To paraphrase Shakespeare, “What’s in a category, a grammatical form by any other name would serve the same functions.” Andrason’s recent JHS article (here) and Randall Buth’s response/review of it (here) have me thinking again about categories. Randall has been quite vocal in critiquing the traditional approach to the Hebrew verb (e.g., see the discussion at Hobbin’s blog), which has revolved around the question of whether they express tense, aspect, or mood/modality, which he calls “over-simplistic labels.” Rather, he claims, “the Hebrew yiqtol conjugation can be a Tense and an Aspect and a Mood as the situation demands.” This is because tense-aspect-mood/modality (TAM) are intertwined within verb forms. The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) makes the same point in its introductory entry on tense-aspect:
“An alternative to seeing tense, aspect and mood as grammatical categories in the traditional sense is to regard tense-aspect-mood systems as wholes where the building-blocks are the individual tenses, aspects, and moods, such as the Past and the Progressive in English. These will be referred to as grams, and it is assumed that on the cross-linguistic level they represent a restricted set of gram types.” (here).
I am in full agreement with Buth and WALS, and my interactions with Randall over the past years alterted me to the need to be careful with category names since the traditional labels “have a potential to mislead a person” (here), as Randall puts it. The alternative to the traditional labels Buth finds in Andrason’s article: “Fortunately, Andrason develops and posits such a semantic mapping, which is why I called this a breath of fresh air. He also avoids getting himself tangled up by the names he is using for the tense-aspect-moods.” I chuckle though that Andrason’s theory and my own are so similar, even to the extent that I provide a semantic mapping for the verbal forms that is quite comparable to Andrason’s (see Cook 2002: 271, available here). The difference is that I have applied to label “imperfective aspect” to the yiqtol form, and that is what Buth takes exception to.
Does it matter whether we apply a TAM gram label to yiqtol (or qatal or other verbal conjugation)? According to Buth it does not and Buth seems to presume agreement with Andrason on this point . In light of the above-quoted WALS passage, Buth would appear to endorse not identifying what gram type yiqtol is, which would lead to an extreme version of “categorical particularlism” (i.e., the same form in another language is not the same form). Buth’s position leaves the task incomplete (a linguistic theory should specify which sort of “situation” will call on the Tense, the Aspect, or the Mood of the yiqtol form). Ironically, it also remains in the traditional morass by assuming that Tense, Aspect, or Mood will function independently in any given situation. But these challenges are precisely because he rejected identifying the gram-type of the BH verbal conjugations, making it impossible to talk holistically about their TAM values or to compare them with comparable gram-types in other languages.
Such an approach will never move us forward in our understanding of the Hebrew verbal system for at least two reasons that I list here.
First, an extreme form of categorical particularlism leads to all sorts of negative consequences, even if unintended. For example, Furuli (2006: 49) in this vein of thinking argues “But because aspect is a kind of viewpoint, it is not obvious that it has the same nature in the different aspectual languages of the world.” Another example of a slightly different character is Athas (2008), who proposes to define the BH verb in terms of “aspect”—defined no longer in terms of the gram-types perfective, imperfective, or progressive, but in terms of Proximity, Definiteness, Momentum.
Second, without identifying the gram-type we are unable to verify the system through typology. I find it quite telling that Furuli (2006) and Penner (2006) both examine the Hebrew verbal conjugations in the Qumran material (though Furuli reminds us that he has examined much more than Qumran) and come to quite different conclusions: Furuli that the system expresses some sort of unique aspect system and Penner that it expresses tense. I suspect that one or both have found what they were looking for because they lacked the means to verify their system by external means, such as typological comparsion of gram-types.
I propose that the issues here are grounded in two interrelated ongoing debates in linguistics—namely, categorical discreteness and universality. Proto-type theory argues, with Wittgenstein, that concepts are not discrete, but must be defined in terms of “family resemblance” among comparable concepts or categories (see Aarts et al. 2004). At the same time, typologists have recently be arguing that universal or “pre-existing” formal categories do not exist and that languages must be compared based on semantic concepts made up precisely for the purpose of making such comparisons (i.e., a convenient fiction). As Frege put it so well: “To a concept without sharp boundary there would correspond an area that had not a sharp boundary-line all round, but in places just vaguely faded away into the background. This would not really be an area at all; and likewise a concept that is not sharply defined is wrongly termed a concept.” (1980: 159).
I suspect that by allowing categorical and semantic discreteness to drift away, we threaten to take the debate over the BH verb into an arena in which we all simply talk past one another, defining the debate in our own terms, identifying meanings in our own minds, and never finding common grounds on which to move forward. I would contend that TAM categories are discrete and formally comparable across languages. Thus, to refuse in the name of possible confusion to call yiqtol an imperfective verb, because it is comparable with imperfective grams in other languages (or the development of those gram-types), is to hinder our understanding of the BH verbal system, not clarify it.
While Buth’s and Andrason’s views seems well in line with the WALS quote above, it is crucial to recognize that the WALS quote comes from the introductory chapter to discussions of perfective/imperfective aspect, the perfect, past tense, and future tense. In other words, as Newmeyer points out, “It is interesting to observe that a substantial proportion of the entries in the World Atlas of Language Structures utilize crosslinguistic formal categories, despite the position of two of the editors that such categories do not exist.” (2007: 138). And more pertinent still, he points out that “Semantic maps are undeniably useful. But what makes them especially so is that they point to crosslinguistic pairings of particular ranges of meaning with particular manifestations of form. That is, they point to crosslinguistic formal categories.” (2007: 143)
While I appreciate the need to avoid confusing students of BH, it is a mistake to eshew all category labels because of the confusion that will prevail in its wake and the restriction it will place on verifying a semantic theory of the BH verbal system. Rather, to be clear, when linguists use labels like “imperfective” and “perfective” they are referring to grams that are universal and comparable across languages. It is clear that this is how Andrason is using such terms in his articles and that is how I intended the terms in my dissertation and subsequent publications. (Ironically, though my dissertation is based heavily on Bybee’s work, who I believe first introduced the term “gram,” I have consciously avoided adopting the term as too opaque to be useful). To be even more precise, as Andrason points out, we both identify yiqtol as developing along the “imperfective diachrony” (2010: 33 n. 48), though I am grateful that Andrason has found a more satisfying means of accounting for the imperfective and modal functions of yiqtol (2010: 36 n. 50)—a “path” upon which I will gladly follow. But regardless of whether we intend a “gram” or a “diachrony” when we use a term like “imperfective,” the term itself is justified as a necessary means of comparing apples to apples across languages, and refusing to utilize any labels is more costly than the possible confusing brought by their employment.
Aarts, Bas, et al., eds.
2004 Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2010 The Panchronic Yiqtol: Functionally Consistent and Cognitively Plausible. Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 10.
2008 New Aspects on Old Verbs: A Verbal Aspectual Suggestion for the Hebrew Verb System. Delivered at Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. Boston, MA.
Frege, Gottlob, P. T. Geach, and Max Black, eds.
1980 Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. 3d ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
Furuli, Rolf J.
2006 A New Understanding of the Verbal System of Classical Hebrew An Attempt to Between Semantic and Pragmatic Factors. Oslo: Awatu.
2007 Pre-established Categories Don’t Exist: Consequences for Language Description and Typology. Linguistic Typology 11: 119–32.
Newmeyer, Frederick J.
2007 Linguistic Typology Requires Crosslinguistic Formal Categories. Linguistic Typology 11: 133–57.
2006 Verb Form Semantics In Qumran Hebrew Texts: Tense, Aspect, and Modality between the Bible and the Mishnah. Ph.D., McMaster University.