Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 1

I love the Hebrew consecutive tenses. For those who have not studied Classical Hebrew, the subject might need something of an introduction (and nota bene, Classical Hebrew: the consecutive forms disappear in the Post-Biblical language).

The basic idea is the following. Hebrew has two main verbal forms, often known as "tenses" (although that designation is really a bit off, as the forms weren't originally purely temporal, but rather aspectual - sort of). These two creatures are often called "perfect" and "imperfect". The "perfect" often (but not always) signifies past time, and the imperfect often (but not always) signifies present or future. So far so good.

Now comes the fun part. When preceded by the little word we- (or wa-), meaning "and", the "tenses" seemingly switch meanings with each other. These are the "consecutive" tenses, and they seem downright bizarre to the beginner. Past becomes future and future becomes past just by putting "and" in front of the word.

An example: the imperfect yishmor means "he will guard", but wayyishmor means "and he guarded".
The perfect shamar means "he guarded", but weshamar means "and he will guard."

Weird, huh? The perfect seems to take on the meaning of the imperfect, and vice versa. How can this be? Were the ancient Israelites just crazy? No, of course not. There is a nice historical reason for all this, which will follow in the next blog post.

As an aside, good old Gershom Scholem (the Kabbalah scholar of great renown) once wrote that the consecutive perfect (the "past" form which is switched to future meaning) specifically refers to the Messianic age. Grammar has become theology - in a rather weird way. Stay tuned for part two.

5 comments:

Martin said...

Is this the reason that so many Biblical phrases start with an "and" in translation?

Ola Wikander said...

Yup, exactly. Most of those phrases are reflexes of Hebrew Cosnecutive Imperfects.

Martin said...

So it's a mistranslation. Interesting!

robertnp said...

Hi Ola,

Based on what you wrote, I would like to propose a hypothesis concerning the application of Vav Conversive Imperfect (VCI) and Vave Conversive Perfect (VCP).

In English, the Present Tense is: I am writing. However English does not properly ascribe a tense to the verb: I write. The difference is that "I am writing" is what I am doing at this moment, but "I write" is a statement of truth or fact and it is timeless, because it is true of my adult abilities yesterday, today and tomorrow, until something happens to make it no long true. Hence "I write" is actually the Indefinite Tense -- indefinite with respect to time.

The Indefinite tense is also used in narratives -- and in telling jokes in particular: a man walks in to the bar and says ... . "Walks" and "says" are indefinite with respect to time -- they assert the action as true, irrespective of when it takes place.

My hypothesis is that the VCI and the VCP mark the change to the Indefinite tense in Hebrew, with the VCI relating events that are the temporal or logical SEQUEL to what has preceded and the VCP relating events that are the temporal or logical CONSEQUENCE of what has preceded. Hence the VCI should be translated using expressions such as:

temporal: and then
temporal: and next
temporal: and at that time
logical: and subsequently.

The VCP should be translated using expressions such as:

temporal: and consequently
temporal: and the comes (when/that)
temporal: and thus
temporal: and it happens that
logical: and therefore
logical: and hence
logical: and it follows that
logical: and wherefore.

This hypothesis removes the common ambiguity of "switching tenses" and it addresses some of the "aspectual (sort of)" aspects of your comments about the Hebrew tenses. It appears to align somewhat with your comments about qatala having a stative meaning that became to be used of actions which were known to be true with high certainty, background facts, etc. And it fits with your comments about the wayyiqtol form being the most common form of classical Hebrew narrative (which is a common role of the Indefinite Tense in English). It seems to me your comments that the perfect often occurred in the second half of "if-then" type clauses, which preceded by the we- provided sequence ties it together. Hence my hypothesis.

robertnp said...

Apologies - the last posting was an error. (It is a duplicate of the comment posted to Part 2 of this discussion.)