Friday, February 20, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 2

In the previous post I described the weird phenomenon of the so called consecutive tenses of Classical Hebrew - the strange fact that the word for "and" seems to make the two Hebrew quasi-tenses switch meaning with each other. At the end of that post I promised a historical explanation for this somewhat outlandish state of affairs, and one does not like to disappoint, so here goes.

In the linguistic stages before Classical Hebrew, the verbal system was somewhat different. We know this from older North West Semitic languages, most notably Ugaritic, which was spoken and written in modern day Syria during the latter half of the second millennium BC.

At this earlier time, the verbal system in North West Semitic (of which Hebrew is a part) seems to have looked something like the following. There were two tenses which expressed true verbal actions, both of them created using prefixes (and some suffixes). If one uses the standard example verb q-t-l (meaning "to kill" - that's a weird piece of grammatical morbidity for you), we get the forms yaqtul and yaqtulu in the 3rd person singular masculine. These two forms differed somewhat in meaning: the longer form yaqtulu seems to have been used for actions of duration, for present and future actions. The shorter one, yaqtul, was used for narrative purposes, for the past, but also for exhortations and orders.

There was also a suffix form, qatala, which originally had stative meaning (it marked a state rather than an action). After a while it also started to be used for actions, often (but not always) in the past, actions which were known to be true with high cerntainty, background facts, etc.

Then came a great reorganization of the system. The final vowels of Hebrew were dropped, so that the two prefix forms fell together: yaqtul and yaqtulu both fell together as yiqtol, the form mostly called "imperfect" in Hebrew grammar. The difference between present-future and past form became obscured in most (but not all) verbs. And the qatala form was increasingly used for past time in the form qatal, often called "perfect". Later on this temporal separation became full fledged, which led to the fact that the imperfect and perfect forms are usually regarded as "future" and "past" in the grammar of Modern Hebrew.

But in the classical language, the old narrative yaqtul-form lingered on. It remained as an old and fossilized relic - but normally only in one single environment: when preceded by the word for "and" (we- or wa-). This gave rise to the wayyiqtol form, the most common form of classical Hebrew narrative. A form of the "impefect" (present/future) was suddenly used for past time. It must have seemed strange indeed to the mediaeval Jewish scholars for whom this form was nothing but an old weirdness.

The reason for the perfect getting a "switch" of its own from past to future was completely different. That came to pass because of the original use of the perfect form: talking about certainties, emphatic utterances and states. This usage meant that the perfect often occurred in the second half of "if-then" type clauses (oy! I'm sounding like a programmer here!). The certain result of a condition would stand in the perfect form, often preceded by we-. which provided sequence. This usage can be found in Ugaritic, as well as in the letters from Bronze Age El Amarna. But again, this surviving construction appeared to be completely "backwards" to traditional Hebrew grammar. Perfect for the future? Weird.

And so both "tenses" had seemingly been switched. But that was never what really happened; it only seemed that way to those for whom the system was no longer living.

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.