The Biblical Hebrew verbal system and aspect

My blog probably receives the most hits from searches on aspect and aktionsart, so I figure that this is what people are interested in (or struggling to understand). I have also been doing some reading on the topic of the Biblical Hebrew verb system recently, specifically the pair of articles by Jan Joosten and John Cook in JANES. Charles at Awilum recently posted links to the latest issue of JANES including the Cook article. Also, there was some discussion of the topic over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. I have posted summaries of these articles in separate posts (click on the author’s names above), and I would also like to give some of my reflections here.

Language is constantly undergoing change. The Neo-Grammarian school has focused on sound change as the major component of language change, but language changes on all linguistic levels: phonological, morphological, syntactic and “text-linguistic”. Thus verbal systems are not static entities. By seeking a systematic explanation of the Biblical Hebrew verbal system, purely synchronic analyses risk misunderstanding the inconsistencies produced by slow historical change. I greatly appreciated Cook’s article for incorporating a diachronic explanation of the various layers of the verbal system.

Still, while I completely agree with his explanation of the BH verbal system, I wonder if it is best to describe it as “aspectual” when there are really a mix of forms, some marking aspect such as the qatal, some marking tense such as wayyiqtol, and some in-between such as yiqtol (which retains older aspectual meanings in some contexts, but seems to be moving towards simple tense in others)? It may be correct typologically to call it an “aspectual” system, but this does not imply that verbal forms are primarily marked for aspect, but never tense. 

Oh well, I am at home with a sick kid and now I’m rambling…

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Explore posts in the same categories: Aspect, Semitic Verbal System, Topic

One Comment on “The Biblical Hebrew verbal system and aspect”


  1. I agree with you. It is too simplistic to label the biblical Hebrew verbal system as merely “aspectual.”


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