Hebrew verb theory . . . ten years gone

The relief of having finally gotten my work on the Hebrew verb into print is finally sinking in (available here). I reflected towards the end of this ten-year-long project of revising, expanding, and reinventing parts of it that it is a project (due to the nature of the topic) about which one has to pronounce a stopping point not a finishing point (Those familiar with Vendler’s situation aspect categories will get the allusion). I honestly thought I’d tire of the whole topic once finished, and admittedly I am weary of the theoretical discussion and eager to spend the next ten years or more applying the theory to the text in a way that will merge directly into more far-reaching exegetical issues. I have in mind work like my forthcoming article on the verb in Qoheleth or my work on the Qohelet volume for the Baylor Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, co-authored with my co-blogger Robert Holmstedt and Phillip Marshall. Of course, teaching language and exegesis classes in addition to ongoing work on the Accordance syntax project has given me ample opportunity to see how my theory works out in practice.

However, in this post I want to briefly step back into the fray of the discussion. For a while it was a quiet scene, other than the periodic discussion on another blog (see the discussion on John Hobbin’s blog) or the requisite bi-yearly flare up on the b-hebrew list (yes, I confess I’m a lurker there). I say “flare up” because usually it ends with the same folks talking past each other followed by a moderator shutting it down (and rightly so).

But this pattern nicely raises the first point I want to make: Why can’t we just agree on definitions? It amazed me when I worked at Eisenbrauns and copy edited the huge two-volume work Morphologies of Africa and Asia that there was almost complete uniformity in the basic definitions for perfective, imperfective, perfect, state, activity, etc. among the linguists who had contributed (see e.g., the non-controversial definitions from WALS), whereas some of the Semitic philologists who contributed used quite idiosyncratic definitions. It is just silly to continue arguing over basic definitions that are widely agreed upon already, because it both wastes time and halts progress. I made just this point in my review of Furuli’s work, which he continues to defend on b-Hebrew by special pleading about the unique character of aspect in Hebrew. If you want to argue that Biblical Hebrew does or does not have perfective aspect, fine; but quit wasting everyone’s time arguing about what “aspect” is!

Second, I had the privilege of chairing the session at SBL this past month in which Jan Joosten gave his paper touting his new monograph, which appeared in October. I say privilege, because I have profited enormously from his work, mostly by being forced to distinguish our two theories, which at times appear to be only a “hair’s breadth” apart (nod to John Wesley, institutional darling where I work). In particular, our 2002/2006 exchange in JANES was immensely helpful for clarifying my thinking, and so I chuckled when he alluded to our exchange towards the beginning of his paper. However, I and the audience can agree that he made a fatal misstep in the “selling” of his theory by claiming that weqatal and yiqtol are mere allomorphs, stated in a rather off-handed manner, as though somehow self-evident. The almost audible gasps made it clear that this is not at all obvious. Why? Because common sense makes it difficult to conclude that two, very frequent grams (i.e., grammatical constructions) are simply interchangeable in most or all of their instances. But more importantly, this nicely raises my second point: there is NO escaping etymology for explanation of the Hebrew verbal system. The silliness of the consciously synchronic approaches is enough to demonstrate that point (not Joosten, but e.g., Diethelm Michel), but further, all the data tell us that weqatal and yiqtol have different origins and therefore we want an EXPLANATION of the forms not simply a statement that they are allomorphs in free variation.

Such loose treatment of the data leads to my third point: the fatal flaw in the flurry of publications from Alexander Andrason (University of Stellenbosch). There is much I could comment on, and probably should considering he’s attempted to push me into the decrepit generation of verb theories prematurely in his Hebrew Studies article (I fear in this case he favors the loss of memory from one generation to another to which Qohelet refers). When I began noticing his works appear, I was quite pleased to see him refining my basic ideas here, filling in gaps there; but increasingly my shortfallings appeared to be his only justifications for publishing his work. More importantly, his theory became more problematic even as his lack of a clear grasp of the Hebrew data became clear. He makes the error made by so many (probably myself at the early stages) of assuming that the meaning of the text is already clear and we need only explain why this or that verb is used for that meaning. This is both naive and unhelpful. In one of his earliest articles he simply draws on various European translations to demonstrate that given grams have a wide range of meaning. Quite unfortunately, and following from these problems, his theory remains at the theoretical level and is virtually useless for the philological task of deciphering the Biblical Hebrew text. He appears to show little interest in his publications in actually determining the specific meanings in the text that arise from the interaction of some general meaning for the gram and the given context (a la Roman Jakobson). All meanings for a gram appear to be equally valid and available in any context, which further complicates rather than enlightens the philological task.

At the end of the day . . . or ten years gone (nod to Led Zeppelin!), we must return to the realization that verb theory is only profitable insofar as it contributes to the philological task. We have a language fragment in an ancient and composite text; we must proceed with care and attentiveness to literary context and background, comparative and historical linguistics, typological and theoretical linguistics, and the intuition of the traditional grammars, holding our conclusions tentatively. But push ahead we must and stop stalling over theory that seems increasingly to offer no real profit.

Now back to semster’s end grading that I’ve conveniently put off by writing this post!

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6 Responses to “Hebrew verb theory . . . ten years gone”

  1. Verbal Aspect and Exegesis Says:

    [...] John Cook’s blog, he has this to say about verbal aspect [...]

  2. Daniel Rodriguez Says:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for the post. Still reading your book.
    Other than this post and an older one (http://ancienthebrewgrammar.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/whats-in-a-category/), you haven’t addressed Andrason’s work head-on in one area (unless I’ve missed something). There’s a bit in the older post, a bit here, lots of scattered footnotes in the book making counter arguments, and a handful of sentences in the main text of your book. Will you consider blogging some posts exclusively on Andrason’s work? I’d really like to read your thoughts on his JHS articles and see point-by-point where you differ.
    Daniel Rodriguez
    University of Stellenbosch

  3. johncookvw Says:


    You are correct, I have been remiss in replying directly to Andrason’s work. I have had several opportunities, including an invited rejoinder in a journal. Besides the usual list of reasons (busy with other projects, etc.) I haven’t are the following.

    First, he essentially agrees with my theory anyway. In his HS article he writes the following: Of course in certain contexts within the past temporal domain, the qatal may “interact” with the yiqtol, that is, the perfective or simple past qatal can contrast with the imperfective yiqtol. In other words, these concrete meanings conveyed by the qatal and yiqtol may be viewed as contrasting. However, such an opposition is far from being ideal or rigid because both categories include values which correspond to various meanings-stages of their respective paths and because they interact with other grams-paths of the system.” (2011: 39 n. 94)

    Second, and following, his objection in this statement gets at the heart of our difference: he criticizes me for not recognizing that ALL the meanings of a diachronic path are available to a given gram—and (most importantly) presumably equally so since he makes NO effort to distinguish them whether by genre, discourse type, etc. In the previous note you mention I had brought up my adherence to the classical semantic approach of Jakobson, which I continue to embrace in my book: heuristically it is invaluable that we identify one “general” meaning for a gram and then explain the various “specific” meanings based on the compositionality principle of semantics (i.e., the meaning of an expression is a function of the meaning of its parts): i.e., how does the general meaning interact with pragmatics, etc. to enable us to narrow the range of the meaning in a specific context.

    Third, and relatedly, when I approach the text, therefore, I ask myself: What is the possible range of specific meanings for this gram given the patterns of interaction we can identify between the general meaning and the various contextual factors? This is called good reading, but Andrason displays an utter lack of acquaintance with the Biblical Hebrew text. A glance at the earliest of his articles demonstrates clearly his argumentation is largely composed of reasons such as the following: Wayyiqtol can express present time events because such and such translation rendered it this way. Such argumentation does not even merit a response because it show an utter disregard for the philological task that both motivates the linguistic analysis and is the ultimate aim for that analysis (in almost all cases; excepting those that are merely interested in theory for theory sake).

    Fourth, to read Andrason’s critique of my work is (at least to me) to read someone who is trying desperately to tout their scholarship through the assassination of another’s. The field is large enough that it is unnecessary that he, in multiple articles, spend an excessive amount of ink justifying why his work needs to displace mine—the “older” generation. Seems too much like the principle “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” or else a case of ride one’s coat tails. Whether my reaction to his articles (this fourth point) is valid, it nonetheless makes me loath to spend much time or effort dismantling his theory that in the end may refine a few points of diachronic development (to which I give credit in my book), but which is philologically useless.

    So does this count as an “exclusive” response? (No, seriously, perhaps sometime soon I will respond when he runs out of energy publishing all those articles!)


  4. Keep ‘em coming back with the December Biblical Studies Carnival | Words on the Word Says:

    [...] December, with a first entry on information structure in Jonah 1. John Cook discusses valency and verb theory in Biblical [...]

  5. R B Says:

    I was just passing by, shalom!
    >However, I and the audience can agree that he made a fatal misstep in the “selling” of his theory by claiming that weqatal and yiqtol are mere allomorphs, stated in a rather off-handed manner, as though somehow self-evident.

    Allow me to voice support, gasp, for Joosten’s “fatal” [sic] joining of yiqtol and ve-qatal. You may be thinking etymologically, rather than recognizing how the ve-qatal grammaticalized as a sequential opposition to vayyiqtol and as carrying basically the same TAM as yiqtol. E.g. Gen 29: 1-3. since I didn’t attend the session, I don’t really know what you or he may have meant by ‘free variation’. Hopefully, Jan was referring to a fairly consistent complementary distribution.

  6. johncookvw Says:

    I’m not thinking etymologically, but semantically: show me a ve-qatal expressing epistemic modality; show me one expressing dynamic modality? There are differences in distribution, as you yourself know (“fairly consistent complementary distribution”), and lumping them together semantically and attempting to distinguish them syntactically or, gasp, discourse pragmatically (Really, sequentiality? I’ve been waiting since publication of my 2004 JSS article for someone to present to me just one example of a fully inflected “sequential verb” from any of the world’s languages.) is simplistic and inaccurate. Of course simplistic and inaccurate grammatical explanations have been the hallmark of so many introductory grammars, that we assume just because it works “fairly” well for beginning students it must be correct!

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