What’s in a category?

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.

Works cited

Aarts, Bas, et al., eds.
2004
Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrason, Alex
2010 The Panchronic Yiqtol: Functionally Consistent and Cognitively Plausible. Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 10.

Athas, George
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.

Haspelmath, Martin
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.

Penner, Ken
2006
Verb Form Semantics In Qumran Hebrew Texts: Tense, Aspect, and Modality between the Bible and the Mishnah. Ph.D., McMaster University.

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6 Responses to “What’s in a category?”

  1. Mike Aubrey Says:

    Another work that is worth reading that as far as I can tell has influence Buth is D. N. S. Bhat’s The Prominence of Tense, Aspect, and Moody published by John Benjamins.

    Thanks for this post. This debate has been thoroughly extended into Greek as well with the questions of tense and aspect.

  2. johncookvw Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mike. Your observation about the debate extending to Greek underscores that the issues are of broader relevance than simply BH or even simply verbal systems. It has important implications for grammar description, particularly of ancient languages, as a whole.

    I can’t speak for Buth re. Bhat’s work, though I have utilized several of his typological arguments in my work and adopt his terminology of aspect-prominent to describe BH.

  3. Mike Aubrey Says:

    On Newmeyer’s observation about two of the editors of WALS not believing that such categories actually exist:

    Haspelmath has written an interesting article (though in my view, somewhat problematic) in the Oxford Handbook of Grammatical Analysis entitled “Framework-free grammatical theory” where he explains his own personal use of various grammatical categories that he does not necessarily believe in.

    Also help is his article “The geometry of grammatical meaning: Semantic maps and cross-linguistic comparison.” In: Tomasello, Michael (ed.) The new psychology of language, vol. 2, which he delineates his own use of semantic maps.

    Both are available on his publications page as PDFs.
    http://email.eva.mpg.de/~haspelmt/publist.html

    Personally, while I hold all of Haspelmath’s work in typology in incredibly high regard, I struggle with the concept of “framework free theory” as he describes it. While its helpful to see where he’s coming from, I’m not entirely sure that its a helpful starting point for thinking about language — especially at an introductory level. Students aren’t born with Haspelmath’s own typological knowledge of language structure.

  4. johncookvw Says:

    Thanks for the sources, Mike. I did not include in my biblio Haspelmath’s latest contribution to the debate that came out in Language in September (http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/language/v086/86.3.haspelmath01.html) but is available in draft form on his page (http://www.eva.mpg.de/lingua/staff/haspelmath/pdf/ComparativeConcepts.pdf). Apparently (I just saw this) Newmeyer has a response in the same issue of Language (which I haven’t looked at yet).

    I agree with your admiration and puzzlement over Haspelmath—Rob Holmstedt expressed a similar sentiment to me yesterday. I’m perhaps overly philosophical about the whole thing, somehow thinking that the shift away from discrete categories of meaning is part of the larger epistemological shift in culture.

    However, I should probably not think too deeply on that since I’m not a philosopher. On the practical level, the departure from a Jakobsonian sort of approach to meaning (e.g., a general meaning and specific meanings that are explainable by reference to the general one) to providing simple taxonomies of meaning for forms with very little exploration of how those meanings are related or their expression determined (e.g., What sort of syntactic or pragmatic context triggers each interpretation/meaning of the form?) strikes me as just plain laziness!

  5. Ken M. Penner Says:

    Hi John,

    I have a few suggestions for improvement:

    First, it is not clear that you have read my dissertation. I thought had sent you a copy, but I can do so now if you would like. The reason I wonder whether you have read it is that you say I conclude that the QH verbal system expresses tense. My take on the Qumran data is actually that the “statistics leave it unclear whether the most reliable interpretation of the semantics of the verb forms is to consider them tenses or moods, but it is clear that they are not to be considered aspects” (179). But I can see how you might think I was advocating tense-prominence exclusively if you read only the statement on page 222 (“the associations between form and function that this study has identified permit us to designate standard Qumran Hebrew as a tense-prominent language”). You point that Furuli and I have conflicting conclusions would still remain (and in fact be strengthened). (Mind you, I don’t appreciate having my work put in the same category as Furuli’s, and I hope that mine appears substantially more transparent than his!)

    Second, I agree with the gist of this blog-post in calling for more overt recognition of the multi-valence of the verb forms, I wonder what purpose is served in choosing “aspect” rather than “tense” or “mood” as the label most useful for cross-linguisitc comparisons.

    Ken M. Penner
    St. Francis Xavier University

  6. johncookvw Says:

    Hi Ken,

    I owe you several apologies. First, your message got flagged as spam for some reason and Rob just brought it to my attention today. I am sorry that we even chatted at SBL and your dissertation came up and I must have appeared clueless about the inference. Second, I do apologize for grouping you with Furuli. There is as much difference as night and day between your two theories in so many ways. (My JNES review of Furuli is due to emerge from a long log jam sometime before the end of this year!)

    Nevertheless, I mention your dissertation because I do think it is one that illustrates the difficulties in an empirical analysis insofar as the metalanguage can influence the interpretation. Especially in the Qumran data the problems are compounded, as you point out, but the challenge remains and the solution (at least in part) is to attempt to validate things in terms of typology. While it is entirely possible that QH is as you describe it, given the trajectory of TAM systems illustrated by typology, the statistical approach of compiling examples, each susceptible to interference from metalanguage categories (e.g., How are you to distinguish between perfective aspect and past tense grams when the former by defaults for past temporal reference?)

    Regarding your second question, the purpose in choosing, for instance, perfective aspect instead of past tense, is mostly pragmatic: the particular gram (e.g., qatal) is closest in comparison to what has been labeled perfective grams in the typological data. My point is that we should not shy away from using typologically meaningful labels (i.e., ones comparable with those already in use) because otherwise it will cut off from us this important path to theory validation. (There are also more abstract reasons for my preference of aspect over tense to describe BH qatal that are explored in my 2006 JANES response to Joosten, regarding aspect being more basic to TAM systems than tense—essentially a Kuryłowicz versus Bybee and Dahl argument.)

    Thanks for your comments and I have read and value your work, but it served an illustrative purpose inasmuch as it is one of the more “statistically-driven” studies.


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