And now for something most people don’t understand because Biblical Hebrew is such an old language.
In 2014 I read the 2002 doctoral dissertation of John A. Cook, posted at the University of Wisconsin website. I also bought the draft of his grammar, written with Robert Holmstedt, posted on scribd. (Dr. Cook now teaches at the Asbury Theological Seminary.)
The first thing that Dr. Cook’s dissertation explains is that Biblical Hebrew is a very old language.
Attempts to describe it using European concepts ran head-on into this fact but nobody thought of it as a thing until the 20th century, after attempts to deal with all the features of Biblical Hebrew failed to fit the usual rules.
Dr. Cook goes over all the failed attempts, and then tells us something that everybody knew, but that failed to shape linguistic studies: Biblical Hebrew is a surviving relative of the ancient Semitic languages and has similar features, just like the surviving relatives of your grandparents have similar features.
These features explain why the Bible uses what look like future tense in stories that obviously ended long ago. They also explain why the prophets, who definitely refer to future times, sometimes use what looks like a past tense. And they explain the truncated versions of those lamed heh verbs, and the ones with the nun sofit on the end which otherwise look like future tense.
The ancient Semitic languages preserved the verb system in proto-Semitic, which also existed in Ugaritic and the Canaanitic of the Tell el-Amarna tablets, in Akkadian and Assyrian cuneiform and in Modern Standard Arabic.
Biblical Hebrew is not a tense-system like its descendant, Modern Hebrew, or modern European languages. It is an aspect system.
What’s the difference? A tense system describes actions relative to some point in time. Usually there is a past tense, reserved for actions completed when the sentence is written or spoken; a present tense; and a future tense. Never they shall meet, except that in a story, you do find characters speaking in the future tense because the actions they have in mind haven’t occurred from their point of view.
What’s the difference between that and an aspect system?
An aspect system has three types of verbs. The perfect is something over and done with from the speaker’s or writer’s point of view. In some systems it is called permansive because its effects persist, or stative because it emphasizes the state reached as a result of the action, which also leads to calling it resultative.
The imperfect is something that isn’t complete. That doesn’t mean it’s going on now or will go on in the future; that just means that the speaker or writer feels like they are in the middle of the action – even if they were born after the action occurred.
There is also a progressive aspect which can be translated like the present tense, especially the “is Xing” format. That makes it basically a gerund, which can be used like a noun, and even an adjective. And so somebody can talk about a situation that “is/has been/will be Xing”, using the progressive.
Not past-present-future: imperfect-progressive-perfect.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved