Archive for the ‘Semitic Verbal System’ category

Tense-switching in LBH

July 25, 2009

In my previous series of posts, one of my hesitations in applying tense-switching to biblical poetry was the assumption that the syntax of biblical narrative and poetry are somehow “synchronic”. The Hebrew found roughly in Genesis-Kings is referred to as Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) or Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and is generally assumed to be a formal literary southern urban (most likely Jerusalem) dialect. This is certainly not proven beyond a doubt, but while other  dialects may creep in depending upon the source of the text or the purpose of the author, the dialect across these books seems highly standardized. One of the standard features is the consistent use of verbal morphology combined with word order, what Niccacci terms tense-switching, to indicate tense/aspect and prominence.

Even within SBH, the system begins to break down a bit as we move from narrative proper to direct speech, but what happens when we move completely away from SBH to another dialect, such as Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH)? Jan Joosten has a helpful article (“The Disappearance of Iterative WEQATAL in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal system,” Pages 135 – 147 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, Eisenbrauns, 2006) in which he argues that, while still used as a future/modal, the past iterative function of weqatal has all but disappeared in LBH and is being replaced by weyiqtol

For instance, notice the chain of weyiqtols in 2 Chr 24:11 where we would expect weqatal:

2Chr 24:11 וַיְהִ֡י בְּעֵת֩ יָבִ֨יא אֶת־הָֽאָר֜וֹן אֶל־פְּקֻדַּ֣ת הַמֶּלֶךְ֮ בְּיַ֣ד הַלְוִיִּם֒ וְכִרְאוֹתָ֞ם כִּי־רַ֣ב הַכֶּ֗סֶף וּבָ֨א סוֹפֵ֤ר הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וּפְקִיד֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הָרֹ֔אשׁ וִיעָ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אָר֔וֹן וְיִשָּׂאֻ֖הוּ וִֽישִׁיבֻ֣הוּ אֶל־מְקֹמ֑וֹ כֹּ֤ה עָשׂוּ֙ לְי֣וֹם ׀ בְּי֔וֹם וַיַּֽאַסְפוּ־כֶ֖סֶף לָרֹֽב׃12 וַיִּתְּנֵ֨הוּ הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ וִֽיהוֹיָדָ֗ע אֶל־עוֹשֵׂה֙ מְלֶ֙אכֶת֙ עֲבוֹדַ֣ת בֵּית־יְהוָ֔ה 

11 And when the chest would be brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and would empty the chest (weyiqtol) and would take it (weyiqtol) and would return it (weyiqtol) to its place. Thus they did day after day, and they collected money in abundance. 12 And the king and Jehoiada gave it to those who had charge of the work of the house of the LORD…

Joosten notes that it is possible that these are wayyiqtol‘s which have been mispointed, since in Kings we do have examples of weqatal followed by wayyiqtol as an iterative (in fact, such a construction is in the similar account in 2 Kg 12:11). However, usually the Masoretes mistakenly point weyiqtol as wayyiqtol, not the other way around. Further, the abundance of examples of weyiqtol as an iterative in LBH texts supports the pointing of the MT. 

This change seems to be part of a larger realignment of the verbal system as it moves toward Mishnaic Hebrew. The wayyiqtol form is gradually falling out of use, and if we look forward to the Isaiah Scroll from Qumran we see that the scribe consistently replaced wayyiqtol with a qatal form. Note also that the Isaiah scroll replaces iterative weqatal with weyiqtol. In LBH narrative, we already see weqatal (ie conjunctive waw + clause initial qatal) as a non-iterative past tense.  This is the normal narrative tense in Official Aramaic, which already dropped the wayyiqtol, and will become the narrative tense in Mishnaic Hebrew. For example, take Ezra 3:10:

Ezra 3:10 וְיִסְּד֥וּ הַבֹּנִ֖ים אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל יְהוָ֑ה

10 And the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord 

I think we can pull a few things from this. First, wayyiqtol is the special case. Most likely, the preterite was used clause initially in narrative contexts because this position is iconic for sequence, but it then became a frozen form so that the waw was reinterpreted as part of the verb, thus it is proper to speak of wayyiqtol as a verbal form. Obviously, there is no possibility of a non-clause-initial wayyiqtol

However, to speak of weqatal, x-qatal, weyiqtol, and x-yiqtol is to combine (and perhaps confuse) the semantics of the verbal morphology with the pragmatics of word-order. Here I agree with John Cook that wayyiqtol and weqatal should be seen as two separate things. The past iterative use of weqatal flows from the modality of the perfect, just as the past iterative use of x-yiqtol flows from the modality of yiqtol. Hence there is no problem with an iterative weyiqtol. The word-order has to do with whether the verbs are sequential or not. Both weqatal and weyiqtol are clause initial, thus iconic for sequence (note that I’m not saying marked for sequence). It seems to me that there is no reason why the classical dialect could not have used weyiqtol for foregrounded iterative action, it just chose weqatal as the standard form. This gives a nice symmetry to the system since x-yiqtol is used as past iterative in non-sequential circumstances, while x-qatal is reserved for circumstantial clauses. However, once the simple past use of weqatal begins to encroach, it makes sense to move to weyiqtol instead.

So, we see that the system of tense-switching doesn’t quite hold for LBH. It is not unreasonable to assume that similar differences would be found in dialects that differ geographically from SBH as well. For instance, northern dialects may be more influenced by Aramaic which did not use weqatal as an iterative either. Thus, while I agree that the syntax of poetry should not differ greatly from that of prose, we cannot assume that SBH is necessarily the prose dialect we should be using as a baseline reference.

OK, I swear I’m done with Niccacci now. Really.

DABHVSinP – Part 8: Conclusion

July 13, 2009

Sorry for the long delay, but I was pulled onto other projects at home (like caring for my wife who unexpectedly had to have her gall bladder removed). I could go on with this series forever, but I will try to wrap it up with this post. I am not completely satisfied with my findings, but I need to move on with my dissertation and get off of this rabbit trail.

In my last post I looked a bit at the way direct speech differs from biblical narrative in respect to tense-switching as a means for expressing grounding. The most obvious difference is that biblical narrative style uses a chain of syndetic clauses with very few explicit logical or temporal connectors. Thus tense-switching seems to be the predominate method of implying subordination. However, in the example of direct speech most of the clauses were asyndetic, the only exceptions being the couplets joined by parallelism and the use of the qatal > wayyiqtol shift to express subordination. As I turn my attention to poetry, it is parallelism that may be the biggest stumbling block for the usefulness of tense-switching as an explanation for the unique use of the verbal system.

Since Kugel’s work on parallelism, scholars have been more inclined to view poetry and prose as poles on a continuum. Kugel argued both that parallelism is not restricted to poetry and that a good amount of biblical poetry doesn’t use parallelism. He went on to argue against the standard distinction of a poetry corpus within biblical literature, but most scholars have not followed him that far. Still, it is important to recognize that prosaic elements exist within poems and vice versa. You may remember the use of parallelism integrated seamlessly into Jacob’s speech in the last post.

Thus, to the extent that a poetic text includes prosaic features, we would expect the syntax to work as it does in prose. Where a psalm is heavily influenced by narrative, as in Psalm 78, I think it is fitting to consider whether shifts from wayyiqtol to other verbal forms have a discourse-pragmatic function of expressing grounding. However, to me this seems to be a small % of texts and not extremely useful for explaining the verbal system in the psalms as a whole. And, even though a psalm like 78 is influenced by narrative, it is not exactly the same as narrative (even in direct speech). How do we account for the poetic features? Should we see a narrative framework with poetic features intruding, or a poetic passage with some wayyiqtols thrown in to give it a narrative feel?

Take a series such as Ps 78:14-15 (Niccacci’s translation):

14 וַיַּנְחֵ֣ם בֶּעָנָ֣ן יוֹמָ֑ם and [He] led them with a cloud in the daytime,
וְכָל־הַ֝לַּ֗יְלָה בְּא֣וֹר אֵֽשׁ׃ And all the night with a fiery light.
15 יְבַקַּ֣ע צֻ֭רִים בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר By cleaving (‘ was cleaving’) rocks in the wilderness,
וַ֝יַּ֗שְׁקְ כִּתְהֹמ֥וֹת רַבָּֽה׃ he gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.

Niccacci sees the shift wayyiqtol > yiqtol from verse 14 to 15 as grounding, and he takes the yiqtol as past imperfective (I think this would be better translated as a past habitual: “He would cleave rocks in the wilderness and give them drink abundantly as from the deep.”) However, we would expect wayyiqtol > (waw)-x-yiqtol to signal a switch to past habitual, not a clause-initial yiqtol. Niccacci argues that here we do have x-yiqtol, but that a sentence initial pronoun has been dropped through ellipsis, thus poetry has intruded on the narrative. However, consider the sequence in verses 49-50:

49‏ יְשַׁלַּח־בָּ֨ם ׀ חֲר֬וֹן אַפּ֗וֹ He let loose on them his burning anger,
עֶבְרָ֣ה וָזַ֣עַם וְצָרָ֑ה wrath, indignation, and distress
מִ֝שְׁלַ֗חַת מַלְאֲכֵ֥י רָעִֽים׃ a troop of angels of disaster
‎50‏ יְפַלֵּ֥ס נָתִ֗יב לְאַ֫פּ֥וֹ He made a path for his anger
לֹא־חָשַׂ֣ךְ מִמָּ֣וֶת נַפְשָׁ֑ם He did not spare them from death
וְ֝חַיָּתָ֗ם לַדֶּ֥בֶר הִסְגִּֽיר׃ But their lives he handed over to the plague

Notice that both of these verses begin with initial yiqtols, but there is no tense-switch from or back to wayyiqtol for the foreground. Instead, the sequence is yiqtol (יְשַׁלַּח), yiqtol (יְפַלֵּ֥ס), qatal (לֹא־חָשַׂ֣ךְ), x-qatal (הִסְגִּֽיר). The temporal reference remains past tense during the entire section, and it is hard to see how the yiqtols can be taken as imperfective. Rather, we seem to have a yiqtol used as a simple past tense, which opens up the possibility that back in verse 15 יְבַקַּ֣ע was really just a simple past tense also. Thus, it could be that what we have there is not the poetic feature of ellipsis obscuring the normal narrative syntax of wayyiqtol > x-yiqtol indicating a switch to background information (which is a weak argument in the first place), but merely the use of a different, albeit rare, past tense form – the short preterite.

When we turn to look at the normal situation in poetry, parallelismus membrorum (see here), I think that this solution becomes more appealing. Nicholas Lunn has written a fine dissertation investigating word-order in biblical poetry. He found that the word order of the first colon, the a-colon, largely tends to follow the standard order (ie VSO, with the expected shifts for pragmatic reasons of topicalization or focus). However, the b-colon often deviates from this with an unexpected word-order. Lunn explains this with the concept of defamiliarisation. This is a device by which poets purposefully make language more difficult to understand in order to prolong the process of experiencing the art. This is evident not only in word-order, but also in the choice of rare words which seem to occur more frequently in the b-colon, and I would add, perhaps also rare verb forms such as the old short preterite. It is no coincidence then that the most common switch seems to be qatal > yiqtol, and not the opposite.

Further, the relationship between the cola in parallelismus membrorum is different than sequential clauses within a narrative or discourse where an idea is developing progressively. Often, the point of a b-colon is to stop and repeat the same idea using synonymous (or antithetical) language. In such a situation, I don’t know that it is proper to think of one clause as being subordinate to the other. take for example Psalm 78:5:

5‏ וַיָּ֤קֶם עֵד֨וּת ׀ בְּֽיַעֲקֹ֗ב And he established a testimony in Jacob
וְתוֹרָה֮ שָׂ֤ם בְּיִשְׂרָ֫אֵ֥ל And a law he appointed in Israel.

Here both cola refer to the same event, but the merismus “Jacob and Israel” has been split and expanded into two cola (which is a common feature of biblical poetry). Therefore, the switch from wayyiqtol to qatal probably should not be taken as a signal of background or subordination, but a by-product of the insertion of parallelism into the flow of thought. This happens in narrative texts as well, take Gen 21:1:

21:1‏ וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר And the Lord visited Sarah as He said
וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃ And he did to Sarah as He spoke.

The next verse picks up again with a wayyiqtol and continues the narrative. Another reason why I don’t think tense-switching between parallel cola should be taken pragmatically as a mark of backgrounding is the great number of parallel cola that do not switch tense at all. For example, Psalm 78:16:

16‏ וַיּוֹצִ֣א נוֹזְלִ֣ים מִסָּ֑לַע He caused streams to come out of the rock
וַיּ֖וֹרֶד כַּנְּהָר֣וֹת מָֽיִם and he caused water to flow down like rivers.

Here we have synonymous parallelism, but both cola use wayyiqtols. I can see no difference in the context between the function of parallelism here and elsewhere, but perhaps I am missing something.

In conclusion then, it seems to me that tense-switching as a mark of background ultimately fails to add to our understanding of the use of the verb in poetry. Rather, I think the majority of cases of a switch from qatal > yiqtol can be explained by defamiliarisation. That is, the poet has used a rare preterite form for the b-colon to make it bit more difficult to understand. I do think Niccacci is right to be more sensitive to the past imperfective use of yiqtol, especially in narrative-like contexts. There are some cases where I agree that a past habitual may be a better translation than simple past, and from a quick scan of the Psalms I see many examples where yiqtol is used in obviously past imperfective situations. For example, Ps 39:4:

4‏ חַם־לִבִּ֨י ׀ בְּקִרְבִּ֗י My heart became hot within me
בַּהֲגִיגִ֥י תִבְעַר־אֵ֑שׁ While I mused, fire was burning
דִּ֝בַּ֗רְתִּי בִּלְשֽׁוֹנִי׃ I spoke with my tongue

Again, note that we do not have any of the standard tense-switching constructions here as the other verbs are both clause-initial qatals. In poetry then, I think that we must be more sensitive to the semantics of the verb on its own, rather than expecting the elegant system found in narrative where we can rely on the word-order.

DABHVSinP – Part 7: Direct Speech

July 1, 2009

Chip Hardy has resumed posting at Daily Hebrew, and Monday’s installment was part of a speech made by Jacob to Laban in Genesis 31. This is an interesting example of the way direct speech is similar and dissimilar to narrative in respect to grounding.

38 זֶה֩ עֶשְׂרִ֨ים שָׁנָ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ These 20 years I [have been] with you.
Section 1
רְחֵלֶ֥יךָ וְעִזֶּ֖יךָ לֹ֣א שִׁכֵּ֑לוּ Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried,
וְאֵילֵ֥י צֹאנְךָ֖ לֹ֥א אָכָֽלְתִּי׃ and the rams of your flocks I have not eaten
Section 2
39 טְרֵפָה֙ לֹא־הֵבֵ֣אתִי אֵלֶ֔יךָ A torn carcass I did not bring to you.
אָנֹכִ֣י אֲחַטֶּ֔נָּה I myself would bear its loss.
מִיָּדִ֖י תְּבַקְשֶׁ֑נָּה From my hand you would require it.
גְּנֻֽבְתִ֣י י֔וֹם One stolen during the day
וּגְנֻֽבְתִ֖י לָֽיְלָה׃ or one stolen at night.
Section 3
40 הָיִ֧יתִי I was -
בַיּ֛וֹם אֲכָלַ֥נִי חֹ֖רֶב by day, the heat ate me
וְקֶ֣רַח בַּלָּ֑יְלָה and the frost by night,
וַתִּדַּ֥ד שְׁנָתִ֖י מֵֽעֵינָֽי׃ so my sleep fled from me.
Section 4
41 זֶה־לִּ֞י עֶשְׂרִ֣ים שָׁנָה֮ בְּבֵיתֶךָ֒ I have had these 20 years in your house.
עֲבַדְתִּ֜יךָ אַרְבַּֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ בִּשְׁתֵּ֣י בְנֹתֶ֔יךָ I have served you 14 years for your two daughters,
וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים בְּצֹאנֶ֑ךָ and six years for your flocks,
וַתַּחֲלֵ֥ף אֶת־מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּ֖י עֲשֶׂ֥רֶת מֹנִֽים׃ and you have changed my wages 10 times.
Section 5
42 לוּלֵ֡י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִי֩ אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וּפַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙ הָ֣יָה לִ֔י Had I not had the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac,
כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה רֵיקָ֣ם שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי you would have now sent me away empty.
אֶת־עָנְיִ֞י וְאֶת־יְגִ֧יעַ כַּפַּ֛י רָאָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים My affliction and the labor of my hands, God saw,
וַיּ֥וֹכַח אָֽמֶשׁ׃ and he rebuked [you] yesterday.

First off, notice that every clause is asyndetic except for the second clause of a parallel pair and the few wayyiqtol clauses. This is a stark contrast to the chain of syndetic clauses in narrative. Similarly, word order is no longer iconic with sequence, and there is not a verb-initial clause until verse 40 (and after that only the wayyiqtols are clause-initial).

At the risk of over-simplifying, in biblical Hebrew word order has been recognized to be related to the information structure of the sentence. The clause-initial element tends to be the focus of the sentence, ie the new information that is being related. In a narrative clause the normal word order is V(erb)S(ubject)O(bject), and it is the predicate (V + O) that is the focus. The subject has usually already been introduced elsewhere. When other constituents appear clause-initially there are two cases. If the predicate can be presupposed from the context, then the clause-initial constituent is in focus. However, if it is an entirely new event being reported, then the entire sentence is in focus and the clause-initial element is usually being introduced as topic. Thus, within the sentence it is the clause-initial element that tends to be most prominent. A good example of this occurs in verse 39 where a טְרֵפָה֙ is introduced as topic. Notice how all the following references to the טְרֵפָה֙ are anaphoric.

Now, that describes the prominence of the elements within a clause, but how can we measure the prominence of one clause in relation to another? For instance, in Section 1 we have a nice poetic couplet. Both clauses provide evidence of how Jacob treated Laban’s animals well, and they are grammatically equivalent. Perhaps Jacob being the subject of the second clause raises its prominence slightly since he is highly salient in the discourse.

In Section 2 we have an interesting sequence of verbs: lo qatal (irrealis) > x + yiqtol (past habitual) > x+yiqtol (past habitual). In narrative these would all be background. Again, all three seem to be evidence toward the point that Jacob worked hard and seem equally prominent (at least there is no indication of prominence related to “tense-switching”).

Section 3 is a bit more interesting. Here we have a sequence qatal > wayyiqtol which would signal a shift from background to foreground. There is a disjunction after the first clause, and the second and third clauses are very poetic, exhibiting both chiasm and ellipsis of the verb. The events are simultaneous so there is no sequence here, but it seems to me that there is a cause > effect relationship that would indeed correspond to a background > foreground shift, something like “It being the fact that the heat ate me during the day and the cold at night, I didn’t get any sleep.” It is interesting that the idea of not sleeping is flipped around from a negative to a positive, could this have been done specifically to use a wayyiqtol?

In Section 4 we again have a qatal > wayyiqtol shift. This time the relationship is not cause > effect, but more like “despite the fact that I did this…you did this.” This again seems to be consistent with a background > foreground shift. The first sentence in Section 6 is an unreal conditional statement, but the second half again shows a shift qatal > wayyiqtol. Here there is another cause > effect relationship that seems consistent with the background > foreground shift. 

In summary, from this one example it seems that “tense-shifting” may still be related to grounding within the smaller structures of the text, ie within major sections, but it does not seem to have any relation to the macro structure which is organized by topicalization, parallelism, repetition, etc. 

For work on word-order and information structure see Heimerdinger’s dissertation mentioned previously as well as Nicholas Lunn’s Word-Order Variation in biblical Hebrew Poetry, Paternoster, 2006, and Sebastian Floor’s unpublished Stellenbosch dissertation From Information Structure, Topic, and Focus to Theme in Biblical Hebrew Narrative.  


DABHVSinP – Part 6: Turning toward Poetry

June 28, 2009

When I began this series, I agreed with Niccacci that the verb in poetry should function basically the same as elsewhere. It seems counter-intuitive that a poet could grab any verb form they want for stylistic purposes. His contention is that we can partly understand the switching of verbal forms in poetry by looking at the correlation of “tense-switching” (as Niccacci calls it) to the pragmatic function of grounding in discourse (ie non-narrative). The main switches of foreground > background would be:

Past Tense wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal
  wayyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol (imperfective)
  wayyiqtol > wəqatal (modal)
Future Indicative wəqatal > waw-x-yiqtol
Future volitive wəyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol

Obviously, you can always switch to a verbless clause as well. Also, if poetry follows discourse, we should expect a past tense sequence to begin with a qatal, a future indicative to begin with x-yiqtol, and a future volitive to begin with some sort of volitive form before continuing with the standard foreground forms.

For support, Niccacci brings many examples from Psalm 78, such as Ps 78:29 (his translation):

29 וַיֹּאכְל֣וּ וַיִּשְׂבְּע֣וּ מְאֹ֑ד וְ֝תַֽאֲוָתָ֗ם יָבִ֥א לָהֶֽם׃
And they ate and were well filled. // Indeed, what they craved he was giving them.

Here he interprets the first two wayyiqtols as the normal foreground tense (simple past), and the x-yiqtol as background (past imperfective). I don’t have a problem with this interpretation. In fact, if you take the previous two verses together, the end of verse 25 is a nice summary statement which is probably better as a past habitual:

27 He rained meat on them like dust,
          winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
          all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
          for what they craved he would give them.

However, I have reservations about how well this can be applied to poetry as a whole. First, the use of “tense-switching” to express grounding in narrative and discourse relies on three things: use of syndetic clauses, meaningful word order, and contingent temporal succession. In poetry we have none of these consistently. Second, Psalm 78 may be a somewhat misleading example since it is so heavily influenced by narrative. In the whole collection of psalms, the Westminster Hebrew Morphology shows 332 wayyiqtols. In Psalm 78 we have 59. The other narrative Psalm, 106, has 54 more.

Thirdly, biblical narrative is written in a standardized, literary dialect (and that includes the direct discourse found within narrative). I would expect the verbal system of poetry to reflect that of the language in general, but we only have a small slice of language represented in narrative. Further, poets are free (and inclined) to pull from archaic language and rare usage, so we should not expect that all the uses of the verbs should be explainable by comparison to narrative texts. In my next few posts, I will consider some of these reservations as I turn toward poetry.

DABHVSinP – Part 5: Beyond Narrative

June 26, 2009

The distinction between foregrounded and backgrounded clauses began with the observation that a narrative can be subdivided into clauses which narrate a sequence of events and those that do not, termed narrative and non-narrative clauses. Non-narrative clauses may present events that are out of sequence, such as flashbacks, or may not narrate events at all, such as descriptions or explanations. Since a narrative tends to be about a sequence of temporal events, it seemed natural that the narrative clauses would be the most salient, hence the term foreground. The non-narrative clauses were considered less salient, and hence background. However, to what extent does this distinction hold as we move away from the narrative genre?  

Here is where the approaches of Longacre and Niccacci begin to diverge. To understand Niccacci’s approach, it is important to begin with the work of Harald Weinrich. Weinrich approached language from the perspective of text-linguistics and made a fundamental distinction between two registers of text which reflect the orientation of the author to the subject: Erzählen and Besprechen. The former is translated as narrative, and the latter is variously translated as comment, discussion, discourse, etc. I will use discourse here, since that is what Niccacci seems to prefer, but note that it differs from Longacre’s definition of discourse which is more similar to Weinrich’s “text”, ie the largest unit for analysis. Also, Weinrich is interested in texts so Besprechen doesn’t refer to actual spoken language, but rather to when an author makes use of more conversational language. Narrative is impersonal and tends to be related in the third person and past tense, while discourse is more intimate, bringing the author and reader into the situation by using first and second person along with present and future tense.

Within each of these groups, Weinrich identifies two further axes which motivate the choice of verbal form. Perspective is something like relative tense, and depends on whether the event is contemporary (called neutral or null degree), anterior, or posterior to the reference frame. For narrative the temporal reference is past tense, so the simple past is the null degree form, while in discourse the normal null degree form is the present. Lastly, Weinrich describes relief, which is the use of  tense forms to distinguish foreground from background. The parade example is French where the passé simple is the narrative form appearing in foregrounded clauses while the imparfait appears in background clauses.

As far as I can tell, Weinrich only discusses the use of specific verbal forms for expressing relief within narrative. This is because narrative is the special case. As seen in the French example and in Biblical Hebrew, among others, it is not uncommon for languages to develop special forms for narrative. Schneider, through whom Weinrich’s ideas impacted the study of Biblical Hebrew, specifically states that in discourse foreground and background are not expressed by the use of verb tenses, but by other means:

Vordergrund und Hintergrund der Rede werden – anders als in Erzählung – nicht durch die Tempora – sondern durch andere Zeichen (Satzstellung, Partikeln, Hinweise auf die Sprechsituation) bezeichnet (Grammatik §, 188).  

Niccacci, however, extended the idea to non-narrative texts. Of course, since there are many more tense forms available in discourse, the system becomes much more complicated. For the present tense, the normal clause type is the simple nominal clause. This type is used for both foreground and background, which must be distinguished by other means. 

In the past tense, the system is the same as in narrative, except that the initial verb is an (x)-qatal form, and then the following foregrounded clauses use wayyiqtol. Background is again expressed by x-qatal, non-verbal sentences, x-yiqtol, and wəqatal

For the future, Niccacci distinguishes between indicative and volitive moods. A future indicative text begins with an x-yiqtol (Niccacci argues that all clause initial yiqtols are volitive) and the foreground verbs then switch to wəqatal. Background information is signified by the switch wəqatal > waw-x-yiqtol which is analogous to the shift wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal in narrative. The future volitive begins with a volitive form (cohortative, jussive, imperative). Niccacci argues that the following foregrounded verbs then switch to wəyiqtol if the volitional mood is to be continued, but to wəqatal if the mood switches to indicative future, ie as a succession of events that will naturally follow. 

Longacre has also extended the correlation of verbal forms with grounding beyond narrative, but with slightly different parameters. He has not followed the distinction of narrative and discourse, but instead suggests two basic parameters: contingent temporal succession and agent-orientation. For our purposes, the more important is contingent temporal succession, which is basically the existence of a chronological backbone to the text. Texts without such a backbone are organized logically or thematically. Thus a prophetic text is similar to a narrative, only with a future orientation. Instructional and procedural texts describe how something usually is or should be done, and also follow a sequence of steps. In all three, Longacre argues that wəqatal is the primary tense while x-yiqtol is used for secondary themes. 

If we synthesize these two views, you will notice that there are three basic forms used for foreground. In narrative it is the wayyiqtol, while in future/modal contexts wəqatal and wəyiqtol are the foreground forms. The main secondary forms are x-qatal and x-yiqtol respectively. Note that the foregrounded forms are all clause-initial, while backgrounded forms are not. Again, I think that this reflects iconicity. In a sequential context we expect the events to be given in order of occurrence, and in NW Semitic it is the clause-initial position that is iconic for sequence. However, when the text does not have a sequential backbone, the distribution of the verbal forms no longer corresponds strongly to the distinction of foreground from background. Instead, as Schneider stated, other means are used.

As we move to poetry then, my working hypothesis is that the correlation of verbal forms to grounding will only be useful to the extent that the poem reflects contingent temporal sequence. 

DABHVSinP – Part 4: Exceptions and Refinements

June 22, 2009

In my last post I described Niccacci and Longacre’s analyses of the BH verb in narrative from the perspective of grounding. Both agree that wayyiqtol clauses are foregrounded while other clauses are backgrounded. Longacre goes one step further by ranking the other types of clauses and assigning them to various bands of salience within a typical narrative. However, it is not always the case that a wayyiqtol is in the foreground or that a clause with qatal is in the background. Remember also that there are multiple parameters that contribute to the cline of saliency beyond the semantics of the verb.

For instance, in his analysis of the Joseph narrative, Longacre himself sometimes assigns the wayyiqtol to a lower rank. In Gn 37:12 Longacre assigns the first wayyiqtol, וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ, to the setting band:


12 וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶ֗ת֗־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ So his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem.
13 וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי׃ And Israel said to Joseph, “Look, your brothers are pasturing in Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am”.

The wayyiqtol corresponds to foreground material because it is often punctual and sequential. However, הלך is an intransitive verb of motion, which is naturally durative. Longacre suggests that it belongs to the setting band because it removes the brothers from the scene (they don’t appear again as a subject until verse 18 in Dothan, a new setting) and seems to prepare directly for Israel’s statement in the next verse. One might be tempted to translate, “Now Joseph’s brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Look your brothers are pasturing in Shechem…’” But why didn’t the author use an x-qatal construction to specify that it is setting? Perhaps the clause is meant to be closer to the foreground since it is sequential in relation to the larger narrative?

Jean-Marc Heimerdinger lists further exceptions to Longacre’s verb ranking. For example, he gives 2 Kg 4:36-37:


36 וַיִּקְרָ֣א אֶל־גֵּיחֲזִ֗י וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ קְרָא֙ אֶל־הַשֻּׁנַמִּ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וַיִּקְרָאֶ֖הָ וַתָּב֣וֹא אֵלָ֑יו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר שְׂאִ֥י בְנֵֽךְ׃ He summoned Gehazi and said, “Summon this Shunamite.” So he called her and she came to him and he said, “Take your son.”
37 וַתָּבֹא֙ וַתִּפֹּ֣ל עַל־רַגְלָ֔יו וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָ֑רְצָה וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־בְּנָ֖הּ וַתֵּצֵֽא She came and she fell at his feet and she bowed upon the ground. Then she took her son and went out.

In verse 37 there is a string of 3 wayyiqtol verbs, but they do not seem to be equally important to the story line. Heimerdinger argues that תִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ could be removed without losing anything from the plot. In fact, this is a good example of a chain of wayyiqtols that are non-sequential. Instead they seem to be describing aspects of the same action, thus the ESV translates, “She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground.” In Longacre’s defense, he also recognizes that this is a common characteristic of the wayyiqtol. If the subject remains constant, two successive verbs may be used to describe a single event. It is most common with verbs of speaking such as ענה and אמר, “And he answered and said…” Again though, note that there is nothing grammatically special about וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָ֑רְצָה. The only way to know that it is non-sequential is the semantics, thus Heimerdinger reminds us that there is not an isomorphic relationship between the grammatical form of the clause and grounding.

So wayyiqtol is not always in the foreground, but is the reverse true? Can a non-wayyiqtol clause ever be pushed into the foreground? Heimerdinger gives the example of Gn 25:34, but the whole story is interesting:


29 וַיָּ֥זֶד יַעֲקֹ֖ב נָזִ֑יד וַיָּבֹ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וְה֥וּא עָיֵֽף׃ Jacob cooked a stew and Esau came in from the field and he was tired.
30 וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃ Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me eat some of this red stuff because I am tired.” Therefore they called his name Edom.
31 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃ Jacob said, “Sell your birthright to me today.”
32 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃ And Esau said, “Look, I am going to die, what is a birthright to me?”
33 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּמְכֹּ֥ר אֶת־בְּכֹרָת֖וֹ לְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ And Jacob said, “Swear to me today.” So he swore to him and he sold his birthright to Jacob.
34 וְיַעֲקֹ֞ב נָתַ֣ן לְעֵשָׂ֗ו לֶ֚חֶם וּנְזִ֣יד עֲדָשִׁ֔ים וַיֹּ֣אכַל וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַיָּ֖קָם וַיֵּלַ֑ךְ וַיִּ֥בֶז עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־הַבְּכֹרָֽה And Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau and he ate and he drank and he rose and went. And Esau despised his birthright.

The story begins immediately with a wayyiqtol in verse 29, which seems to belong to the setting band as in Gn 37:12 above. The ESV translates, “Once when Jacob was cooking stew”, clearly putting it into the background. In contrast, the first clause in verse 34 is clearly sequential, but an <x>-qatal clause, which Longacre would analyze as participant-oriented, and which should signal a break in sequence.

Here is where some native speakers would really be helpful. Is this clause meant to be slightly backgrounded, or is something else motivating the grammar? And how can we measure it without falling into circular reasoning?

I could possibly see this as a background clause. I noted in an earlier post that sequential actions can be backgrounded if put into a subordinate clause, so it is not totally unexpected. Also, notice that the chain of wayyiqtols from the end of verse 33 through to the end all have Esau as subject. Moreover, beginning at וַיֹּ֣אכַל the clauses include only a verb, narrating the successive actions in a short burst, which tends to be typical for the peak of a story. Lastly, the final summary clause tells us that the point of the story is to condemn Esau, which would suggest that Esau is the main subject of the story, and thus Jacob’s role could be secondary in this concluding series of verbs.

Now, I do not think that these exceptions bring the whole idea of a relationship between grounding and clause types crashing down. However, it does call into question the direction of that relationship. That is, the choice of verbal forms cannot be explained simply by some discourse-pragmatic grounding function, but rather several other parameters are in play. It seems to me more likely that wayyiqtol is simply the unmarked narrative verb, ie it is the natural choice for a main narrative clause regardless of its relative saliency. To the extent that foreground corresponds to the main sequential events in the narrative clauses, wayyiqtol corresponds to the foreground. But, wayyiqtol is not necessarily sequential or highly transitive.

Sequence in narrative tends to be iconic. Iconicity describes a property of language where the form matches the meaning (A good example is the use of a doubled morpheme for plurality). In a narrative, if you have a series of simple past tense verbs it is assumed that they are ordered sequentially. Note that in English you do not have to say “then…and then…” It is the non-sequential verbs that should be marked either by the tense form or a preposition. In Hebrew and other NW Semitic narrative, iconic sequence also corresponds to the verb-initial clause, hence wayyiqtol is always verb-initial. I agree with Longacre that clauses which front a non-verbal element shift the focus to that element, and away from the verb, which usually also implies a break in the temporal sequence. This series is (hopefully) moving toward an analysis of poetry, and I think the main issue will be the extent to which verb-initial and non-verb initial clauses still correspond to foreground and background when a sequential backbone is no longer assumed.

Further Reading

Jean-Marc Heimerdinger’s dissertation is published as Topic, Focus, and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives, JSOTSup 295, Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1999. He spends an entire chapter criticizing Longacre, and offers instead a more literarily sensitive approach which considers the participants in a clause more than the verb forms (hence the Topic and Focus from the title). I think he slightly reduces Longacre’s view, if you read his actual analysis of the Joseph narrative he is somewhat sensitive to literary features, unfortunately he does not work these parameters into his verb ranking scheme.

Other unpublished works dealing with the relationship between verbal clauses and salience in narrative include Douglas Kasten’s UT Arlington MA Thesis Salience in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (1994) in which he attempted to measure the salience of different types of verbal clauses independently. Tarsee Li’s HUC Dissertation The expression of Sequence and Non-Sequence in Northwest Semitic Narrative Prose (1999) explored the relationship between iconicity and clause initial position. 

DABHVSinP – Part 3: Grounding in BH Narrative

June 15, 2009

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.  


DABHVSinP – Part 2: Foreground and Background

June 10, 2009

In this series of posts, I am interacting with Alviero Niccacci’s attempt to explain the BH verbal system in poetry by a discourse-pragmatic method. See the introductory post here. My goal in this post is to introduce the concepts of foreground and background information in general before discussing how they may be applied to biblical poetry.

The distinction of foreground from background information was first developed in the analysis of narrative. The idea began with Labov, among others, who sought to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative clauses within a text where narrative clauses contain the events of the story which are temporally sequenced. The terms foreground and background (taken from Gestalt Theory) were introduced by Hopper and Thompson. Foreground refers to the sequential events which are presented on the primary storyline of the narrative, while background is everything else that is presented off-line (Labov’s “non-narrative” material). Longacre includes the criteria that the sequential events must also be contingent upon each other. In the following example the foregrounded verbs are given in CAPITALS, while the backgrounded verbs are in italics:

(1) Yesterday I WENT to the grocery store. (2) It was the Kroger down the street. (3) I SAW my neighbor John there, (4) and he SAID that (5) our friend Bob had been hit by a car. (6) While we were talking, (7) Bob WALKED UP on crutches. (8) We ASKED him (9) how he was doing (10) and he SAID (11) he was okay.

Note that the foregrounded verbs are simple past tense, as is common in most languages for narrative, and that they all occur in main independent clauses. Descriptive and equative clauses such as (2) are naturally off the storyline since they do not narrate an event. Subordinate clauses also tend to report events that are off the main storyline as in (5). Lastly, durative and progressive forms such as (6) tend to be circumstantial, providing context for other punctual events.  

The relationship between foreground and background material is not strictly binary, and scholars have argued for a scalar approach with degrees of “backgroundedness”. If you think of a narrative as a painting, foregrounded information would appear closer to you while background material is further and further off in the distance. Note the subtle shift happening here. Foreground and background information were originally based on temporal ordering, but it seemed natural that the foreground information was also the most important in the discourse while background information was secondary. Keeping with the analogy of the painting, what is in the foreground is also largest and therefore most prominent. In linguistic jargon this is usually also referred to as salience. Along with coherence (the way that the individual pieces of information relate to one another) salience is one of the more important features of a discourse.

How then does an author “move” information from the background to the foreground? Hopper and Thompson argued that the transitivity of a clause was related to its prominence in discourse with high transitivity related to foregrounding and low transitivity related to backgrounding. They offered ten parameters associated with transitivity that can be used to mark prominence (adapted from pg 252):

Parameter High T Low T
1. Participants 2 or more, A(gent) and O(bject) 1
2. Kinesis Action Non-action
3. Punctuality Punctual Non-punctual
4. Volitionality Volitional Non-volitional
5. Affirmation Affirmative Negative
6. Mode Realis Irrealis
7. Agency A high in potency A low in potency
8. Affectedness of O O totally affected O not affected
9. Individuation of O O highly individuated O non-individuated

I do not have room to explain each parameter, but in general the assumption is that storylines seem to be advanced by events in which characters perform actions that change things, ie a backbone of cause –> effect relationships. However, some scholars have debated whether this correlation is dependent on the discourse context or the natural semantics of the clause. Lakoff arrived at a similar list to describe transitivity, but argued that the parameters were primarily derived from semantics rather than discourse, and Tomlin also criticized the conclusions since 39% of high transitivity clauses were actually in the background, a red flag if transitivity is supposed to mark foreground (See Delancey’s paper in the volume edited by Tomlin). This is always an issue with discourse analysis and one which we will return to later – what is the best direction of explanation? Do discourse concerns drive the morpho-syntax, are semantics primary, is there a reciprocal relationship between the two, or perhaps some third thing that both are co-dependent on?

Longacre largely built his salience scheme on Hopper and Thompson, to whom he adds the parameter of sequentiality. This accounts for an action that may be highly transitive but off the main storyline since it does not occur in sequence as in clause (5) in the example above (I am not sure though how much of the 39% this accounts for). Drawing also from Grimes, he posits 7 bands for English narrative (adapted from pg 24-25):

Band 1. Storyline simple past tense, contingent sequence, main clause
Band 2. Background past progressive
Band 3. Flashback pluperfect
Band 4. Setting intransitive verbs with inanimate subjects
Band 5. Irrealis negatives and modals/futures
Band 6. Evaluation Past tense, gnomic present
Band 7. Cohesion repetition, back reference

There are two things to note at this point. First, the TAM (Tense/Aspect/Mood) of the verb has a strong correlation with the discourse role of the clause, but it is also not the only parameter and it can be modified by other parameters in certain cases. For instance, in clause (5) I could have said “Bob WAS HIT by a car” using the simple past rather than pluperfect, but it would still be off the main storyline since it is in a subordinate clause and does not occur in sequence. Longacre gives the example of the use of the punctiliar adverb ‘suddenly’ in English as a way to promote information onto the storyline. In the following example, “I couldn’t see” is technically irrealis, and thus should be in Band 5, but it is given a punctual aspect and placed onto the main sequence by the adverb:

Yesterday I was walking in the park when I SAW dark clouds approaching. Suddenly, I COULDN’T SEE a thing and I RAN back to my car blindly before the deluge could soak me. 

Items can also be demoted from the main storyline by being placed in a subordinate clause, as Thompson notes (See  her ‘”Subordination” and Narrative event Structure’ in the Tomlin volume). Consider the following example:  

Yesterday I MADE some toast for breakfast. It was cinnamon and sugar toast like I used to make when I was a kid. After I cleaned the dishes, I TOOK my shower…

“I cleaned the dishes” is punctual and occurs sequentially and contingently between the events of making toast and taking a shower. However, it is placed in a fronted adverbial clause which is a cohesion device used here to reorient the reader to the main storyline after a digression. This would place it in Longacre’s Band 7, the lowest level of salience. 

The other thing to note is that so far we have only discussed narrative discourse, and the ordering principle of narrative discourse is sequence. It seems natural that these principles can be extended to other types of discourse that rely on either temporal or logical sequence, and indeed Longacre has also discussed prophecy and procedural discourse (step by step instructions). But, the question remains how the foreground :: background distinction applies to discourse which is organized differently, say thematically instead of sequentially. Obviously this will be important when we turn to poetry.

Some Bibliography:

Grimes, Joseph. The Thread of Discourse. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Hopper, Paul, “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse,” In Discourse and Syntax, Syntax and Semantics vol 12.  Edited by T. Givón. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

Hopper, Paul and S.A. Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse.” Language 56 (1980): 251-99

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky, “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.

Longacre, Robert. The Grammar of Discourse, 2nd Ed. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.

Tomlin, Russel (Ed.). Coherence and Grounding in Discourse, Typological Studies in Language, Vol 11. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987.

A Discourse approach to the BH Verbal system in Poetry – Part 1

June 9, 2009

In a recent series of posts, Phil Sumpter at Narrative and Ontology explored Alviero Niccacci’s approach to the verb in biblical Hebrew poetry, which is summarized in his essay “The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry” (Pages 247-268 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, edited by Steven Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz, Eisenbrauns, 2006). He also posted an anonymous response recently, continuing the topic. Phil was specifically working with Ps 24:2 where we find the couplet:

כִּי־ה֭וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ For he founded it (the earth) upon the seas
וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ׃ and upon the rivers he established it

Here we have the common phenomenon in Hebrew poetry of a switch from a qatal verbal form in the first colon to a yiqtol form in the second without any apparent change in the temporal reference (since they both describe the main event). Adele Berlin describes qtl // yqtl as grammatical parallelism (Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 36) and groups it with other phenomena such as negative // positive, singular // plural, or active // passive. However, the difference in these other cases is that the poet chooses contrasting forms for variation, but still uses them normally. For instance, Jer 20:14 is an example of both positive // negative (cursed be // let it not be blessed) and passive // active (I was born // my mother bore me):

אָר֣וּר הַיּ֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֻלַּ֖דְתִּי בּ֑וֹ Cursed be the day on which I was born
י֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יְלָדַ֥תְנִי אִמִּ֖י אַל־יְהִ֥י בָרֽוּךְ׃ the day on which my mother bore me let it not be blessed

So even if qtl // yqtl is an instance of grammatical parallelism, then it seems to me that the forms must still have some intrinsic TAM value that cannot be completely cancelled out in the name of poetry. Thus Niccacci’s instinct, with which I agree, is that the verbal forms in poetry must have some basic relation to the verbal system of prose. It seems odd that poets would have felt free to grab any morphological form they wanted just for variation of style once they had set the appropriate tense in the first colon.

Obviously, scholars have been wrestling with this problem for eons and there are a few solutions. The yiqtol could be translated as a present tense and taken as a sort of historical present  (upon the rivers he establishes it). Conversely, the yiqtol could be taken not as a normal “imperfect”, but as the older short prefixed preterite form (a simple past tense) which has generally fallen out of use. What intrigued me about Niccacci’s solution is that he invokes the foreground :: background distinction that has so far largely been applied to classical narrative. My current hazy dissertation topic is concerned with salience in discourse, so I am reading on foreground :: background anyway, and I was finally able to get a copy of Niccacci’s article as well (it was checked out from our library), so in the next few posts I would like to discuss the merits and demerits of his approach as I see it.

Two new(ish) works on the Biblical Aramaic verbal system

May 1, 2009

The Verbal System of Biblical Aramaic

The Verbal System of Biblical Aramaic
A Distributional Approach
Studies in Biblical Literature (Peter Lang series) – SBL 116
by Michael B. Shepherd
Peter Lang, 2008
xiv + 178 pages, English
ISBN: 9781433102011
Your Price: $64.95

The Verbal System of the Aramaic of Daniel
An Explanation in the Context of Grammaticalization
Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture – SAIS 8
by Tarsee Li
Brill Academic Publishers, Forthcoming June 2009
xvi + 199 pages, English
ISBN: 9789004175143
List Price: $132.00
Your Price: $125.40

The Semitic verbal system has long been a source of debate, and much effort has been expended in the attempt to explain the functions of the verbal forms. Most of the work has concentrated on Biblical Hebrew (BH), but in the last year two works have come to print dealing with the verbal system of Biblical Aramaic (BA), though with vastly different methodologies. Li adopts the grammaticalization approach exemplified by the work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (see The Evolution of Grammar, University of Chicago Press, 1994) and previously applied to BH by John Cook in his U-W Madison dissertation. Shepherd, on the other hand, adopts a text-linguistic approach following Wolfgang Schneider and John Sailhammer among others. It should further be noted that Shepherd deals with all Biblical Aramaic, while Li limits his study to the Aramaic found in the book of Daniel.

Like BH, the primary verbal forms in BA are the prefix conjugation yqtl (traditionally the “imperfect”) and the suffix conjugation qtl (traditionally the “perfect”). The BH system is further clouded by the existence of the so-called “waw-consecutive” forms, but while Old Aramaic (OA) does know an “imperfect consecutive” (better, “narrative preterite”), it had fallen out of use by the time of BA. Thus, the principal parts of BA are yqtl, qtl, and the imperative. The infinitives do not participate in the verbal system proper, but the role of the participle, which occurs both on its own and in combination with הוה, is less clear.

As in BH, the chief difficulty in describing the BA verbal system is that both the prefixed and suffixed forms can occur in past, present, and future contexts implying that the basic opposition is not one of tense. At the same time, the distribution of forms is not spread equally among the tenses. The suffixed form primarily refers to events in the past, and the prefixed form primarily refers to events in the present or future, neither form seeming to have much aspectual nuance in these cases. Thus it is difficult to argue that the basic opposition yqtl :: qtl is based on aspect. Therefore, whether an attempt is made to explain the basic opposition as tense or aspect, numerous exceptions remain unexplained.

Shepherd argues that the failure to find a satisfactory explanation based on tense or aspect is due to the fact that tense, aspect, and Aktionsart are functional categories derived from Greek and Latin, but foreign to BA. In order to determine the functional opposition of qtl :: yqtl within BA itself, a bottom-up approach must be employed using a text-linguistic methodology.  His working thesis is that the opposition is not based on tense or aspect, but narrative :: discourse. This follows Schneider’s conclusion that in BH the imperfect consecutive wayyiqtol is the narrative form, while yiqtol (and weqatal) is the discourse form.

Shepherd’s method is to divide the text at the clause level, assigning each clause to one of six levels: 1) Narration; 2) Discourse; 3) Narration in discourse; 4) Reported discourse; 5) Narration in reported discourse; and 6) Reported discourse in reported discourse. It should be noted that Shepherd has only included clauses that he has deemed to be on the main line of narration or discourse. He has therefore omitted clauses which are themselves constituents of higher-level clauses such as relative or purpose clauses (note that this does not seem to be a pragmatic distinction of foreground and background, but merely a syntactic distinction of the head phrase from complements and specifiers). Each clause is also marked for its verbal form (qtl, yqtl, imperative, or nominal clause including participles), whether the clause begins with the conjunction waw or edayin, and whether the first position in the clause is occupied by a verbal form or shows an inverted word order. His results seem to confirm his thesis as qtl occurs in 65% of main narrative clauses (levels 1, 3, and 5) in contrast to 6% for yqtl, while yqtl occurs in 53% of main discourse clauses (levels 2, 4, and 6) compared to 0% for qtl.

Unfortunately, Shepherd’s book is disappointing overall. While there are many unnecessary digressions (such as a lengthy defense of BA as a dead language), there is a glaring omission of any justification for the bifurcation of texts into narrative and discourse, no formal definition of his proposed six levels, and therefore no explanation of how he assigned clauses to these levels without relying on any assumed tense or aspectual value for the verbal forms. In fact, in his examples, Shepherd consistently translates qtl as a simple past while yqtl is translated either as a future or modal when he deems them to be on the main line. This begs the question whether the primary opposition is narrative :: discourse, or whether the distribution follows the tense and aspect of the verbal forms.

Among others, Hopper and Thompson (“Transitivity in Discourse”, Language 56/2 1980), argued that the distinction of foreground from background is universal and that languages often have several features for this purpose. For instance, many languages have a special narrative tense that is reserved for the foreground in narrative, such as the wayyiqtol narrative preterite in BH (note that qtl can occur in background clauses in BA, and is therefore not a narrative tense). Another important feature is aspect since punctual action is more likely to be in the foreground than durative or habitual/iterative actions. Thus, if narrative is loosely defined as a sequence of past events, then the distribution of qtl and yqtl may merely confirm that qtl often functions as a simple past tense and is therefore the natural choice for main foregrounded clauses in narrative, while yqtl in the past has a durative or habitual/iterative aspect and therefore does not occur in foregrounded clauses (but may occur in “main” clauses based on Shepherd’s definition). If the remaining clauses are considered discourse, that leaves non-past uses of yqtl for the foreground, in which case it must not have any special aspectual nuance. In this way Shepherd’s approach, with a better refined methodology, could be a helpful guide for the analysis of the BA verbal system by setting limits on the interpretation of tense-aspect. However, I am not convinced that the opposition of narrative :: discourse is a suitable alternative to a system based on tense and aspect.

In contrast to Shepherd, Li argues that the failure to explain the BA verbal system is not due to the unnatural imposition of the categories of aspect and tense, but the structuralist assumption that the system must be based on binary oppositions. Note that such an assumption lies at the heart of Shepherd’s study as he is motivated to find a different basic opposition since neither tense nor aspect seem to work.

Grammaticalization is the process by which lexical items come to have a primarily grammatical function, or grammatical items obtain a new grammatical function. A good example from English is “going to”, which moved from primarily indicating movement in space, “I am going to school”, to also express future tense, “I am going to read”. Grammaticalization seems to be a uni-directional process with some common paths of development cross-linguistically. Within a language there is constant development of new forms through grammaticalization so that at any one point in time, there may be more than one form available for expressing similar functions, while traces of older functions may also remain. These two concepts are labeled layering and persistence.

Thus at any given time, it is not unexpected that we should find more than one form serving similar functions or that a single form may have multiple functions rather than a neat system of oppositions. Proponents of grammaticalization argue that such a situation is better explained by locating each form along its path of grammaticalization rather than trying to relate the forms to each other. Li has chosen Daniel as the subject of such a study because it sits at the crossroads of two major periods of Aramaic, Imperial Aramaic and Middle Aramaic. This has contributed to making the verbal system of Daniel among the most difficult to explain.

Li begins his analysis with the suffix conjugation which seems to be on the path from an anterior to a simple past. In Daniel it is primarily a simple past, but it has not completely lost the old anterior/resultative function which can occur in past, present, and perhaps even future tense contexts. For example, Dan 4:28-29a:

לך אמרין נבוכדנצר מלכא מלכותה עדת מנך 29 ומן־אנשא לך טרדין

“To you it is said, king Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom has departed from you, and you will be driven from men…”

This is the beginning of a pronouncement of future judgement, thus Li argues that עדת cannot be a simple past, but must be anterior to the following string of participles. 

The prefix conjugation, on the other hand, is on the path from an earlier imperfective to a future. The imperfective use is retained in past tense contexts with a progressive or habitual/iterative function. The prefix conjugation can also express general present and various modalities, which  probably develop from the future function.

The main wrinkle in the Aramaic of Daniel is the beginning of the incorporation of the participle into the verbal system. The active participle is developing from a progressive to a general imperfective which has begun to take over the imperfective and present from the prefix conjugation (helping to limit it to future and modal uses). It may also occasionally express modality. The active participle can be used in past tense contexts for progressive, habitual/iterative, and perhaps inceptive functions. For instance, Dan 5:5 demonstrates the past progressive:

ומלכא חזה פס ידה די כתבה

And the king was watching the back of the hand that was writing.

Unlike the prefix conjugation, which only is used for general present, the active participle can express both the general and real present. More difficult to analyze is its alleged function as a historical present. Li argues that the use of the participles ענה and אמר to introduce direct speech within narrative is formulaic, and the remaining cases can be explained as past imperfectives or regular presents. 

Li also argues that the passive participle has not yet fully entered the verbal system but is a verbal adjective which is developing into a resultative participle (and which will later become the base for the past tense in Neo-Aramaic). At the same time, the T-stem participle has become the true passive counterpart of the active participle and thus is also an imperfective.

In the Aramaic of Daniel, the participle has also been incorporated into a complex verb phrase with a conjugated form of הוה (and sometimes איתי). Here הוה functions as a tense-marker, but Li argues that the complex is in the early stages of grammaticalization as the new imperfective. Since the participle on its own can function as an imperfective, the majority of the cases are with the suffix conjugation of הוה which is being reanalyzed from הוה [past] + participle [imperfective] to הוה + participle [past imperfective]. Thus in some later Aramaic dialects, the active participle loses its imperfective function and is restricted to present tense.

While I agree substantially with Li’s conclusions, there are two main weaknesses to his study. The first is his almost exclusive reliance on the work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca. While they are certainly the leaders in the field, I am a bit wary of a methodology that takes the latest linguistic theory and demonstrates how it can be applied to the biblical text, rather than beginning with the biblical text and pulling from linguistics more broadly to explain the features. Here I can appreciate Shepherd’s hesitation in imposing foreign categories onto the text, but I think he has pushed this too far. The work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca is cross-linguistic and in my opinion demonstrates strongly that the categories of tense, aspect, and modality are indeed universal.

The second weakness is common to works on the verbal system of BH and BA. Too often justification for assigning a particular verbal form to a specific category of tense and/or aspect is based on the translation into English (or German, etc), and not on any formal criteria within the language itself. Of course, this is something of a catch-22 if the tense and aspect marking is primarily within the verbal morphology and we are left without any native speakers. Again, I think Shepherd has overstated this objection. As I stated earlier, I think his text-linguistic methodology could be helpful for establishing limits on our analysis of tense and aspect based on what type of forms we expect in which level of discourse, and I think that the grammaticalization approach is also very powerful for explaining the apparent unevenness of the system.


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