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.