Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tense, Aspect, and Mood in Biblical Hebrew Verbs

One of the problems encountered by the beginning student of Biblical Hebrew is the lack of clarity regarding tense, aspect, and modality in the verb system of Biblical Hebrew. Tense denotes the location in time of the event or state expressed by the verb. Aspect has to do with the way in which the event or state expressed by the verb is viewed as progressing within time, while mood or modality denotes the attitude of the speaker to the reality, necessity, possibility, or probability of the event or state expressed by the verb.

The best way of understanding the verb in Biblical Hebrew is to see it in the light of how it developed historically. It is generally held that Proto-Hebrew (on analogy with Ugaritic) had three major conjugations: the perfect yaqtul, the imperfect yaqtulu, and the suffix verb form qatala. The perfect was used for events viewed as a simple whole (i.e., perfective or aoristic aspect). The binary opposite of the perfect was the imperfect. The imperfect was used for events that were viewed as being non-perfective (i.e., as somehow unfolding in time, whether continuous, habitual, iterative, or future). The suffix verb form qatala seems to have been primarily used with stative verbs (without regard to time), but it was also used with dynamic verbs in the apodosis of conditional constructions. There was also a jussive conjugation that was identical to the perfect (yaqtul) in form.

Over time, it seems that the imperfect lost its final vowel. This resulted in the imperfect coming to have the same form as the perfect yaqtul and the jussive (i.e., they all had the form yaqtul). This in turn resulted in a restriction in the use of the perfect yaqtul to clause-initial position with a vav prefix in prose (i.e., wayyiqtol in Biblical Hebrew). The use of the suffix verb form qatala was expanded with it being conscripted to be used in place of the perfect yaqtul in non-clause-initial situations in prose. In this way, the suffix verb form qatala came to be fully perfective (i.e., used for states and events viewed as a simple whole regardless of time). The similarity in form between the imperfect and the jussive also led to the imperfect taking on board the non-indicative modal senses of ability, necessity, and possibility of the jussive, leading to the situation in Biblical Hebrew where the imperfect is used to express non-indicative modality as well as non-perfective aspect. On analogy with the clause-initial use of the wayyiqtol, it seems that the weqatal form developed from the sequential sense of qatala in the apodoses of conditional constructions. The weqatal construction ended up becoming, therefore, the imperfective verb in clause-initial position.

The verb system of Biblical Hebrew, therefore, is best thought of as primarily marking aspect. Tense has to be determined primarily from the context, although it should also be said that, because the imperfective aspect marks verbs as unfolding in time, perfective verbs naturally gravitate to the past while imperfective verbs gravitate to the future.

The end result in Biblical Hebrew can be summarized as follows:

perfective yiqtol: either as wayyiqtol in prose, or yiqtol in poetry;

qatal: perfective, usually non-clause-initial;

imperfective yiqtol: imperfective aspect or non-indicative modality, non-clause-initial;

imperfective weqatal: imperfective aspect or non-indicative modality, clause-initial;

participle (qotel) = continuous or gnomic aspect, or else used in place of a relative clause whose aspect must be picked up from the context.


Cornflake said...

This is very enlightening. Could you please give a few examples for every one of the forms in the summary? I'm an amateur linguist and a Hebrew speaker, and it's fascinating to see such a clear explanation of the familiar Biblical forms.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Cornflake, I’m glad that you found this post helpful.

I can give you some examples from Gen 1 (Bereshit):

The narrative action commences with the perfect verb ברא in v. 1. The verb is in the perfect here (indicating a past simple action) rather than the preterite, because בראשׁית occupies first position in the clause. The fronting of בראשׁית means that a preterite verb cannot be used in v. 1.

The participle מרחפת occurs in v. 2. Continuous aspect is evident with this example: the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the water. For as long as the world was chaotic in that initial period, the Spirit of God was nevertheless present.

The narrative action recommences in v. 3 with the preterite verb ויאמר (after the three disjunctive, i.e., non-sequential, clauses in v. 2, which create a narrative aside). Preterite verbs are also called wayyiqtol verbs.

The first modal perfect or weqatal form in the Bible is והיו in the third clause in Gen 1:14. The modal perfect is used here because this clause is grammatically sequential to the preceding clause, which has the jussive verb יהי. It is likely, therefore, that the modal sense of והיו continues the jussive sense of the previous clause (as the LXX translation suggests).

The first pure (i.e., non-jussive) imperfect form in Gen 1 is יהיה in v. 29, however it could be argued that תראה in v. 9 is a straight imperfect rather than jussive in form, since one would normally expect תרא as the jussive of ראה at this point.

I hope you find these examples helpful.

JT Blythe said...

I've just discovered this resource; thank you! Can you suggest a study tool that will allow me access to the kind of analysis you've provided in your examples for the entire Old Testament?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello JT,

I’m not sure what level of study tool you are after, but any Bible software that has morphological tags (like Bibleworks or Logos) can help with the parsing of verbs. The problem is that they might use slightly different terminology from the terms that I have used, plus (as far as I know) they don’t distinguish normal vav + perfect from the weqatal, and sometimes the jussive isn’t distinguished from the imperfect. These programs are moving to incorporate more syntactic analysis in their tagging over time, so it will be interesting to see how far they progress in this regard.

In the meantime, perhaps you can take a look at “The Vav-Prefixed Verb Forms in Elementary Hebrew Grammar” by John Cook (if you haven’t already). It touches upon some of these issues from a more modern linguistic perspective.

Bubbie said...

Thank you for your post. I am studying the tense, voice and moods of verbs. I have The Old Testament Parsing Guide by Todd Beal. Do you think it would also be good to also have The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon by Benjamin Davidson? Thank you.

Steven Coxhead said...

Davidson's Lexicon is good, but it tends to make students dependent on it rather than learn the verb diagnostics for themselves.