DABHVSinP – Part 4: Exceptions and Refinements

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. 

Explore posts in the same categories: Semitic Verbal System, Poetic Structure

4 Comments on “DABHVSinP – Part 4: Exceptions and Refinements”

  1. I feel timid about commenting on such matters as I’m not an expert. But this is a blog so I’ll take a risk anyway!

    1) I find it hard to see how went is naturally durative. Went means that they were there and then the left. Sounds punctual to me, a change in location from A to B.

    2) In the context of the narrative, I thought foreground had to do with the significance of the action for the unfolding of the narrative, not just about sequence/background. In this case, wouldn’t weyyelekhu indicate that the fact of their going is significant for the rhetorical purposes of the author? You seem to imply this in you analysis of the Jacob/Esau section too.

    3) I struggle to see how the chain of wayyiqtols in 2 Kg 4:37 are not sequential. Falling to one’s feet and doing homage seem to be two sequential acts. The hishtakhavah is the goal of the naphal. They represent a sequence of specification. Though perhaps I haven’t really grasped the semantics of hishtakhavah

    This would even apply to ‘amar / ‘anah: a sequence of specification. This reminds me of parallelism in general.

    4) his series is (hopefully) moving toward an analysis of poetry I hope so too!

    • Peter Bekins Says:

      Phil, don’t worry, I’m not an expert either.

      1) I felt like this would be misunderstood when I wrote it, but I was trying to be terse and it was not a major point (less salient :)). By naturally durative I meant the lexical aspect or Aktionsart. To go someplace cannot be punctual, it takes time to reach point B. Of course it can be expressed with a perfective verb if the author doesn’t care about what happens between point A and B (assuming your language has a perfective). However, what is important is that it is clearly low on the transitivity scale, and thus should theoretically be background. This corresponds to the plot structure as well since the brother’s leaving seems to mainly set up the next scene.

      2) If it is the case that wayyiqtol marks foreground, then yes, it’s use here must serve to raise the salience of what would otherwise be in the background. BUT, how do we measure this independently?

      3) Here it is ‏וַתִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָ֑רְצָה which certainly signifies paying homage, but describes the physical act of bowing which is most likely the same action as falling down at his feet, unless you would like to argue that she fell at his feet first and then did some further act of prostration. Thus temporally they are not a sequence of independent actions, even though they may be logically sequential. Heimerdinger’s main point though is that they cannot be equally important to the storyline since you can easily remove one without losing the basic plot.

      As you may have noticed, this is where things begin to break down. How do you measure the relative importance to the storyline? In a good story everything should be important to the storyline, which is why Heimerdinger turns to the ideas of topic and focus rather than the contour of the plot.

      • Thanks for your responses.

        1) I’m still learning, so thanks. I had not realised that transitivity is an indicator of foreground information. I’ll have to get my head round that … (I think of Gen 12: wayyelekh Avram sounds like a significant point in the narrative … )

        2) Good question.

        3) I’m totally with you in your last paragraph.

        Thanks again!

  2. […] Part 4: Exceptions and Refinements […]

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