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 had three major conjugations: the preterite (yaqtul), imperfect (yaqtulu), and perfect (qatala). The preterite was used for past events viewed as a simple whole. In other words, the preterite expressed both past tense and perfective (i.e., aoristic) aspect. The binary opposite of the preterite was the imperfect. The imperfect was used for events that were non-past (i.e., present or future), or else for events that were viewed as being non-perfective (i.e., continuous or iterative). The perfect, however, seems to have been primarily used with stative verbs (without regard to time), but it was also used with dynamic verbs in conditional constructions. There was also a jussive conjugation that was identical to the preterite (yaqtul) in form.

Over time, the imperfect lost its final vowel. This resulted in the imperfect coming to have the same form as the preterite and the jussive (i.e., yaqtul). This in turn resulted in the perfect being conscripted to be used in place of the preterite, except in poetry and in conjunctive clauses in narrative (where the preterite was preserved with a vav prefix). The perfect came to be used for states and events viewed as a simple whole theoretically regardless of time, yet because it was becoming a replacement for the preterite, naturally the dominant use of the perfect came to be that of a past perfective. 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 the present and future tenses, non-perfective aspect, as well as non-indicative modality. On analogy with the use of the preterite in conjunctive clauses, it seems that the weqatal form developed from the modal sense of the perfect in the apodoses of conditional constructions. The weqatal construction is, therefore, basically used as a modal verb in a conjunctive clause. In addition, the participle, which can express both continuous and gnomic aspect, was competing with the use of the imperfect to indicate the present tense, the immediate future, and continuous aspect along with gnomic aspect.

The verb system of Biblical Hebrew, therefore, is best thought of historically as being a mixed tense-aspect-mood system. Whether one of tense, aspect, or mood, or a combination of two of these, dominates in a particular situation is ultimately dependent on the context in which the verb is found. The end result can be summarized as follows:

preterite (also called wayyiqtol) = past perfective (either with the vav in a conjunctive clause in prose, or without the vav in poetry);

perfect (qatal) = perfective (regardless of time, but most commonly in the past) usually in a non-conjunctive clause (particularly in earlier Biblical Hebrew);

imperfect (yiqtol) = present or future tense, or imperfective aspect, or non-indicative modality, all usually in a non-conjunctive clause;

modal perfect (weqatal) = non-indicative modality in a conjunctive clause;

participle (qotel) = present tense, or immediate future, or continuous aspect, or gnomic aspect.


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.