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

    Senior 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

    Senior 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.
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    My stance is that the Biblical Hebrew verbal system is primarily aspectual rather than tensed. That is, I believe the verbal system is aspectually marked, at least at the top level. Virtually all languages are marked for aspect, tense, and what people are calling modality now, and those are interspersed in different ways across the language. My stance is not that Biblical Hebrew does not express tense; my stance is that aspect is at the top level, and tense comes in below that. So, of course, many Hebrew suffix-conjugation verbs or waw-retentive prefix-conjugation verbs will express a past tense event (there is no doubt about that whatsoever), but my claim is that most other usages can only be explained or most easily explained if the system is viewed as aspectual.

    I believe Dr. John Huehnergard also sees the system as aspectual, but a different type of aspect. He considers the aspect to be the durative vs. punctiliar type (which is one type of aspect), whereas I consider it to be the complete vs. incomplete type. That is, suffix-conjugation expresses an act as a completion while prefix-conjugation expresses an act as in some sense incomplete, either 1. because it's future or 2. because it's ongoing or 3. because it was frequentative in the past.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    You keep saying "I believe". What makes you believe this? Usually when a researcher says "I believe", it is because they've done thorough research and analysis of the subject and came to these beliefs after their analysis.

    So what data exactly makes you think that aspect is more primary than tense?
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    וַיְהִ֡י כִּ֣י הִקִּ֩יפוּ֩ יְמֵ֨י הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֜ה וַיִּשְׁלַ֧ח אִיּ֣וֹב וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֗ם וְהִשְׁכִּ֣ים בַּבֹּ֘קֶר֮ וְהֶעֱלָ֣ה עֹלוֹת֮ מִסְפַּ֣ר כֻּלָּם֒ כִּ֚י אָמַ֣ר אִיּ֔וֹב אוּלַי֙ חָטְא֣וּ בָנַ֔י וּבֵרְכ֥וּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים בִּלְבָבָ֑ם כָּ֛כָה יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיּ֖וֹב כׇּל־הַיָּמִֽים׃ וַיְהִ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים לְהִתְיַצֵּ֖ב עַל־יְהֹוָ֑ה וַיָּב֥וֹא גַֽם־הַשָּׂטָ֖ן בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

    (איוב א ה-ו)

    When the days of the feast came round in turn Job sent (a message to his sons) and sanctified them and (on each such occasion) he would get up early and bring burned offerings up according to the number of all of them (i.e. his sons) because Job said, "Maybe my sons have sinned and have cursed God in their heart." Thus would Job do on every such occasion. Today the sons of the gods entered in order to present themselves before Yahweh, and the superhuman adversary, too, entered in their midst.

    I think וְהִשְׁכִּ֣ים refers to something habitual. For me, it is כָּ֛כָה יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיּ֖וֹב כׇּל־הַיָּמִֽים, with a prefix-conjugation verb (which can only be functioning iteratively here), which helps us to understand that the waw-retentive (also known as waw-conversive or waw-consecutive) plus suffix-conjugation verbs tucked away in the middle of this verse are truly imperfectives as well. The one I'm uncertain about is וּבֵרְכ֥וּ; does this mean "Perhaps my sons have sinned, repetitively cursing God"? Since it is semantically closely linked to what immediately preceded it, it can simply be a run-on to that form. That is, וּבֵרְכ֥וּ is simply defining חָטְא֣וּ: "they have sinned by cursing God silently".

    וַיְהִ֡י כִּ֣י הִקִּ֩יפוּ֩ יְמֵ֨י הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֜ה וַיִּשְׁלַ֧ח אִיּ֣וֹב וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֗ם is obviously historical and descriptive. Such being the case, it would make sense for it to be perfective in aspect.
     
    Last edited:

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    All you've shown is that a habitual past is one of the functions of the prefix conjugation and converted suffix conjugation. You have in no way shown that this function is primary. In fact by bringing solitary citations, you seem to be showing the opposite: that this function is exceptional.
     

    JAN SHAR

    Senior Member
    pashto
    Ali, then why isn't אמר in the verse you cited imperfective? According to your theory it should be יאמר because that is what Job said every time, right?
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    Ali, then why isn't אמר in the verse you cited imperfective? According to your theory it should be יאמר because that is what Job said every time, right?
    Because although Job did say "Maybe my sons have sinned and have cursed God in their heart." every time, the author was not presenting it as imperfective but rather as something done and over with.

    By the way, look at the verb תָּבֹ֑א in מֵאַ֣יִן תָּבֹ֑א in the next verse:

    וַיְהִ֡י כִּ֣י הִקִּ֩יפוּ֩ יְמֵ֨י הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֜ה וַיִּשְׁלַ֧ח אִיּ֣וֹב וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֗ם וְהִשְׁכִּ֣ים בַּבֹּ֘קֶר֮ וְהֶעֱלָ֣ה עֹלוֹת֮ מִסְפַּ֣ר כֻּלָּם֒ כִּ֚י אָמַ֣ר אִיּ֔וֹב אוּלַי֙ חָטְא֣וּ בָנַ֔י וּבֵרְכ֥וּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים בִּלְבָבָ֑ם כָּ֛כָה יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיּ֖וֹב כׇּל־הַיָּמִֽים׃ וַיְהִ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים לְהִתְיַצֵּ֖ב עַל־יְהֹוָ֑ה וַיָּב֥וֹא גַֽם־הַשָּׂטָ֖ן בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶל־הַשָּׂטָ֖ן מֵאַ֣יִן תָּבֹ֑א וַיַּ֨עַן הַשָּׂטָ֤ן אֶת־יְהֹוָה֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מִשּׁ֣וּט בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּמֵֽהִתְהַלֵּ֖ךְ בָּֽהּ׃

    (איוב א ה-ז)

    When the days of the feast came round in turn Job sent (a message to his sons) and sanctified them and (on each such occasion) he would get up early and bring burned offerings up according to the number of all of them (i.e. his sons) because Job said, "Maybe my sons have sinned and have cursed God in their heart." Thus would Job do on every such occasion. Today the sons of the gods entered in order to present themselves before Yahweh, and the superhuman adversary, too, entered in their midst. And Y----- said to the superhuman adversary, "From where do you come?" and the superhuman adversary answered Y-----, "From roving about on the earth and from walking back and forth in it."

    Perhaps a less literal translation would be "From where have you come?" but of course the whole point is that the verb is prefix-conjugation, i.e. it's an imperfective. So, he's not stressing the fact that the person is standing before him, ergo has entered before him, ergo he could say מאין באת, but he's stressing the fact that the person had a journey involved. I don't think it's iterative. I don't think that's the point of the imperfective. It may be the point of the journey that's involved to get to this spot.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    I'll reiterate that although you are pointing out interesting aspects of the language of the Book of Job, it's important to remember that the Book of Job is exception and not representative of Biblical Hebrew as a whole.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    I've mentioned this many times already. The Book of Job is a poetic work, using archaic language, and its language stands out from the norm of the rest of Biblical Hebrew.
     

    JAN SHAR

    Senior Member
    pashto
    Jan Joosten writes, "Secondly, this investigation will take as its point of departure prose texts of the classical period, roughly the books of Genesis through 2 Kings. So-called Late Biblical Hebrew will be excluded since its inclusion might skew the synchronic approach."

    So, Job is not part of the classical period (Genesis - 2 Kings).
     

    Ali Smith

    Senior Member
    Urdu - Pakistan
    וְחַנָּ֗ה הִ֚יא מְדַבֶּ֣רֶת עַל־לִבָּ֔הּ רַ֚ק שְׂפָתֶ֣יהָ נָּע֔וֹת וְקוֹלָ֖הּ לֹ֣א יִשָּׁמֵ֑עַ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ עֵלִ֖י לְשִׁכֹּרָֽה׃
    (שמואל א א יג)

    And as for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips were moving, but her voice could not be heard. So, Eli thought she was drunk.

    This is a true mixed structure in which the context is expressed as imperfective but each event as perfective. The tense is gained from the context, of course.
     

    Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    I believe in the case of ישמע here, the meaning of the prefix conjugation is modal, not marked for tense or aspect.

    ויחשבה is clearly marked for tense here, as usual.

    Also contrary to your claim that "each event is presented as perfective", both מדברת and נעות are imperfective.
     
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