DABHVSinP – Part 3: Grounding in BH Narrative

OK, sorry for the long delay. I ended up on some rabbit trails, had to wait for some extra books to come in at the Library (thanks Ben), and then I spent most of Saturday in the ER with my wife (kidney stones). In case you forgot, in this series of posts I am considering the applicability of a discourse-pragmatic model centered on the distinction between background and foreground information to our understanding of the BH verbal system in poetry. In my last post I attempted to introduce the concepts of foregrounding and backgrounding in general, and in this post I would like to discuss grounding in  biblical narrative specifically. 

Biblical Hebrew narrative lends itself well to discussions of grounding. One of the well-known quirks of the BH verbal system is the existence of both a qatal form that seems to have past temporal reference and the so-called “waw-consecutive imperfect” wayyiqtol, also past tense. It has long been recognized that chains of wayyiqtol verbs are used for the main action of a narrative, which corresponds with our definition of foregrounding. Thus some have better labeled wayyiqtol a narrative preterite or narrative tense. The system would work nicely if qatal was reserved for backgrounded clauses, and in general this scheme seems to fit.

Niccacci’s description of the clause types is rather standard (though his explanations are a bit idiosyncratic, and much of his terminology is inherited from Harald Weinrich through Schneider and Talstra). The wayyiqtol is described as the foreground narrative tense which is “degree zero,” ie it is in line with the tense of the main narrative. There are four basic “tense shifts” which signal a shift from foreground to background (note that x represents some other clause initial element):

(1) wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal

(2) wayyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol

(3) wayyiqtol > wəqatal 

(4) wayyiqtol > waw + simple nominal clause

Shifts (2) and (3) are used for repetitive or habitual action. Note that in all cases except (3) the shift from foreground to background is also accompanied by a non-verbal element occupying clause initial position (Niccacci describes (1) and (2) as complex nominal clauses, even though they contain a verb, since they begin with a nominal, hence the designation “simple nominal clause” for (4). This is one of the aforementioned idiosyncrasies). In each of these shifts, the background clause somehow breaks the temporal succession whether as a flashback or a contemporaneous action. However, when the shifts occur in the opposite direction, Niccacci argues that the background clause specifically indicates an event antecedent to the wayyiqtol clause. 

While relying in part on the work of Schneider, Talstra, and Niccacci, Robert Longacre has developed the notion of grounding much further, and his scheme has probably been the most influential. Beyond describing the types of clauses, Longacre has attempted to create a saliency hierarchy to rank them (adapted from “A Discourse Perspective on the Hebrew Verb” in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, p 180):

Band 1: Storyline 1.1. wayyiqtol (Primary storyline)
  1.2. qatal (Secondary storyline)
  1.3. Noun + qatal (Secondary storyline with noun in focus
Band 2: Background Activities 2.1. Noun + yiqtol (Durative/repetitive)
  2.2. hinneh + participle
  2.3. participle (durative)
  2.4. Noun + participle
Band 3: Setting 3.1. wayəhi
  3.2. hayah
  3.3. Verbless clause
  3.4. Existential clause w/yēš
Band 4: Irrealis 4. Negation of verb
Band 5: Cohesion 5.1. General reference
  5.2. Script predictable
  5.3. Repetition

Since the wayyiqtol form is used as the foreground narrative tense, the qatal form can be used for what Longacre calls secondary storylines. This is slightly different from his original scheme (see his Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, 1989) which placed the qatal form in Band 2: Backgrounded Actions with participle clauses in Band 3: Backgrounded Activities. Longacre gives Gn 40:20-23 as an example of the various bands (I have added my translation with foregrounded verbs in CAPS as before).

20 וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י י֚וֹם הֻלֶּ֣דֶת אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיַּ֥עַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּ֖ה לְכָל־עֲבָדָ֑יו וַיִּשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ ׀ שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֗ים וְאֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ שַׂ֥ר הָאֹפִ֖ים בְּת֥וֹךְ עֲבָדָֽיו׃ So on the third day, the day on which Pharaoh was born, he HELD a banquet for all his servants, and he LIFTED the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker in the midst of all his servants.
21 וַיָּ֛שֶׁב אֶת־שַׂ֥ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֖ים עַל־מַשְׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן הַכּ֖וֹס עַל־כַּ֥ף פַּרְעֹֽה׃ And he RETURNED the chief cupbearer to his office, and he PLACED the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.
22 וְאֵ֛ת שַׂ֥ר הָאֹפִ֖ים תָּלָ֑ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר פָּתַ֛ר לָהֶ֖ם יוֹסֵֽף׃ But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had interpreted for them.
23 וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַֽׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ׃ And the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, and he FORGOT him.

The section begins with a wayəhi clause for setting, and the narrating proper begins with a wayyiqtol (וַיַּ֥עַשׂ). Verse 22 breaks the sequence of wayyiqtols by fronting the chief baker and uses a qatal. Longacre suggests that the clause is participant-oriented rather than action-oriented (I haven’t explained this yet, but you can get the gist) marking it as a secondary storyline. In the next verse it is the cupbearer who is important and who continues the story. Verse 23 begins with an irrealis clause, by definition off the main storyline, but the second half uses a wayyiqtol and is on the main storyline.

So, in general, the wayyiqtol is used to narrate the foreground, while other happenings (to use Longacre’s preferred term) which are off the main storyline use different clause types. In my next post I will look at some of the exceptions to the notion that wayyiqtol is always the foregrounded verb as well as some criticism of Longacre, especially Jean-Marc Heimerdinger’s dissertation. 

For Further Reading

Niccacci’s The Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose, JSOTSupp 86, 1990 is his most in-depth work, but it reads like only slightly edited class notes and it is clear that his thinking had not entirely crystallized at that point. He gives a nice short summary, “Essential Hebrew Syntax” in Narrative and Comment: Contributions presented to Wolfgang Schneider, Societas Hebraica Amstelodamensis, 1995.

Longacre also has a short article in that volume presenting his work, but a better summary article is his “A Discourse Perspective on the Hebrew Verb: Affirmation and Restatement”  in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, Eisenbrauns, 1992. His most in-depth work is Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence, Eisenbrauns, 1989.  


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7 Comments on “DABHVSinP – Part 3: Grounding in BH Narrative”

  1. Thoroughly enjoying this. Thanks again. I especially look forward to your own proposals concerning poetry.

  2. anummabrooke Says:

    +1 with Philip on enjoying your presentation. Although I have jury-rigged a serviceable understanding of “grounding” and presuppose it in my own reading and my teaching of the verbal system, I’ve long wished to walk through it slowly with folks who know the bibliography. Thanks for taking your time on the way toward poetry!


  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    I’m glad you’re both getting something out of it. I intended to move right to poetry, then I realized that I needed to slow down as well to make sure I understood all the relevant details as best I could.

  4. I do hope you’ll find space to look at qatal/yiqtol shifts with a detailed analysis of Ps 24:2 accompanied by an explanation of the semantic distinction between the two forms :)

  5. Thanks for your post. Have you read Driver’s Hebrew Tenses? This book is out of print now, but it contains a long treatise of the Hebrew verb system, expanding a lot on some of the points you have brought out.

  6. [...] Part 3: Grounding in BH Narrative [...]

  7. Vadim Cherny Says:

    I believe, you’re mistaken about wayiqtol and weqatal.

    Wayiqtol is simple a deictic center shift: And he would say.
    Weqatal, besides reflecting a deictic center shifts in prophetic narrations (‘prophetic past’), is employed in very strong commands when the matter is treated as done: Get it done quickly!

    Both “And + FT” for past references with deictic center shifts and “Exclamation + PT” for very strong commands are common in Russian.

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