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!