Aspect in biblical Hebrew

Sharjeel72

Member
English
Hi,

I know that some people say that Hebrew verbs are divided by aspect. So, what does this mean? Some say that the suffix verbs are punctiliar whereas prefix verbs are durative. Others say that suffix verbs are complete while prefix verbs are incomplete. What is the difference between these two aspects? And are there any other views on what aspect means in biblical Hebrew?
 
  • Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    It's a common myth that very few linguists actually believe.

    The real truth is that each verb form has a specific set of tense-aspect-mood combinations that are associated with it.

    And the facts essentially do not conform to the theory that the forms are divided by aspect. For example, the prefix-conjugation can be used sometimes with a perfect (completed) meaning.

    I recommend the paper "Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?" by Jan Joosten (2002).
     

    Sharjeel72

    Member
    English
    It's a common myth that very few linguists actually believe.

    The real truth is that each verb form has a specific set of tense-aspect-mood combinations that are associated with it.

    And the facts essentially do not conform to the theory that the forms are divided by aspect. For example, the prefix-conjugation can be used sometimes with a perfect (completed) meaning.

    I recommend the paper "Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?" by Jan Joosten (2002).
    Thank you once again Drink. I feel I need to go through that paper to acquaint myself with the broader discussion on this subject.
     

    Sharjeel72

    Member
    English
    It's a common myth that very few linguists actually believe.

    The real truth is that each verb form has a specific set of tense-aspect-mood combinations that are associated with it.

    And the facts essentially do not conform to the theory that the forms are divided by aspect. For example, the prefix-conjugation can be used sometimes with a perfect (completed) meaning.

    I recommend the paper "Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?" by Jan Joosten (2002).
    Dear Drink, do you think you could give me a summary of what this paper contains? In particular, what is the difference between tense, aspect, and mood? I would be very grateful to you if you could.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    The paper basically shows that it is not sufficient to refer to the Hebrew verb system as an aspectual system.

    Tense refers to when a verb's action happened in time.

    Aspect refers to how the verb's action starts or stops.

    Mood refers to how the speaker "feels" about an action (kind of a non-technical explanation, so for example it's things like whether it is certain or uncertain, or whether it is a description or a wish or a command, etc.).
     

    JAN SHAR

    Member
    pashto
    Look at Numbers Chapter 19, verse 13:

    כָּל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמֵת בְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-יָמוּת וְלֹא יִתְחַטָּא, אֶת-מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה טִמֵּא--וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא-זֹרַק עָלָיו, טָמֵא יִהְיֶה--עוֹד, טֻמְאָתוֹ בוֹ.

    Here the verb טִמֵּא is clearly not in the past, and the verb יָמוּת is clearly not in the present or future. So, I think it's clear that the Hebrew verbal system does NOT divide verbs into past and present-future. Rather, it divides them into complete and incomplete. What people call past is actually complete or perfective, and what they call present-future is actually incomplete or imperfective.
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    There are two suffix-conjugation forms in here: טִמֵּא and זֹרַק. They are clearly functioning as what we call in English "future perfects", not because the verbal system is tensed in biblical Hebrew but because it's stating in a complete fashion, i.e. in a perfective fashion, that the state has at the time we're talking about come about. It's forms like this that led G. R. Driver and some scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to call the biblical Hebrew system a "relative tensed system" because when you get forms like this they can be translated relatively to the other forms. I don't think that explanation works everywhere, however, so I simply describe this as another way of rendering in English what the aspectual system is doing.

    I don't see any reason, from an English perspective, why אֲשֶׁר-יָמוּת couldn't be אֲשֶׁר-מֵת "Anyone who will have died and someone happens to touch him". But what is going on here in the aspectual system is something like "Anyone who happens to die", i.e. we're not going to talk yet about the person being dead; we're going to talk about the eventuality of him dying. So, those two are simply two nuances that function in an aspectual system and we have to find translation values in our tensed system. In theory, I suppose we could translate both of them as future perfects in English:

    כׇּֽל־הַנֹּגֵ֡עַ בְּמֵ֣ת בְּנֶ֩פֶשׁ֩ הָאָדָ֨ם אֲשֶׁר־יָמ֜וּת וְלֹ֣א יִתְחַטָּ֗א אֶת־מִשְׁכַּ֤ן יְהֹוָה֙ טִמֵּ֔א וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּי֩ מֵ֨י נִדָּ֜ה לֹא־זֹרַ֤ק עָלָיו֙ טָמֵ֣א יִהְיֶ֔ה ע֖וֹד טֻמְאָת֥וֹ בֽוֹ׃
    (במדבר יט יג)

    "such as anyone who will have died will have brought about impurity on the dwelling place of Y-----".
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    Look at Numbers Chapter 19, verse 13:

    כָּל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמֵת בְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-יָמוּת וְלֹא יִתְחַטָּא, אֶת-מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה טִמֵּא--וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא-זֹרַק עָלָיו, טָמֵא יִהְיֶה--עוֹד, טֻמְאָתוֹ בוֹ.

    Here the verb טִמֵּא is clearly not in the past, and the verb יָמוּת is clearly not in the present or future. So, I think it's clear that the Hebrew verbal system does NOT divide verbs into past and present-future. Rather, it divides them into complete and incomplete. What people call past is actually complete or perfective, and what they call present-future is actually incomplete or imperfective.

    The problem in general with your approach here is you are looking at just one example. If you were to look further, you could find such counterexamples for basically any explanation of Hebrew verbs, making them completely inexplicable.

    Now observe this sentence in English:

    - Yesterday, I come into the office where he normally will be sitting at his desk, and find that he's not sitting there. When he comes in tomorrow, let me know.

    In this sentence, "come", "find", and "he's not sitting" are not present, but past; "will be sitting" is not future, but past; and "comes" is not present, but future.

    Would you infer from this that this sentence that English is not a tense-based language and must be reanalyzed as aspectual?

    It would be a huge stretch to do so. Rather this sentence demonstrates that English verb forms often have a complex range of meanings, that combine tense, aspect, and mood in different ways. It is the same with Hebrew.

    So as I said before, for an analysis of the function of Hebrew verb forms that doesn't just look at one or two verses, please see the paper which I linked before, "Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?" by Jan Joosten (2002).
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    כׇּֽל־הַנֹּגֵ֡עַ בְּמֵ֣ת בְּנֶ֩פֶשׁ֩ הָאָדָ֨ם אֲשֶׁר־יָמ֜וּת וְלֹ֣א יִתְחַטָּ֗א אֶת־מִשְׁכַּ֤ן יְהֹוָה֙ טִמֵּ֔א וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּי֩ מֵ֨י נִדָּ֜ה לֹא־זֹרַ֤ק עָלָיו֙ טָמֵ֣א יִהְיֶ֔ה ע֖וֹד טֻמְאָת֥וֹ בֽוֹ׃
    (במדבר יט יג)

    If Hebrew has a tensed verbal system, and the prefix-conjugation forms refer to the present-future tense, why is the PC form ימות being used here? How would you translate it? "Anyone who touches a dead person, i.e. a human being who is dying/will die, and does not purify himself..."? :confused:
     

    JAN SHAR

    Member
    pashto
    Joshua 23 starts with

    א וַיְהִי, מִיָּמִים רַבִּים, אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר-הֵנִיחַ יְהוָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל מִכָּל-אֹיְבֵיהֶם, מִסָּבִיב; וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ זָקֵן, בָּא בַּיָּמִים.
    ב וַיִּקְרָא יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, לְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--לִזְקֵנָיו וּלְרָאשָׁיו, וּלְשֹׁפְטָיו וּלְשֹׁטְרָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם--אֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי, בָּאתִי בַּיָּמִים.
    ג וְאַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לְכָל-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה--מִפְּנֵיכֶם: כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הוּא הַנִּלְחָם לָכֶם.

    If the Hebrew verbal system is aspectual, then what does זָקֵן mean here? You say that suffix-conjugaton verbs are perfective. Does that mean that Joshua became old? It could not mean that Joshua was old, because that would be imperfective meaning
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    To be fair, זקן is a stative verb. So perfectiveness doesn't really apply anyway. In fact, for stative verbs, the suffix conjugation often has a present tense meaning (e.g. "זקנתי" can mean "I am old").

    I caution you to not bring a single verse as an attempt to prove or disprove any interpretation of Hebrew verbs. It requires a thorough knowledge of the use of verbs throughout the entirety of the Bible in order to really draw any conclusions.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    Perfective means the action is complete in the given moment.

    Imperfective means the action is ongoing in the given moment. Ongoing can mean a lot of things: it can be something that is literally happening, or it can be something that is repeated or recurring.

    This is a general definition, not specific to Hebrew.
     
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