Archive for the ‘Dobbs-Allsopp, FW’ category

Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., “(More) On Performatives in Semitic” ZAH 17-20 (2004-2007): 36-81.

June 5, 2008

A performative utterance is one in which the uttering of the sentence does not describe or report an action, but is itself part of the action. Performatives are mainly part of social conventions and rituals such as greetings, vows, blessings, etc. Explicit performatives tend to be expressed by first-person-singular present tense verbs. For example, “I hereby name thee the Queen Elizabeth.” However, Dobbs-Allsopp notes that non-explicit performatives can occur as well, “The court finds the accused not guilty.”

Performativity is a function of pragmatic discourse context, and Dobbs-Allsopp further argues that it must not be confused with verbal semantics. That is, there are no “performative perfects” in Biblical Hebrew if by that term we mean that a possible semantic meaning attached to the perfective form is performativity. Rather it is the context and the linguistic and social conventions that are king. Thus, it is better to understand that it is convention to use a perfective (suffix conjugation) when making an explicit performative statement.

An important example of the performative occurs in Gen 15:18:

Gen 15:18 בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא כָּרַ֧ת יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־אַבְרָ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית לֵאמֹ֑ר לְזַרְעֲךָ֗ נָתַ֙תִּי֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את

On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, “To your seed I hereby give this land…”

Notice how the perfective form is glossed as a present to reflect English convention. This passage reflects the language and ideology of a royal land grant (See M. Weinfeld JAOS 90(1970)), and the covenant ceremony is obviously a symbolic and ritual act. Especially important is the fact that the passage narrates the dialogue rather than being a mere record of a legal transaction. It is thus a representation of the legal act of granting itself.
It is clear from 15:7 that the land has not yet been given to Abraham, and from 15:18 that it will not be given to him, but his descendants. However, if YHWH merely meant to inform Abram that he will be giving the land in the future, one would expect the imperfect as in Gen 12:7:

Gen 12:7 וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את

And the Lord appeared to Abram, and he said, “to your seed I will give this land”.

The transfer of ownership and actual act of possession do not need to be simultaneous to be legally binding. Thus, the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15 is not a simple promise to be granted to Abraham’s descendants at some time in the future, but it is itself the legal granting of the land.

While the use of a first-person-singular present-indicative-active is not essential to a performative utterance, its use is not accidental. Performatives are events and they are characteristically self-referential, thus it makes sense that explicit performatives make use verbs in the first person. In English, the word “hereby” further marks self-referentiality and helps pragmatically to mark a performative utterance. Dobbs-Allsopp argues that in Hebrew כֹה “thus” may sometimes function similarly, as in the phrase “thus says the Lord”.

Why then are performative statements disposed toward present-active-indicative forms (or perfectives in Semitic and Slavic)? German and English tend to grammaticalize tense in the verbal morphology. Tense is a deictic category, meaning it relates a situation temporally to a deictic center which is usually the time of speaking. Since performatives are at the same time utterances and actions, they can be conceptualized as occurring precisely at the time of speaking.

Aspect, on the other hand, is not a deictic category and is concerned not with the temporal location of a situation, but its internal contour. There are commonly two categories of viewpoint aspect: perfective and imperfective. Described simply, a perfective form is used to describe a situation as a single whole with both endpoints in view, while an imperfective form makes explicit reference to the internal temporal structure of the situation without reference to the beginning or end. Since performatives are conceptualized as punctual situations, ie an action that begins and ends at the moment of speech, they naturally lend themselves to perfective aspect. Thus languages that mark aspect by verbal morphology have a strong tendency to use perfective forms for the performative.

Interestingly, Koine Greek tends to use an imperfective form for performatives. However, this seems to occur because the imperfective aspect form is commonly used neutrally as a present tense form and is therefore unrelated to aspect. On the other hand, Polish, which is an aspect based language, uses both the perfective and imperfective forms for performative utterances. In tense based languages there can be no such variation since performatives must be located temporally in the present. Dobbs-Allsopp thus suggests that the use of the performative in Semitic is significant for understanding the development of the Biblical Hebrew verbal system. If the suffix conjugation is used for performatives, then it cannot be said to grammaticalize past tense, but it must be primarily an aspectual form.

In contrast to the classical use of a perfective, Qumran Aramaic and Classical Syriac prefer the participle for performatives. This suggests that Aramaic verbal system has undergone a significant shift from a binary aspect-based language (perfect/imperfect) to a tripartite tense-based language (past/present/future) where the perfective form has become a past tense form, the imperfect a future, and the participle is used for present tense.

A similar re-alignment of the verbal system occurs in post-classical Hebrew where the participle also begins to be used for peformatives:

1 Chr 29:13 וְעַתָּ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ מוֹדִ֥ים אֲנַ֖חְנוּ לָ֑ךְ

And now, our God, we thank you.

This suggests that a similar shift from a verbal system that grammaticalizes aspect to one that primarily expresses tense is occurring in ancient Hebrew. Dobbs-Allsops finishes the article by discussing the difficulties in identifying performatives, and he devotes a lengthy section to the prostration formula found in letters in Ugarit and the other peripheral Akkadian dialects.


Dobbs-Allsopp, FW, “Biblical Hebrew Statives and Situation Aspect,” Journal of Semitic Studies XLV/1 (Spring 2000), 21-53.

March 18, 2008

In this paper, Dobbs-Allsopp discusses the Biblical Hebrew stative in respect to situation aspect. Specifically, he observes that stative verbs do not always merely describe a state, but they can be used to express dynamic and change-of-state meanings as well. This is not an anomaly, but follows from the fact that while statives do not inherently contain a dynamic component, such a constituent can be added. However, the reverse is not true – an “action” verb is inherently dynamic and no constituent can cancel this to create a stative meaning.

Aspectuality is compositional in nature. That is, there are several parameters which contribute to the overall “temporal contour” of a situation. The primary two parameters are labeled variously as aspect and aktionsart, grammatical aspect and lexical aspect, or as Dobbs-Allsopp prefers, viewpoint aspect and situation aspect.

Following Comrie, viewpoint aspect indicates how an author/speaker “views” a situation and is most commonly divided into perfective and imperfective. Viewpoint aspect also tends to be marked formally by the verbal morphology.1 A perfective form is used to describe a situation as a single whole with both endpoints in view, while an imperfective form makes explicit reference to the internal temporal structure of the situation without reference to the beginning or end.

Situation aspect then further specifies the internal temporal structure. Because this is largely related to the semantics of an individual verbal stem, it tends not to be generalized and marked formally by an inflectional pattern. However, the Semitic languages, including Biblical Hebrew, do maintain an inflectional difference between stative and “non-stative” verbs. Dobbs-Allsopp describes the second class as “events” (they can also be called “fientive”). This division between states and events is the most basic in Vendler’s list, with events then being sub-categorized as activities, accomplishments, and achievements.2

Therefore, Dobbs-Allsopp suggests that it is situation aspect which can help explain how Biblical Hebrew statives can be shifted to express not only a stative meaning, but also dynamic and change of state meanings. Specifically, the cognitive features telicity, durativity, and dynamicity are the most relevant. Telicity is the existence of a goal, durativity is the characteristic of a state/event to last for an interval of time, and dynamicity is associated with change and activity.

Like aspect in general, situation aspect seems to be compositional in nature. This means that it does not only depend on the semantics of the verb itself, but also other parameters within the clause, sentence, etc. Thus telicity, durativity, and dynamicity may either be inherent in the verbal stem, or they may be contributed to the verb through objects, prepositional phrases, etc. A common example can be given with the verb ‘to run’:

a) Will ran.

b) Will ran a mile.

c) Will ran to the playground.

In a) the running is unbounded – we know nothing about the beginning or end of the action. However, the addition of a direct object in b) and of a prepositional phrase in c) gives the goal of the running which shifts the situation aspect from an activity to an accomplishment.

Here Dobbs-Allsopp largely follows Mari Bromman Olsen (see in describing the effects of the combinations of telicity, durativity, and dynamicity:

Privative Lexical Aspect Features3

Sit. Aspect Telic Dynamic Durative Examples
State + know, have
Activity + + run, paint
Accomplishment + + + destroy
Achievement + + notice, win

In other words, a state is purely durative, while an activity is both durative and dynamic. Adding a goal to an activity (as in b) and c) above) adds telicity, which shifts it to an accomplishment. An achievment is dynamic and telic, but not durative. An event is therefore marked for dynamicity and can never be shifted to a stative meaning. However, by adding a dynamic constituent, Biblical Hebrew statives can be shifted to events. For example, D-A suggests the following pairs of sentences:

2Sam 7:22 ‏ עַל־כֵּ֥ן גָּדַ֖לְתָּ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֑ה

Therefore, you are great O Lord God…

1Sam 2:26 ‏ וְהַנַּ֣עַר שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל הֹלֵ֥ךְ וְגָדֵ֖ל וָט֑וֹב

And the lad Samuel grew greater and greater and better and better…

In the first sentence, גדול is clearly stative, however in the second sentence the durative adverbial use of הלך adds a sense of progression suggesting that it is an activity. A direct object can sometimes shift a stative to an accomplishment:

Is 24:5 ‏ וְהָאָ֥רֶץ חָנְפָ֖ה

And the earth was defiled

Jer 3:9 ‏ וַתֶּחֱנַ֖ף אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

And she defiled the earth

Other constituents which can affect dynamicity are instrumental clauses:

Job 18:6 ‏ א֖וֹר חָשַׁ֣ךְ בְּאָהֳל֑וֹ

The light is dark in his tent

Is 5:30 ‏וָא֔וֹר חָשַׁ֖ךְ בַּעֲרִיפֶֽיהָ

…And the light is darkened by his clouds

Or purpose clauses:

Lev 5:2 ‏וְה֥וּא טָמֵ֖א

…And he is unclean

Ezk 22:3 ‏וְעָשְׂתָ֧ה גִלּוּלִ֛ים עָלֶ֖יהָ לְטָמְאָֽה

(a city) that makes idols to defile itself.

Stative verbs can gain dynamic meaning when they occur as participles:

Dt 23:6 ‏כִּ֥י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ

For the Lord your God loves you

Pr 17:17 ‏בְּכָל־עֵ֭ת אֹהֵ֣ב הָרֵ֑עַ

A friend loves at all times

This shift may be due to the progressive nature of the participle, and it also occurs in the collocation היה + predicative participle.

In addition to shifts toward dynamic meaning, Biblical Hebrew statives also occur with change of state meanings, usually ingressive but also egressive. There seem to be two primary contexts for such a meaning. First is when a stative occurs in a narrative sequence:

Ex 7:18 ‏וְהַדָּגָ֧ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּיְאֹ֛ר תָּמ֖וּת וּבָאַ֣שׁ הַיְאֹ֑ר

Then the fish which are in the Nile will die and the Nile will become foul…

The ingressive meaning occurs because the pragmatic context implies a change of state. The second situation is when the stative is accompanied by a punctiliar frame:

2 Sam 13:36 ‏וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּכַלֹּת֣וֹ לְדַבֵּ֗ר וְהִנֵּ֤ה בְנֵֽי־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ בָּ֔אוּ וַיִּשְׂא֥וּ קוֹלָ֖ם וַיִּבְכּ֑וּ

And when he finished speaking, look, the princes entered, and raised their voice, and began weeping…

Here the stative בכה is inherently marked for durativity. When set in a punctiliar context, ie the moment when he finished speaking, it triggers an ingressive meaning, focusing on the beginning of the action. In other words, the moment of the change of state. Note that this is a pragmatic implicature and not a semantic feature.

In sum, aspect is best viewed as a compositional. There are morphological parameters, but also semantic and pragmatic parameters. For a comprehensive theory of aspect, it is important to consider the contributions of these other parameters beyond verbal inflection (or in reverse, when analyzing the meaning of an inflectional pattern, take care that your reading is not being influenced by such factors beyond the bare verbal morphology).


1. The Slavic languages are paradigmatic, Biblical Hebrew is obviously debated. D-A follows Waltke-O’Connor in seeing the suffix conjugation and the wayyiqtol as perfective, while calling the prefix conjugation “non-perfective” since in the history of the language, due to the dropping of final vowels, several originally separate prefixed forms have fallen together.

2. Vendler’s four categories are the common subdivision of situation aspect, though other categories have been suggested, most notably “semelfactives”.

3. From Olsen, “The Semantics and Pragmatics of Lexical Aspect Features” Studies in the Linguistic Sciences Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 1994, 361-376. What Olsen adds to the discussion is the idea that telicity, durativity, and dynamicity are privative features, not equipollent. This means that they are not binary oppositions [+telic]/[-telic], but rather they are either marked [+telic] or unmarked. Further, features that are inherent in the verbal stem itself cannot be cancelled out by other sentence constituents. For example, a verb that is inherently telic, like ‘to win’, can never describe a state or activity. On the other hand, features that are unmarked in the verbal stem can be marked by other sentence constituents. Therefore a stative can be potentially shifted to an activity or an accomplishment.