New John Cook article in JHS

John Cook has a new article in the on-line Journal of Hebrew Scriptures: Cook, John A., “The vav-prefixed verb forms in elementary Hebrew grammar,” JHS Volume 8: Article 3 (2008). I won’t formally summarize the article for my bibliography since it is easily accessed (I love the idea of an on-line, peer-reviewed journal, and I am very happy that JHS has become a successful endeavor).

This article was originally presented as a paper for the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, and it was occasioned by the great increase in the number of elementary Hebrew grammars that have perpetuated the enigmatic description of vav-prefixed verbs as “vav-conversive” or “vav-consecutive”. Cook argues that such a description leaves students with the feeling that Biblical Hebrew is a “strange beast without any parallel among human languages.” The value of a better, linguistically informed, description is that students can appreciate how BH works as a human language rather then seeing it as some ancient puzzle.  

The first part of the paper surveys some of these descriptions, but the second part is the most interesting as he gives some examples from his grammar (co-authored with Robert Holmstedt and available in a preliminary form here).

In previous discussions of the BH Verbal System I have tended to agree with John’s typological/grammaticalization approach. The core opposition of the BH system is the binary morphological opposition of a prefixed verbal form (yiqtol) and a suffixed verbal form (qatal). This opposition originally marked aspect (imperfect/perfect), thus typologically it is best to call it an aspectual system (of course, this can be a misleading label as Randall Buth pointed out that BH does not appear to be an “aspectually sensitive” language, especially in comparison to Greek whose morphology allows the variation of tense, mood, and aspect somewhat independently of each other). From a typological comparison of other such languages, a general trend can be seen of the perfect form also defaulting as a simple past tense, and the imperfect form defaulting as present/future. Over time, as new aspectual forms develop, the older forms begin to be used solely to express tense, and eventually they fall out of use altogether.

At this point, I think it is pretty widely accepted that the prefixed yiqtol form in wayyiqtol is not the same as the imperfect, but rather preserves an older prefixed preterite form that has fallen out of general use. This is supported by the existence of the prefixed preterite iprus in Akkadian, the apparent Canaanite reflexes in the Amarna letters, the negative past tense construction in Arabic, la yaktub, etc. In biblical narrative, the preterite is preserved as the special narrative tense wayyiqtol, and it also appears without the prefixed vav as a preterite yiqtol in classical poetry.

What was interesting to me in this article was the description of waw + suffix conjugation, weqatal. It is common among Semitic languages for the perfect form to also be used to express non-past/modal statements. (Not to confuse things at this point, but if indeed there is a trend for perfect forms to move to preterite forms over time, then perhaps the prefix “jussive” forms which occur both in Hebrew and Akkadian, ie the precative liprus, spun off from the old prefixed preterite at an earlier stage when it was actually a perfect?) Nevertheless, returning to weqatal, EJ Revell has shown that in the prefixed verbal forms, indicative and modal expressions can be distinguished by word order – in modal statements, the verbs consistently appear at the head of the clause. Vincent DeCaen has thus suggested that the vav-prefixed forms, being intrinsically verb-first, are in fact modal conjugations. This explanation does not seem to fit wayyiqtol, but the distribution of weqatal suggests that it is in fact “modal”. Cook suggests this non-indicative use most often marks subordinate clauses.

The pedagogical insight is that wayyiqtol and weqatal should not be treated as a single class of “vav-prefixed” verbal forms. Rather, they are quite distinct from each other. It is easiest to understand wayyiqtol as a special narrative tense, preserving an older preterite form. On the other hand, weqatal is a non-indicative/modal form which derives quite expectedly from the perfect qatal and which is differentiated from indicative statements by its clause-initial position. 

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10 Comments on “New John Cook article in JHS”

  1. John Hobbins Says:

    Very nice, Pete.

    But you say:

    Nevertheless, returning to weqatal, EJ Revell has shown that in the prefixed verbal forms, indicative and modal expressions can be distinguished by word order – in modal statements, the verbs consistently appear at the head of the clause.

    The” Nevertheless, returning to weqatal,” seems be out of place. He would appear to talking about yiqtol verb forms.

  2. Peter Bekins Says:


    I was trying to keep this summary short, and I’m afraid I was not clear enough.

    Revell first noticed the word order distinction in prefix forms. Forms that are explicitly marked as modal (like imperatives, cohortatives, etc) occur clause initial. Thus he suggests that word order can help us distinguish whether the morphologically ambiguous yiqtol is being used as an indicative or modal.

    He (and his students) then generalized this principle for the case of the perfect, which is also ambiguous as to modality. This is where weqatal comes in, DeCaen argues that qatal is clause-initial to mark it as modal.

    Thus, the “nevertheless” statement was meant to mark the entire end of the paragraph, not merely that immediate sentence.

  3. John Hobbins Says:

    That’s what I thought, Thanks for confirming my suspicions.

  4. Vincent DeCaen Says:

    Dear Pete,

    Thank you for alerting me to Cook’s paper. I will certainly read it ASAP.

    I love the JHS concept too. (Have you seen my programmatic paper on diachronics in JHS?)

    I guess I have run out of excuses for not putting together my thoughts on modal coordination in one place. Thank you for spurring me on to doing that with your blogging.

    The pieces of the puzzle so far:

    (1) Verb movement and modality: 1995 thesis “On the Placement and Interpretation of the Verb in Standard Biblical Hebrew Prose.” Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto and the 1999 summary “A Unified Analysis of Verbal and Verbless Clauses within Government-Binding Theory.” Pp. 109-131 in The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches, edited by Cynthia L. Miller. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic, vol. 1. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.

    (2) So-called consecutives as “modal coordination” in crosslinguistic and theoretical perspective: “Distinctive Properties of the Biblical Hebrew Consecutives in Crosslinguistic Perspective: Modal Coordination in Ancient Egyptian, Fula, Swahili and Zulu.” Niagara Linguistic Society (NLS99). State University of New York at Buffalo. 26 September 1999.

    (3) Formal compositional semantics of modal coordination as truth operators: “On the Semantics of Modal Coordination in Biblical Hebrew: A Strictly Compositional Approach to Truth-Functional Operators for Natural Language” (draft 2, 2001): see my papers directory

    At the most basic level, what I’m suggesting now is that wayyiqtol has the formal semantics of “modal coordination”, i.e., “and then”, whereas weqatal is more irrealis “if then”. The consecutive comes from the common “then”. The past and irrealis go together crosslinguistically; cf. “if I be” vs “if I were”.


  5. Peter Bekins Says:


    Thank you for your comments. I have followed your writing and would be interested to see your full treatment of modal coordination.

    John Cook has another article (I can’t find the reference right now) in which he argues that vayyiqtol and weqatal are used for the foreground/background distinction, but that they are not explicitly marked for sequence. Rather, sequence is a pragmatic implication from the narrative context. I am growing fonder of this idea because it takes into account numerous examples where there does not seem to be any “consecutiveness” implied. On the other hand, I have been agreeing with him way too much lately so I am open to opposing views.

    I have a baby coming any day now, but if I get a chance I will look for that article and perhaps put up a summary which you can then respond to when you have an opportunity.


  6. Vince DeCaen Says:

    dear pete,

    good luck with the baby. my baby girl is 15 going on 25.

    while i’m thinking about the consecutive, there’s also my 2001 paper, “The Syntactic Argument for the Waw-Consecutive in Old Aramaic.” Vetus Testamentum 51.3: 381-385.

    i reject the preserved “older preterite” theory entirely as ontologically extravagant.

    you say my “explanation does not seem to fit wayyiqtol”. i think so. i think the yiqtol here is the modal yiqtol, plain and simple. i think this is consistent with past/nonpast pairings in such systems crosslinguistically. i think this also gives a unified treatment of syntax and semantics in a way that an old preterite cannot. for what it’s worth.

    good luck to you and your partner. don’t do what i did: i went to the university to hear a lecture on hebrew verb movement just hours after my wife gave birth, when i should’ve stayed at the hospital with my wife. :-)


  7. Vince DeCaen Says:

    is the cook article the one in JSS 2004…?

  8. Peter Bekins Says:


    Yes, I found the article and it is the 2004 JSS article. If you reject the preterite theory then we are somewhat comparing apples to oranges, though I would be happy to post summaries to a couple of your articles to give your view a fair chance. I just returned Miller’s book to the library, but hopefully I can have it back within a few days (our library is undergoing renovations and all the books are off-site so we have to page them).


  9. John Cook Says:


    I just wanted to thank you for featuring a couple of my articles now on your blog. I appreciate your excellent summaries and fair assessments. I also wanted to assure you that you really can’t agree with me too much, so no worries there! : )


    If you are ever down south in Lexington area, stop over in Wilmore and we can chat BH/NWS linguistics.

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