Scholarly bias and the nature of the Semitic verbal system

Thanks to the ubiquity of “postmodernism” (I read a quote somewhere, and I wish I could find the source so let me know if you recognize it, that said something to the effect of “the only real postmodernists are freshmen English classes and dead French guys”) we are all now acutely aware that we each have bias. I am not much of a philosopher, and I am not really interested in re-hashing any of this tired discussion of epistemology. In a certain sense we need bias. We don’t have time to weigh every single piece of evidence for every single argument, and so we tend to go with the views of our teachers or other people we trust. Most of the time it is hard to tell how consequential any of these predispositions are to someone’s overall argument, but sometimes they jump out and smack you in the face.

The nature of the Semitic verbal system, ie whether it is primarily an aspect or tense system, is quite a hotly contested topic, and I have weighed in elsewhere on my views (which coincidentally tend to follow my teacher’s quite closely). In my last post I summarized Daniel Sivan’s article on the QTL and YQTL forms in Ugaritic, where he follows his teacher, Anson Rainey, in calling these tense forms. In a comment, Carl wondered how yaqtulu for past continuous action could be a “tense”? I share the same question, and I also wondered how qatala for both past and present could be a “tense” when the tense interpretation clearly depends on the interaction of the verb morphology with the semantics of the verb (I think Sivan’s example of ntn as a transitive verb in the present tense may in fact be a performative).

At the end of the paper, Sivan takes a moment to honor his teacher with the following paragraph (here’s where it gets interesting):

All of Rainey’s language students will remember how he resented the typical European approach derived from Ewald’s explanation of the Semitic verbal system. He denied that Semitic peoples were inferior to others (such as the Greeks) in their grasp of “time”. As a student of H.J. Polotsky, Rainey always insisted that the Semitic and Egyptian languages reflected a true system of tenses (p 101).

Now, this makes a lot of sense, especially if you are aware of the beginnings of the Biblical Theology Movement and all the hubbub about the difference between Greek and Hebrew thought (See James Barr’s Biblical Words for Time). Thus, Rainey and his teachers saw the aspectual explanation of the Semitic verbal system as denigrating and presumably anti-Semitic. I wonder how many scholars still share this feeling? How many more are following their teachers to whom the nature of the Semtic verbal system was not merely a neutral, scholarly question?

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2 Comments on “Scholarly bias and the nature of the Semitic verbal system”


  1. That is fascinating! I think emotional bases for theories are more prevalent than we might imagine.

  2. Jay Says:

    Good post. I know I tend to forget that certain ongoing discussions carry a great deal of baggage for various scholars, sometimes, as you’ve pointed out, carried on from their teachers. This is certainly worth considering for any hot-button topics.


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