Cook, John, “The Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew do Express Aspect,” JANES 30 (2006), 21-35.

Here John Cook responds to Joosten’s earlier article which argued that BH yiqtol mainly expresses future tense/mood, and therefore the BH verb system is not primarily aspectual. He argues first that, contrary to Kurylowicz, aspect is more fundamental to verbal systems than tense. Secondly, he argues that even though they are not its primary uses in BH, yiqtol can indeed be used to express real present and attendant circumstances in the past, and Joosten’s future/modal description of yiqtol does not account for these uses. However, an aspectual model combined with a diachronic-typological understanding of how verbal systems develop within a language can give a more coherent and comprehensive explanation of the BH verbal system.

In arguing against the real present use of yiqtol, Joosten noted that many supposed cases occurred in questions, which seem to be inherently modal. However, Cook counters that non-modal verb forms can be used in a question, such as qatal and participle as in Jd 18:3. Further, Joosten’s first example is Gn 37:15b:

וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ׃

And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”

The part of the question that is “irreal” is the object of the search, not the action of looking. With further examples, Cook concludes that yiqtol can indeed be used to express real present.

For the case of attendant circumstance in the past, Cook’s best example is 2 Sam 15:37:

וַיָּבֹ֥א חוּשַׁ֛י רֵעֶ֥ה דָוִ֖ד הָעִ֑יר וְאַבְשָׁלֹ֔ם יָבֹ֖א יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

Hushai, David’s friend, entered the city when Absalom was entering the city.

Again, it is difficult to take this in any way as modal or habitual, and it can be concluded that yiqtol can indeed express attendant circumstance in the past. Therefore, Joosten’s examples do not rule out an aspectual approach if Cook can also explain the statistically dominant use of yiqtol as future/modal.

First, he demonstrates that qatal does indeed express perfect aspect based on a typological comparison of the stative. Statives in perfect forms very often express a present state while statives in past tense forms express past states. As the examples from Is 55:9a and 1 Sam 10:23 show, the qatal follows the pattern of a perfect while the wayyiqtol follows that of a past tense:

Is 55:9a כִּֽי־גָבְה֥וּ שָׁמַ֖יִם מֵאָ֑רֶץ כֵּ֣ן גָּבְה֤וּ דְרָכַי֙ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶ֔ם

For, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so also are my ways higher than your ways.

1 Sam 10:23b וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֖ב בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעָ֑ם וַיִּגְבַּהּ֙ מִכָּל־הָעָ֔ם

And when he stood among the people, he was taller than all the people.

Next, he argues that typological comparison suggests that perfect verbs only develop in languages that already feature imperfect verbs. By implication, yiqtol must be imperfective. How then can we explain its overwhelming future/modal use, but relatively rare use in the real present and attendant circumstance in the past?

Verbal systems are not static, but like language in general, undergo constant change. Typological studies have found several common paths of development. The two that are of interest for BH are:

Perfective-Past: resultative > perfect > perfective > past 

Progressive-Imperfect: progressive > imperfect

This suggests that a verbal form which begins as resultative (a verb which results in a state or condition) slowly becomes perfect (describing an action as an undifferentiated “whole”) and then perfective, before finally marking simple past tense. As these verbal forms develop, the verbal system can become assymetrical for two reasons: 1) Verb forms can retain their older function alongside the development of new functions, and 2) Multiple forms can have the same function since new layers are always emerging.

Thus qatal and wayyiqtol both developed along the Perfective-Past path. During classical BH qatal is in the perfect stage, but in the post-Biblical period it becomes a simple past tense. At the same time, wayyiqtol is an older form which is already a simple past tense. In post-Biblical Hebrew it drops out of use. Both the yiqtol and participle are developing along the Progressive-Imperfect path. In BH yiqtol is the older form and is being displaced by the participle, which has become the preferred form to express the real present and attendant circumstance in the past. However, in questions yiqtol remains preferred. Again, in post-Biblical Hebrew the participle further displaces yiqtol to also express the future, relegating yiqtol to modal uses.

Explore posts in the same categories: Aspect, Author, Bibliography, Cook, John, Semitic Verbal System, Topic

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