. But if, in John FH's examples, the perfective is chosen because the context is PAST and the imperfective is chosen because the context is future, not because of marking the aspectual view of the wholeness or completeness of the event, then that is temporal, then there is a time feature within the "tense/aspect". Osten Dahl might be one of those that Derek Bickerton would classify with those who have retreated from the real data to pastel overlays.

All of this stems from the lack of a good linguistic term for a basic binary opposition in a TAM system. A lot of linguists use 'aspect' for that, but sloppily, and forgetting what they are talking about, so that they proceed to misapply to real data and real languages. theoretically, one could propose 'aspect' for this "tense+aspect" term, as long as it was remembered that a time feature may be included in such an "aspect". But that would ruin the term 'aspect' as a pure parameter term for TAM, and another term would need to be developed for true 'aspect'.

So will you come out and admit that the maHar data, as well as confirming contextual data, shows that the Hebrew qatal-yiqtol is a tense-aspect (or aspect-tense, it really doesn't make any difference.)?

John Cook


(Small correction on my previous post, where I said SV qatal and yiqtol are IRREAL; I meant VS)

Now, when it comes to discussion the verb with you Randy, I find us falling again and again into arguments over nomenclature. But beneath this I think there lies a fundamental difference of approach—one of discourse-functional versus semantic.

For the record (and in keeping with all that I have previously said and written), the BH verbal system is a tense-aspect-mood (TAM) system in two regards: (1) it can indicate a full range of notional meanings traditionally categorized under TAM, such as temporal location of a situation (tense), temporal consituency of a situation (aspect), and the role a speaker wants a situation to play in the discourse (mood/modality—just to use Bybee's definition; others are possible); (2) the verbal forms in the system are morphologically marked for tense (e.g., wayyiqtol is past tense), aspect (e.g., qatal is perfective aspect and yiqtol is imperfective), and mood/modality (imperative and jussive are denotic mood, VS qatal and yiqtol are more generally irreal mood).

And sure, I admit that the MXR data show that the BH verbal system can indicate tense. I never denied that. But this is where you want to end the inquiry, with the notion that the BH verbal system can functionally express tense or aspect, depending on context and speaker strategy. But this leaves unanswered how we know which is being indicated—tense or aspect? If we answer "context" then it threatens to become a viciously circular argument, as are Weinrich's discourse approach (background to Schneider, Talstra, and Niccacci) and Longacre's model (Hatav has criticized him of being circular).

Weinrich, for instance, argues that the verb forms in European languages served to indicate discourse type, but how do we know which discourse type they indicate unless we have already determined the discourse type independently of the verb forms, in which case, what possible reason could there be for signaling the discourse type with the verb forms? Thus, the verb form is stripped of all semantic significance, and we devolve into arguments like Baayen's, that qatal has NO semantics, but signals a disconnect between discourse entities.

Similarly, note your statements above:

the perfective is chosen because the context is PAST and the imperfective is chosen because the context is future, not because of marking the aspectual view of the wholeness or completeness of the event

Here you actually admit my position by labeling the forms PERFECTIVE and IMPERFECTIVE. But I can agree with your statement only halfway, because you don't see any meaningful connection between the choice of the perfective verb for past temporal reference (and similarly the imperfective for future). If there is no connection, then why have different verb forms? They must contribute something to the expression; they are not just arbitrarily chosen!

Such discourse-functional arguments violate Frege's principle of compositionality, whereby we are required to ask what the individual verb forms contribute to the utterance. I wholeheartedly agree with Fleischmann (1990) that “The pragmatic functions of tense-aspect categories in narrative are not arbitrary; rather, I see them as motivated extensions of the meanings of those categories, extensions that, according to the view of grammar as ‘emergent’ may ultimately contribute to a reshaping of the basic meanings” (1990: 23).

Thus, the way I see it (and no doubt you will correct my perception; but for the sake of those "listening" to this exchange . . .), you are content to say that the verb forms express a range of TAM meanings depending on context, discourse type, speaker strategy, etc. (call it what you like), whereas I am interested in getting beyond this "arbitrary" assignment of discourse function to the verb forms by explaining how the contribution of the semantics of the verb conjugations themselves to the variety of TAM expressions they appear in.

Thus, I argue that the qatal conjugation is marked for perfective aspect, because that identification is the most coherent and comprehensive explanation of the data: Why does qatal indicate past temporal reference regularly, because it is perfective aspect, which denotes an event as undifferentiated entity, typical of narrating past events. Thus it has a implied meaning of past. But, given that qatal also expresses present temporal reference, such as with stative lexemes, performative expressions, etc., it is less problematic to explain its contribution to each utterance as being perfective aspect than to say it contributes past tense in one instance and perfective aspect in another. This latter judgement just seems sloppy and incomplete to me. We can understand the language better!

Fleischman, Suzanne
1990 Tense and Narrativity. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Randall Buth

PS: I may have read your response too quickly.
John C said:
"This explains perfectly why QATAL does not combined with MXR, because past temporal reference is implied by perfective verbs in many languages, including, I would say, Hebrew."

I can read this as meaning that Hebrew "perfective" is in fact a TENSE-ASPECT, or ASPECT-TENSE if you wish. But if you say that, then it would miscommunicate to claim that Hebrew qatal-yiqtol has no time component within it. Your Dahlian definition of "aspect" is already including time within the aspect. (I am not sure if Dahl says or demands that, one of the problems of quoting outside 'authorities'.) But in any case, your definition now includes time with "aspect". If you would simply highlight that, would make it transparent, there would not be a problem. Since the discussion proceeds as though there is a difference, I end up assuming that you don't really use or include the time component when you yourself say 'aspect'. And as mentioned, if "aspect" includes time, then there are two terms out there, creating confusion. I would rather keep aspect for what it is, and then be precise, so that we don't have perfective futures marked as "imperfective". That really is a non-sequitur, or an inversion of the 'aspect' term thru a hidden re-definition that uses 'future' inside itself in order for the "imperfective [sic]" to be used for a perfective without implying imperfectiveness. Weird. Linguistics is supposed to take us beyond such double-speak.

And then why in the world would anyone object to a "tense-aspect" or an 'aspect-tense? That keeps things transparent in the term and helps prevent nonsense like students who might say "it's an aspect, so there is NO time involved."

Randall Buth

PS: (this is a second PS, the first appears to have been swallowed somewhere)
I may have read John C's response too quickly. (Depends how to read the word 'implied'. Is time there, or isn't it.)

John C said:
"This explains perfectly why QATAL does not combined with MXR, because past temporal reference is implied by perfective verbs in many languages, including, I would say, Hebrew."

I am able to read this as admitting that time is included within QATAL, that is, that the Hebrew "perfective" has a time component within itself, which has been my definition of TENSE-ASPECT.

This should be made transparent. As it is, you appear to be using a "Dahlian aspect" (whether or not Dahl actually would agree, Bickerton might call this befuddled thinking) so that an "imperfective" in Hebrew is used to mark a 'future perfective', but without implying imperfectiveness in the pure aspectual sense. If that sounds weird, yes, it seems weird to me, too.

The problem arises when a student takes the term "aspect" and then says "it is an aspect, so there is no time involved."

And if you have time hidden within your definition of Hebrew aspect, why has there been an insistance that qatal-yiqtol is not a TENSE-ASPECT or ASPECT-TENSE?


Randall and John,

perhaps this is what it boils down to:

for you, John, the qatal/yiqtol contrast is, fundamentally, one of aspect, but past temporal reference is implied by the use of a perfective form, the qatal, in specific cases;

for you, Randall, the qatal/yiqtol contrast marks, fundamentally, both time and aspect; in specific instances, the aspectual dimension is suppressed.

I think you two agree on quite a bit.

Meanwhile, though the three of us pooped out in this discussion long before the two of you, there is Joosten, Penner, and Hobbins, who continue to think that yiqtol is future/modal, and aspect-neutral.

Randall Buth

for JohnFH,
nice summary,

I am very happy with your, Ken and Jan's aspect-neutral future modal, that is exactly what I see for YIQTOL and ve-QATAL outside of past contexts. Within past contexts I see both habitual and incomplete examples (even supported by etymological predictions based on comparison with Arabic), so I use the 'aspect' word rather than 'modal'. As I mentioned in my chapter in "Living Biblical Hebrew, Selected Readings", my tense-aspect is short for 'tense-aspect-mood', and I discuss mood separately under specifically modal morphology. And alot of that chapter is taken up with explaining how qatal~yiqtol can be used for mood.

However, the summary glosses over the original incongruity, the Dahl-Cookian "perfective" that implies itself into a past context but is NOT used in independent future sentences to mark perfectivity.

for JohnC,
I am grateful for the stimulation to engage and clarify positions. Hopefully, things clarified will not retreat.
you said
"Thus, I argue that the qatal conjugation is marked for perfective aspect, because that identification is the most coherent and comprehensive explanation of the data: Why does qatal indicate past temporal reference regularly, because it is perfective aspect, which denotes an event as undifferentiated entity, typical of narrating past events. Thus it has a implied meaning of past. But, given that qatal also expresses present temporal reference, such as with stative lexemes, performative expressions, etc.,"

It still appears that you are using 'implied' in order to deny actual existence, and once again have left out the fact that such a view would allow ('would predict' in some linguistic circles) a QATAL to mark perfective futures. The maHar data is only the tip of this iceberg. When we have a false prediction, we have a less-satisfactory theory. You would counter that Dahl would allow you to use 'imperfectives' for future perfectives, so the 'perfective' is not necessary. But if you did that, then you would have a time-based, AD-HOC footnote, and you surely don't want to press me to use the 'A'-word. [For Semitists: AD-HOC is very strong language within generative linguistics :-) ]

As for "sloppy", we can take it up with the ancient speakers, or most any binary tense-aspect-mood system in the world. All languages have points of weakness and ambiguity, which is why they continually change. Theory must allow for what's there and then generate neither too little nor too much.
"incomplete" would belong to a "perfective" theory with false predictions and to one that would seem to deny a synchronic vayyiqtol~veqatal dichotomy, too. (I am aware that etymologically and comparatively the dichotomy is a neo-structure. But etymology is NOT semantics. And if one allows some time in vayyiqtol, and if veqatal functions in a dichotomous relationship with vayyiqtol, then one has just added time to veqatal, too.)
"Better" should require a comprehensive semantics (yes, semantics, not pragmatics, I agree with 'compositionality') in regard to the data. "Better" would then be able to eat cake (Bickertonian), and have it, too.

So I see our disagreement as based on internal dynamics of attested data and structural oppositions (with both qatal~yiqtol and vayyiqtol~veqatal having a binary TAM with tense a feature) versus a particular application of external theory. External theories are not monolithic and can be applied differently, but one cannot change the language.

Phil Sumpter

Can someone point me to a discussion of the issue of tenses in Hebrew poetry? I find it fairly confusing. So far I've read Craigie in his commentary and Adele Berlin, "Grammatical Aspects in Biblical Poetry."


Hi Phil,

In my view, not much to say, except that free-standing yiqtol = iprus (Akkadian perfect) is attested in a few examples of old poetry (Deut 32, for example).

Otherwise, the use of the tenses in poetry is identical to that of prose, except that tense-switching, like enallage and other forms of "point-of-view" switching, are frequent in some forms of poetry (the switching is leveled in most translations).

Robert Holmstedt


First, ignore John's tense-biased (and unscientific) views.

Second, the verbal system is the same -- nothing changes w.r.t. the semantics of the system. Any differences have to do with the conventions of poetry. So, if you adopt a good (i.e., aspect-based) view of the verbal system in prose, you'll be able to deal with poetry well.

Email John Cook (Asbury Theo Seminary) and perhaps he'll send you his paper from SBL 2006 in which he describes how the verbal system plays out in poetic context and explicates Psalms 33 and 143 as examples.




Thanks for taking the time to tout the aspect-based approach you and John Cook espouse. It's true, possibly, that you two have the approach that is the most grounded, scientifically, at the current time.

That doesn't make it right. In the history of any science, the working hypothesis that is the most grounded at any given point in time is constantly changing. What was a mere intuition in one decade or quarter-century becomes the new hot stuff based on a pivotal essay or book, and the game begins all over again.

I hold to a view of the TAM system of ancient Hebrew at the intersection of the scientifically argued theses of Jan Joosten, Randall Buth, and Ken Penner. The four of us have a wide area of agreement that puts us at odds with you and Cook.

Let the debate continue. With any luck, the whole thing will get duked out again at SBL in an upcoming national meeting.

Robert Holmstedt


You're an impossibly stubborn fellow, but then I already knew that when I was in my fight-pickin' mood earlier.

Only one of the folks you've mentioned has published on the verbal system recently (and only one article in a long time) -- if they are so scientific and so quite persuasive, why then have they not put them forth for the scholarly community to vet them?

Cook, in contrast, has been showing the flexibility and theoretical and cross-linguistic groundedness of his framework in numerous venues (ZAH, JANES, JNSL, JSS, JHS). And his book will be an order above any others soon to come out, you can believe me (or have you not read his thesis, which was just a taste of the whole?).

I think you're simply afraid to admit you might be wrong! (Oh, I'm just nasty today, eh?)

Gleefully (and "right-fully") yours,



Thou clappest thy wings and crowest and fliest hither and yon, but when all is said and done, "Thou crowest loudly to be but a chicken, and from a country barn-yard too" (Sir Walter Scott, in case you're wondering).

I think John Cook, and you, are doing great work. But I wouldn't overlook the fact that an important aspect of persuading others of the advantages of one's working hypotheses is not presenting them as the gospel truth.

For the rest, since you introduce the claim that your working hypotheses are more persuasive than others, the proof, there, will be in the pudding. The jury is still out on that one.

I encourage everyone to work through John's work. I will do you one better by providing a John A. Cook bibliography:

"The Hebrew verb: a grammaticalization approach," Zeitschrift für Althebraistik 14 (2001) 117-143; "The semantics of verbal pragmatics: clarifying the roles of 'wayyiqtol' and 'weqatal' in Biblical Hebrew prose," Journal of Semitic Studies 49 (2004) 247-273; "The finite verbal forms in Biblical Hebrew do express aspect," Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 30 (2006) 21-35; "The Hebrew participle and stative in typological perspective," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 34 (2008) 1-19; "The vav-prefixed verb forms in elementary Hebrew grammar," Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8 (2008)

Max Rogland

This will come off as shameless self-promotion, but it is relevant to the matter at hand. A number of these issues are addressed in my "Alleged Non-Past Uses of Qatal in Classical Hebrew" (Van Gorcum, 2003), which argues that tense is one component of the verbal system (the overall approach is amenable to that of Joosten). It is still fairly recent and, I would like to think, "scientific" (though I'm not sure who is defining that terms or how they are doing it...). It's not a study of poetic language per se, but the examples discussed ("prophetic perfect", "gnomic perfect", etc.) are drawn primarily from non-narrative texts.

I enjoy your blog, John, even though I've never commented before.

Kind regards,

Max Rogland



It is nice of you to come out of the woodwork and comment. Thank you for bringing up your own work on this topic, which sounds very interesting. It pains me to say that I am unfamiliar with it.

But I have read your piece on Haggai 2:17 in Biblica 2007. That article is a fine demonstration of the value of being conversant in Hebrew of all periods, in particular, Qumran and rabbinic Hebrew, precisely for the student of biblical Hebrew.

I would really like to see a session at SBL dedicated to the subject of tools and methods for plumbing the corpora of epigraphic, Qumran, ben Sira, and rabbinic Hebrew for the purposes of linguistic analysis, philology and exegesis of the Hebrew of the biblical corpus.

Robert Holmstedt


Good grief! You are full of hot air when you run out of something sensible to say. The response to your swipe is obvious: if we were not interested in making our cases explicitly, we would have blogs instead of publishing articles in scholarly journals.

With regard to Dr. Rogland's tense-based approach (or any other), as Cynthia Miller noted in her CBQ review (67/1 (2005): 123-25) of his book, it flies in the face of the cross-linguistic data concerning, for example, the verbs used for performatives statements. Dobbs-Allsopp's recent ZAH article includes a similar statement to this effect.

The pot-shot statement regarding who defines scientific illustrates both the plight of Biblical Hebrew language study and a lack of knowledge of this long collection of posts. Regarding the former, my definitions of scientific w.r.t. language study are so basic that they are uncontroversial and, I would have thought, assumable. Regarding the latter, it was aimed specifically at John's posts in this old conversation, since he's read little theory and bases his conclusions on his knowledge of various languages (i.e., his gut) rather than any rigorous analysis of any one of them.

I will say this: besides accepting a basic definition of "scientific" that involves rigor w.r.t. data and how it is interpreted and re-interpreted by theory (start with the OED and go to basic introductions to linguistics from there), for our specific field, a critical aspect of the scientific linguistic study of BH is the understanding and use of linguistic theory (including the implications for adopting one theory vis-a-vis ones not adopted), rather than the manufacture of ad-hoc theories that implicitly treat BH as a unique object instead just another (dead) human language.

I'm done on this topic, but I'm sure John will add his traditional last word. :-)




Thanks for being your usual good sport. You are absolutely right that my posts on the TAM system of ancient Hebrew are an exercise in informal interaction with both the primary data and rigorous discussions in the secondary literature. As linguists often are, you are adept at tautology.

Two further comments.

(1) The attention given on this blog to linguistic approaches to the TAM system of ancient Hebrew is already more attention than most biblical scholars will ever bother to give to the web of agreements and disagreements that characterizes the work of those who come at the subject matter from a primarily linguistic as opposed to a primarily philological perspective.

At a certain point, "model fatigue" sets in. If you have never felt it, you are a very odd duck indeed. There is such a thing as theoretical excess, though I don't expect a generativist like yourself to be anything but blind to the problem.

(2) Again, your tendency to slap down as ignorant anyone who doesn't control the subset of the field of linguistics you are enamored with to the degree that you do is a negative self-advertisement for you and for the sub-discipline you represent. It's a pity, really.

I realize that linguists are tribal by nature, and so are biblical scholars, but still. Here is an allegory which describes I think with some accuracy the role miniscule platoons of people like the one you belong to - properly trained generative linguists with a mid-to-high degree of proficiency in ancient Hebrew - play within the larger field of biblical studies:

Slash-and-burn agriculture is usually labeled as ecologically destructive, but it may be workable when practiced by small populations in very large forests, where fields have sufficient time to recover before again being slashed, burned, and cultivated.

Robert Holmstedt


Yes, this blog has featured the BH verbal system more than any other I've run across, but that does not make it inherently better for this niche of investigation, of course. In fact, my concern that you engage in obfuscation because of your own "blindness" and great degree of tautological posting is what drives my bother to comment when someone happens along and inquires about Hebrew grammar.

Speaking of pity, why can't you acknowledge (and perhaps rectify) you predisposition to "pitiful" rhetoric. The grand volley of subtly nasty terms in your last post is a classic example of your modus operandi.

Now, to be "tautological" (in the sense of style), because you clearly haven't understood the nature of my posts:

Yes, I am a committed to the deep philosophical stances and even the methodological procedures of generative linguistics, but if you cared to apply a close reading to any of my posts in this sequence (or any of my posts on your blog), you would note that I do not advocate a specifically generative analysis of the verbal system (nor is John Cook's approach specifically generative). The only approach, which is not theoretical in nature but simply methodological, I have mentioned is typology.

My point in my "slap down" (if we must now classify all strong statements as such) is that the informed use of modern linguistic theory is absolutely necessary if we want to advance our grammatical study of Hebrew beyond the insights (amazing though they were) of Gesenius and the heavy-weights of the 19th century. For the sake of the field, I care not whether someone analyzes Hebrew through the lens of generative theory (Chomksyan or non-Chomskyan), some variety of functional grammar, or some sort of cognitive linguistic framework. Without such a linguistic approach, we are simply a basic re-hashing of Gesenius (an activity illustrated well by Leiden's recently-retired doyen of Hebrew grammar and his revision of Joüon's grammar; for a good review, see Frank Andersen's of the 2006 edition in ANES 2008).

Your allegory says more about your parochial perspective than the actual situation, of course, which goes back to my first point above and the reason I take the time to comment. All it does it make me groan in sadness.

(How does one represent the shaking of one's head in pathetic disappointment with emoticons?)



As I'm sure you know by now, my friend, if you concede yourself the freedom to use emotive language and tar fellow students of ancient Hebrew with accusations of lack of rigor and of being unscientific, I will come back at you in the same register. If you comment here in the guise of a stormin' Norman, with Sturm on his right and Drang on his left, I'm happy to reciprocate.

As for my "blindness," that's just code for my not agreeing with you on matters about which you are passionate. But you know as well as I do that among Hebraists just as credentialed and well-published in the field as you and John are, "blindness" to the indisputable truth of your most famous hypotheses is not exactly unusual. I remain open to further discussion. I would be happy to see the light. For the moment, nonetheless, I am in excellent company in the darkness.

My allegory, as I stated, is *descriptive,* not prescriptive. I agree with you completely that it reeks of parochialism. So does your reaction to it.

This is what I would consider to be a better approach for gifted linguists like yourself. Mike Aubrey exemplified it in guest posts on this blog:

The method there is to take the work of a gifted philologist and restate and tweak it in light of (a) modern linguistic theory. Randy Garr tried the same thing in his introduction to Driver's Tenses. Aside from the specific results, the rhetorical strategy is commendable.

You were not trained to do that as a linguist, and it might seem like a waste of valuable time. But it is a good friendly-neighbor policy, a way of winning friends and influencing people among the subset of biblical scholars - i.e., the vast majority - who will never read Comrie, Bybee, or (another school) Weinrich, much less Chomsky. Who have no idea how the TAM system of their native tongue works, according to Huddleston or Quirk or anyone else. At some point, furthermore, the fact that the English TAM system is itself described in so many contradictory ways across schools of linguists and grammarians ought to suggest that caution and modesty are in order with respect to a language like ancient Hebrew for which our database is rather limited in comparison.

You don't seem to "get" what an opening you guys have, and how best you might use it. Many of us have had enough exposure to linguistics (my first introduction to it, and it was like an epiphany, was via Frank Andersen's janua linguarum volume on the verbless clause, which I read in 1976 at age 18, thanks to Keith Schoville) to be dissatisfied with Gesenius and Jouon, but when we turn to Andersen, Garr, Cook, Holmstedt, O'Connor, Talstra, Miller, Anstey, Lunn, DeCaen - just examples! - we have trouble seeing the wood for the trees. That's because as a group you are all over the map on specific issues, which is fine, but that means that any claim that linguistics represents a means of salvation, necessarily rings hollow.

Indeed, you go so far as to imply that extra ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside of the church [linguistics, or a particular theory of linguistics}, there is no salvation."

Most of us are interested in understanding the TAM system of ancient Hebrew in terms our students and colleagues, most of whom have little or no formal linguistic training, can also understand, not in terms that Chomsky might understand.

At this point, I am interested in providing students with a contrastive sketch of two TAM systems in *relatively* non-technical language, a' la Rodney Huddleston (pp. 115-212 in the Cambridge Grammar): that of English and that of ancient Hebrew.

I do not deny the usefulness of a typological perspective. But I exercise a hermeneutics of suspicion. Unless one mines down in the secondary literature, it is too easy to be hoodwinked by typological theorists who make confident statements which turn out to be non-obvious at best and very disputable at worst in the eyes of those who have mastered the specific languages. I assume this last statement is non-controversial.

So I prefer to work with languages I know fairly well, rather than trust typologies whose level of abstraction causes difficulties of its own.

So now I've done it. I've articulated in plain rationalizing language something of the Weltanschauung that makes it so difficult for non-linguists to stomach what linguists do in the field of biblical studies. You can call us names all you want. Or you can deal with it by trying to build on our mutual dissatisfaction with the philological status quo.

Robert Holmstedt

John, perhaps I take special aim at you because I attach particularly high expectations to fellow UW alumni, especially one who sat down to read Ezekiel with me in my early days.

In any case, when have I resorted to calling names? If I chose that path, I'd already have a whole page just for you!

Kidding aside, I think you'll note that my rhetoric involves programmatic statements regarding the state of the scholarly study of Hebrew -- this is an already small group of intensely focused and gifted folks who, I think, should be committed to greater theoretical rigor.

And no -- I will likely not spend the time to try translating linguistics for the average user of Hebrew, since I doubt it's really possible without losing most of the guts of the theory. That's why it takes an MA or more of formal study in general linguistics to do the work properly -- why should anyone expect it to be any easier than advanced physics? Figuring out the inner workings of the mind as they are manifested in this wonderful thing called languages differs little from figuring out the complexity of the universe. And since I can't understand just about any given article in the scholarly journals for physics (nor an advanced lecture, etc.), how can I (or you) expect any different from advanced linguistic work?

Rather, the linguists should influence the next generation of reference grammars, which will hopefully influence the next generation of commentators and exegetes in general.

You, though, have set yourself up on this blog as straddling all three groups, so why should you be surprised when someone who generally recognizes his/her admittedly narrow area of expertise calls you on your sometimes free-floating assertions?

As for all of the above criticisms leveled at my perceived rhetorical inadequacies as well as my inability to "get it," I think you should stop confusing the environment of a blog with what I do when I don't take five minutes to argue with you -- I write friendly (I think) articles and I teach a few aspiring Semitists (who are also getting an MA equivalent in linguistics).

What I "get" is that while I don't think a blog is likely to move the field forward helpfully in such a technical topic, it can do damage, which if why I chose to dive into this particular exchange.

But perhaps my perceptions on the nature of blogs is simply due to my general dislike of them. I'm older than the typical blogophile (excepting you, old man!) and I'm considering that rather Luddite view of swearing them off altogether. They have proven bad for my digestion.

You'll have to email me, call me, or visit again when you think I'd be interested in something you have to say on BH grammar.



Hi Rob,

Anyone who knows you personally knows that when you are a stormin' Norman, friendship and respect are never absent.

This "holding-each-other-to-high-standards-business" works both ways, of course. I've known all along that that is your goal, and I appreciate it.

My experience is not good, frankly, with many who have an MA or equivalent in linguistics. Too many know only one language well, their mother tongue, and, except for a few details of that language that happened to be covered in a class they took, in an un-reflective fashion only.

They apply what they've learned in linguistics courses only to languages they do not know well. All others, in other words. A very, very paradoxical situation. If they are trained according to the gold standard I learned to respect from my first mentor in linguistics (Henry Allan Gleason, Jr. of Toronto): *field experience,* that's another matter. I'm all ears if I'm talking to somebody who has tried to make sense out of a previously unanalyzed language. But even then, when linguists expatiate on a language they know a bit about, but I happen to know reasonably well, I'm appalled at how often the proposed linguistic analysis simply gets it wrong.

But that is not your case, nor is it John Cook's case. That puts you in a very special category, along with your teacher Cynthia Miller and a few others. Your knowledge of ancient Hebrew is deep and wide, and so is your knowledge of linguistics.

So I will do my best to shame all three of you into writing, not *only* for those like Jan Joosten, Christo van der Merwe, and Frank Andersen who have prepared or are preparing reference tools for the field, or the even more select group (which includes me however) who enjoy reading articles in Gene Gragg's Festschrift,

but for Hebraists in general, those who do not have MAs or PhDs in linguistics, but are Hebraists with more modest theoretical commitments.

A blog is an informal, bluster bus (can't find that idiom in any dictionary that I know of, but it's out there) kind of place, an ideal venue for the kind of conversation that directs people in this direction rather than another, a vantage point from which to integrate knowledge from various disciplines.

It's a tremendous amount of fun. An amazing number of people read blogs in order to listen in on conversations between people who seem to know a lot more about a given topic than they do. Way too many people have told me they have chosen their dissertation topic, or reshaped it, based on something they read on this blog. Way too many.

In other words, I'm happy to alert you when I blog on BH grammar questions in a sustained fashion. But I would appreciate it if you alerted me to:

(1) the three articles written in the last 5 years which best show how a responsible application of linguistic insights can steer exegesis in the right direction;

(2) the best three monographs in the same sense.

If you dare. Because I will then play them up, review them for those who do not have MAs in linguistics, and even dare to take issue with some of their theses, on the basis of what other linguists, and non-linguists, have observed on the same *res.*

Phil Sumpter

Thanks John and Robert for the tips. I've written to John Cook and hope to get a positive response.


I have to say, I am quite confused about this issue. It has all been sparked by attempt to translate yekhoneneha in Ps 24:2. The diachronic approach believes that the yiqtol may be an ancient preterite. They therfore translate it as past. Scholars of this stripe would say that we can't always know, so we often need to guess from context (particularly difficult in a psalm like this, which has cosmological ideas. Bäthgen for example, says: "Das Perf. יסדה geht auf die Schöpfung, das Imperf. יכוננה auf die Erhaltung.”)

Bäthgen seems to be following Gesenius and other older commentators (e.g. Briggs), who thought that the yiqtol was frequentative, and so translated it in the present.

Berlin (and so, it would seem, Silviu Tatu), adds a new dimension. Though open to the diachronic option (which you mention re. Deuteronomy), in cases of "grammatical parallelism," this goes out of the window. Here the parallelism is simply aesthetic, and has no temporal reference. In this case, yekhoneneha should probably be translated as the past, given the previous colon. However, she also says it is not always easy to guess from context when a yiqtol or qatal is temporal or purely rhetorical!

The most interesting suggestion which you haven't mentioned is by Niccacci ("The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry"). There, he agrees with you that the function is the same in prose and poetry, but doesn't even make room for archaic excpetions (he has an interesting take on Deut. 32). He would translate the yiqtol in the qatal/yiqtol parallelism as in some sense durative or circumstantial, giving back ground information. This would have the interesting translation: "by establishing it on the ocean currents."

This makes sense to me and seems to fit the context too. The second colon, as Alter pointed out, seems to intensify the first and could perhaps more graphically demsonstrate the process by which it came about.

I'm still reading up on this (I'm getting Berlin's Dynamics this afternoon).

P.S. I also think Niccacci goes for a tense translation. If that is what he means by the verb form's references to a "future, present, or past axis," at least.

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