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New Perspectives in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew

Aaron D. Hornkohl
Khan Geoffrey

A tense Question: Does Hebrew Have a Future?

D. Hornkohl


Arguing that the Biblical Hebrew (BH) verbal system expresses semantics that correspond to all three Tense-Aspect-Mood (TAM) categories, the article examines the longstanding and deeplyrooted rejection in BH scholarship of tense, in general, and of future tense, more specifically. It next spotlights representative aspect- and mood-prominent treatments of the yiqṭol form, indicating where these more and less successfully explain the data, concluding in favour of a tense- or mood-prominent approach. Certain complications with mood-prominence are then considered, not least the categorisation of various sorts of modality commonly associated with yiqṭol. Finally, it is argued that a viable mood-prominent approach must comprehend the possibility of the expression of indicative future, which claim is substantiated on the basis of semantic minimal pairs of verbs indicating future certainty, on the one hand, and obligation, on the other.

Texte intégral

1.0. Introduction

1This paper’s admittedly ambiguous title refers to verbal semantics, specifically, to the question of the relevance of the notion of future tense—and of tense, more generally—to Biblical Hebrew (BH).

2For many, the answer may seem so straightforward as to obviate the need for the question. But I expect something other than unanimity on just what the obvious answer might be. Some will take for granted the relevance of future tense in BH, since the language clearly provides means for reference to eventualities (i.e., actions, events, states, etc.) temporally posterior to the present. For others, the assumption will involve the patent irrelevance of the concept of future as one long ago discarded by BH scholars in the broader rejection of the semantic category of tense in favour of more appropriate categories. Among other things, the co-existence of these ‘obvious’ answers (along with others) justifies revisiting the question.

2.0. Clarifying the Argument: Tense, but Not Only Tense

3In the context of current research on the BH verbal system, when one asserts that the forms express tense, there is a risk of misunderstanding from the outset. For the sake of clarity: I do not agree with older (and similar contemporary) claims that BH verbal semantics can be adequately described in terms of purely temporal reference. The semantic category of tense alone—whether construed as absolute or relative—is not sufficient to comprehend the full range of BH verbal semantics. But this differs from saying that BH verbal forms are not employed to express tense or that the BH verbal system may be adequately explained without recourse to tense. Tense is a legitimate and relevant, though by no means exhaustive, semantic category when discussing Hebrew verbs; Hebrew scholars and learners are not only justified, but obligated to speak of it in accounts of BH verbal semantics.

4Happily, similar views are espoused by others, including some with articles in this volume. Consider the words of Matthew Anstey from a 2009 article on the qaṭal form:

This article follows those who think BH is tense-prominent… and adopts the position that QV [qatal] has Past as its core meaning, for the following straightforward reason: in the range of functions discussed below, Past is clearly the default interpretation in narrative and in reported speech. The other uses occur in much more restricted constructions and contexts (827).

  • 1 For an application Bhat’s (1999) notion of tense-prominence (as opposed to aspect- and mood-promine (...)
  • 2 See also, more recently, Anstey (forthcoming). Buth (1992) also emphasises the combined TAM values (...)

5On the yiqṭol Anstey (827) says: “the Nonpast yiqtol, although also multifunctional, has a range of functions that is typical of nonpast forms, namely, various imperfective and modal nuances, as well as habitual and generic uses.” Even more refreshing than Anstey’s ‘common-sense’ tense-prominent take on the BH verb,1 is the fact that, in using the description ‘tense-prominent’, he explicitly acknowledges the reality of polyvalent semantics, i.e., the expression of other Tense-Aspect-Mood (TAM) values along with tense.2

3.0. Examining Questionable Assumptions

6Scholarly fixation with uncovering the underlying, all-encompassing semantic category of the BH verbal system is deeply entrenched within the BH grammatical tradition, where its influence remains pervasive, but largely unnoticed and, problematically, unexamined. The basic assumptions behind the quest for a unifying semantic value warrant critical examination, as do the considerations that led to the rejection of certain values in favour of others. In many circles one encounters a troubling reticence to admit genuine tense expression via BH verbs.

7Focusing, by way of example, on the prefix conjugation yiqṭol—to be sure, students are routinely informed of some vague correlation between the yiqṭol and futurity. Yet they are just as often warned that this is a sort of convenient, but misleading fiction, a well-meaning deceit grudgingly perpetrated against them by instructors pained by regret for, in the name of simplicity, misrepresenting the ancient Hebrew verb and mind. While one must avoid forcing BH grammar into categories foreign thereto, it is no less fallacious on the basis of real or perceived differences between BH and other known languages prematurely to exclude whole semantic categories from the analysis of BH.

8To some extent, this is precisely what has been done. Already by the early modern period scholars had become convinced that tense was inadequate to encompass the totality of BH verbal meaning, especially because the relevant verbal forms not infrequently expressed meanings beyond, and even contrary to, what would be expected of them in a pure tense system. But all that this proved was that the category of tense was too narrow a parameter on its own for comprehending the full range of BH verbal semantics—not that the entire notion of tense needed to be discarded. While Hebrew instructors should certainly acquaint students with the pertinence and usefulness of all the TAM categories, aspect and mood should not be privileged at the expense of tense, as if the latter were merely a popular notion with no place in serious scholarly discussion or some sort of epiphenomenon of a deeper, truer reality.

9Yiqṭol is used to express far more than just the indicative future, but given both the frequency of its use to express indicative future semantics and its status as a default option for expressing the same, it is inaccurate and misleading to exclude from a description of yiqṭol reference to tense, in general, and to future tense, more specifically.

4.0. A Brief History of Scholarship

4.1. The Medieval Period

  • 3 In the forceful words of Rainey (1990, 408–9):
    In the present context, it remains to state the obvio (...)

10A brief history of scholarship might help to explain how Hebraists came to feel so insecure about the future. Medieval Jewish grammarians apparently had no such misgivings, as they commonly spoke in terms of temporal categories (Téné et al. (1971) 2007, 58; McFall 1982, 1–10; Becker 2013, 124, 126). And since many of them had recourse to comparison with Arabic, not just western European languages, it must be emphasised that their adoption of a tense-prominent explanation for the BH verbal system was no likelier due to western scholarly bias than was the later western adoption of alternative descriptions.3

4.2. The Enduring Influence of Early Modern Concepts

11When we come to early modern scholarship, things get complicated. On the one hand, as already noted, certain early modern objections to a purely tense-based approach to the BH verb were and remain valid, especially the obvious intersection of tense and non-tense semantics in several of the forms.

  • 4 For generic and habitual aspect as subtypes of gnomic imperfectivity, see Carlson (2012); Bybee et (...)
  • 5 Bybee et al. (1994, 126–27) usefully distinguish between habituality (customary action over a perio (...)

12Particularly vexing was the full yiqṭol form (derived from PS yaqtulu, as opposed to, for example, the short yiqṭol form that developed from PS yaqtul). That it serves regularly in BH to express values associated with all three tenses—future, gnomic (i.e., generic and habitual) present, gnomic (i.e., generic and habitual) past4—belied a unidimensional tense-based approach. The following examples showcase yiqṭol forms with absolute future, (1)– (3) relative future (4)– (6), habitual present (7)– (9), and habitual past (10)– (12) semantics.5

4.2.1. Absolute Future


ו ַָ י ּ םש ׁ הי ָ ו ָ ה עומ ׁ ד מאל ֹ ר מ ָֹ ח ָ ר י ַ ע ֲ ש ׂ ה י ׁ ה ָ ו ָ ה ה ַ ד ָ ב ָּ ר ה ַ ז ָ ה ב ָָ א ָ ׃ץר
‘And Yhwh set a time, saying, “Tomorrow Yhwh will do this thing in the land.”’ (Exod. 9.5)


ָָ כ ּ ה א ָ מ ַָ ר א ֲ ד ָ נ ׁ י ׁ הי ּ ו ֹ ה ׁ הו ָ י ָׁ ה ׀ ב ַׁ םוי ה ַֹ אוה י ַ ע ֲ ל ּ ו ׁ בד ָּ םיר ַ ע ַ ל־ל ׁ ב ָ ב ִָ ך ׁ חו ָׁ ש ַׁ מ תב ַ ח ֲׁ ש ּ תב ָ ער ָָ ׃ה
‘Thus says the Lord Yhwh: “On that day, thoughts will arise into your mind, and you will devise an evil scheme.”’ (Ezek. 38.10)


ּ מו ֶֶׁ֥ ל ְֶׁ ך ֵׁ שש ְַׁ֖ ך י ִ ש ְֶׁׁ ת ֶ֥ ה חא ֲֵׁ יר ֶׁ ה ֶֽ ׃ם ...
‘… And after them the king of Babylon will drink.’ (Jer. 25.26b)

4.2.2. Relative Future


ו ַ י ָ כ ַּ ני ַ ו ה־תא ַ מ ּ נ ׁ ח ִָ ה ע ַ ב־ד ּ או סוי ָ ף ב ַָ צ ָ ה ֳָ ר ֹ י ּ ם ּ כ ׁ י ׁ ש ָָ מ ׁ ע ִ ו כ ּ ־י ׁ ש ָָ ם י ּ כא ׁ ול ל ָָ ׃םח
‘And they prepared the gift for Joseph’s coming at noon, for they had heard that they would eat there.’ (Gen. 43.25)


ו ַ י ּ ק ַ ח ֩ ב־תא ׁ נ ִ ו ה ַ ב ׁ כ ֜ רו א ֲׁ י־רש ּ מ ֹׁ ל ׁ ך ת ַׁ ח ֹ ת ָ וי ו ַ י ַ ע ֲ ל ּ וה לע ָ ה ַ ע ַ ־ל ַ ה ׁ מח ִָ ה ...
‘Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall… ’ (2 Kgs 3.27)


... ו ָ א ֱ ל ּ י ׁ ש ָ ע ַ ח ָ ל ָׁ ה ח־תא ָ ל ׁ י ִ ו א ֲׁ ש ּ ר י ָ מ ָ תו ֹ וב
‘Now when Elisha fell ill with the illness from which he would die… ’ (Jer. 50.44)

4.2.3. Habitual Present


... ע ַ ןכ־ל ֩ א ֲ נ ִּ י בז ַ֜ ח ַ ל ָ הי ָֹ הו כ ָ פ־ל ּ רט ר ַ םח ַ ה ַׁ כז ָּ ר ִ םי ׁ כו ָ ־ל ׁ כב ּ רו ב ָ נ ַָ י פא ׁ ד ָ ׃ה
‘… Therefore I sacrifice to Yhwh all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’


... ה ֲ ל ׁ או ֹ הז א ֲׁ ש ִ ר י ּׁׁ תש ּ ה א ֲ נד ַּ י ב ִ ו ׁ הו ֕ או נ ַ ח ּׁ ש ׁ ני ַ ח ָׁ ש ֹ וב
‘Is it not with this that my lord drinks, and with this that he practices divination?...’ (Gen. 44.5)


פ ׁ ה פ־לא ּ ה א ֲ ד ַ ב־רב ֹ ו מו ַׁ האר ַ ׁ לו ׁ א ב ׁ ח ּ די ִ ת ו ׁ מת ֻ נ ַּ ת י ׁ ה ָ ו ָ ה י ַּ ב ֹ טי ...
‘Mouth to mouth I speak with him, clearly, and not in riddles, and he looks upon the form of Yhwh.’ (Num. 12.8)

4.2.4. Habitual Past


ו ַ י ּׁ ה ׁ י ה ַ י ִ םו ו ַ י ּׁ בז ַָ ח לא ׁ ק ָ נ ָֹ ה ׁ נו ָּ ת ַ ן ל ּׁ נפ ּ נ ָׁ ה א ּׁ ש ֹׁ ות ָ לו ׁ כ ָ ב־ל ָ נ ָ הי ָ בו ׁ תונ ָ הי ָ מ ָָ ׃תונ לו ׁ ח ַ נ ָ֕ ה ... י ּ ת ָ ן מ ָ נ ָּ ה א ַַ ח ָ ת א ַ פ ָֹ י ּ ם
‘On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion… ’ (1 Sam. 4–5a)


ׁ הו ָ ע ׁ בר ֹּ םי ׁ במ ּ אי ִּ םי ֜ ול ל ּ םח בו ָ ש ָ ר ַ ב ִַ רקב ׁ לו ּ םח בו ָָ ש ָ ר ב ָ ע ָֹ בר מו ּ ה־ן ַ נ ַָ ח ַ ל י ּׁׁ תש ָ ׃ה
‘And the ravens would bring him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, while from the brook he would drink.’ (1 Kgs 17.6)


ׁ או ִ ב־ת ָ ר ִ ךו ׁ ש ָ א ֲ ל ָ ו מאל ֹ ר ה ַ נ־דג ָׁ א ל ִָ ונ ֹ ךיא כ ַָ ת ָ ב ׁ ת ָ כ־תא ָ ה־ל ַׁ בד ָּ ר ּ םי ה ָ א ָ מ הל ּּ פ ָ ׃וי ו ַ י ּ רמא ל ָ םה ַ ב ָ ר ִ ךו מ ּ פ ּ י ַ ו י ּ ק ָׁ ר ׁ א א ִ ל ַ י א ּ ת כ ָ ה־ל ַׁ בד ָּ ר ָ םי ה ָ א ֹ הל ו ַ א ֲּ נ ָ י תכ ּ ע ב ַ ה־ל ַ ס ָ רפ ב ַׁ יד ָ ׃ו
‘Then they asked Baruch, “Tell us, please, how did you write all these words from his mouth?” Baruch answered them, “He would read all these words to me, and I would write them with ink on the scroll.”’ (Jer. 36.17–18)

13None of the above meanings is anomalous; examples of each could be multiplied. While specific senses are especially characteristic of particular genres and/or text types—e.g., future yiqṭol of direct speech, gnomic present yiqṭol of proverbial statements, and habitual past yiqṭol of background description within narrative—no meaning is limited to a specific genre or text type. Language users disambiguated meaning via inference from context, including a range of linguistic and extra-linguistic clues. An observation relevant to the future examples above: all of these exemplify indicative future, which term refers to the expression of a verifiable future fact (see below). It should be noted that this is one of just several future-oriented semantic values commonly expressed by means of BH yiqṭol, many of which have varying degrees of deontic or weaker epistemic modal force (see below). As a standard option for all of the above semantic values, the yiqṭol form is polysemous, being regularly employed to express several semantic combinations of TAM values. From this perspective, the yiqṭol form is no more easily explained today by recourse to a single, all-explanatory semantic dimension than it was in previous generations.

  • 6 See Garr’s critique in Driver ( [1892] 1998, xxv–xxvi).
  • 7 To his credit, Driver ( [1892] 1998, 35–36, 166–168) correctly viewed the active participle, not th (...)

14Early modern approaches were hampered by more than just reductionism. They were also impaired by fundamental misunderstandings regarding the development of BH (and other Semitic languages) and simplistic and/or conflation in TAM notions. Though he is not always cited, S. R. Driver’s views continue to influence scholarship. As such, the misplaced assumptions and misunderstandings that played a part in his (and contemporaries’ as well as successors’) rejection of tense in favour of aspect need to be acknowledged and rectified. One acknowledged problem in Driver’s approach was conflation of short yiqṭol (< PS yaqtul, used mainly as a jussive or as a simple past in wayyiqṭol) and full yiqṭol (< PS yaqtulu),6 whereby he was compelled to posit a fundamental semantic value capable of explaining a BH yiqṭol that was not just temporally polysemous, but very nearly pansemic: simple and habitual past, habitual present, indicative and volitional future ( [1892] 1998, 75–79).7 Given the strong inclination to uncover a single comprehensive category for BH verbal semantics, it is no wonder that Driver (and others) rejected tense.

  • 8 Cf. Haspelmath (1998, 55 n. 23).

15In hindsight, it might be argued that the very attempt to describe a multi-dimensional object in terms of a single dimension was from the outset ill-conceived and destined to fail.8 No monovalent description was ever going to capture a polyvalent reality. But in this case, the replacement of tense with aspect consisted not merely in the substitution of one semantic category with a different, equally valid one, but in the replacement of a strongly relevant semantic category with a faulty version of one far less relevant. A glaring weakness in Driver’s and similar approaches was the problematic nineteenth-century conception of what is today called grammatical or viewpoint aspect—a conception that, due partially to Driver’s stature, continues to plague Hebrew studies to this day. Rather than a system combining the notionally distinct (though often practically and linguistically intertwined) categories of tense and aspect, the proposal was to account for apparent tense expressions as functions of aspect. ‘Past’ was replaced with ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’ and ‘future’ with ‘imperfect’, ‘incipient’, and ‘nascent’. Beyond the fact that such substitution in no way resolved the basic problem of collapsing multiple dimensions into one, the theory suffered the same fatal vulnerability as modern iterations thereof: conflation of distinct semantic categories, namely, the popular misconception of a one-to-one correspondence between past tense and perfective aspect and between future tense and imperfective aspect. Rather, it must be emphasised that multiple tense–aspect combinations are possible. Past eventualities can be presented perfectively or imperfectively, e.g.,


past tense + perfective aspect
I showered this morning.


past tense + imperfective (progressive/continuous) aspect
I was showering this morning (when the phone rang).


past tense + imperfective (habitual) aspect
When I lived in Galveston, I showered/would shower/used to shower at least twice a day.

16Likewise, future eventualities can be served up in various sorts of aspectual packaging, e.g.,


future + perfective aspect
I’ll arrive/I’m going to (or gonna) arrive/I’m arriving/I arrive tomorrow afternoon.


future + imperfective (progressive) aspect (When you call me) Tomorrow afternoon at 4: 30, I’ll be arriving/I’m going to (or gonna) be arriving.


future + imperfective (habitual) aspect (Now that you’ve hired me, you’ll find I’m very reliable.)
I’ll arrive on time every day.

17The key is that, contrary to what students are often led to believe by BH grammar books, in no way does the completive, global sense of perfective aspectual presentation dictate anterior temporal location, nor is the open-endedness of imperfective aspect a ‘natural’ fit for future. By the same token, neither do past and future tense by default entail, respectively, perfectivity and imperfectivity.

  • 9 In both English and BH (as in many languages), the default aspectual interpretation of present tens (...)
  • 10 In agreement with Cook (2012, 221). In English, too, the default interpretation of future verbs is (...)
  • 11 See Hornkohl (2018, 29–30) for examples in BH of both the default perfective or undetermined aspect (...)

18To be sure, in the world’s languages certain common tense– aspect combinations come to be represented by dedicated encoding. For example, the combinations past–perfective, past–imperfective, and various types of present–imperfective are far more commonly associated with dedicated morphological, syntactic, and/or lexical coding than, say, future–imperfective, as in (17)– (18), above, or present–perfective.9 Though BH is not unique among the world’s languages in having verbal forms (i.e., yiqṭol, weqaṭal) doubly tasked with conveying both future tense and imperfective aspect, there is no logical requirement according to which the two values must be combined within a single form. Indeed—and this is a crucial point not often mentioned in grammar books—in BH the two values generally do not combine: when yiqṭol is employed to express a future eventuality, it is most often to be construed as perfective, i.e., with the eventuality viewed as a global, completive whole, including starting and end points, or as aspectually undefined.10 Conversely, when yiqṭol has genuine imperfective aspectual force, crucially, it refers not to the future, but to present or past.11 Compare, in this connection, the perfective reading of the examples of future yiqṭol in (1)– (6), above, with the imperfective character of non-future yiqṭol in examples (7)– (12). Clearly, the form is versatile, covering both futurity and imperfectivity, but its future and imperfective values are in reality mutually exclusive. This stands in stark contrast to what one finds in many teaching grammars and well-intentioned blogs, and even some dedicated scholarship. Despite years of scholarly critique, it seems fair to say that the fallacy of a purely aspectual paradigm that conflates tense and grammatical aspect still afflicts the field. This is lamentable, not just because the relevant categories of tense and mood get short-changed, but because the category of aspect itself—also essential for understanding BH verbal semantics—is still so poorly understood among non-specialists.

4.3. Representative Examples of Recent Scholarship

  • 12 Cook (2012, 203–4). Examples of historically traceable development within other language families i (...)
  • 13 In agreement with Cook (2012, 219): “The second complication for substantiating imperfective yiqtol(...)
  • 14 The same does not necessarily apply, however, to modern Semitic chronolects, e.g., vernacular Arabi (...)

19Certain elements in modern aspect- and mood-prominent approaches to BH are compelling; others arguably obfuscate, rather than clarify, matters. One difficulty confronting any approach, whatever the semantic category (or categories) deemed prominent, is the semantic opacity and underspecification of yiqṭol morphology. Unlike the qaṭal form, whose morphological and semantic development can be confidently traced,12 such clarity in the case of proto-Semitic yaqtul morphology is conspicuously lacking.13 Based on cross-linguistic tendencies in the evolution of verbal semantics, along with what can be gleaned about the verbal systems of other ancient Semitic languages, scholars have reconstructed more or less plausible semantic values for the proto-Hebrew forms from which the values of documented BH verbs allegedly developed. It is important to emphasise, though, that such reconstructions are no more than learned exercises in conjecture, not even offering something approaching real probability. If one could be sure of the nature of the prehistoric proto-Semitic verbal system (s), or even of the nature of the systems in the documented ancient Semitic languages, then perhaps—and only perhaps—on the basis of that knowledge, one could achieve probability regarding the general character of the BH verbal system. As things stand, however, the obsolete approaches, lack of consensus, and uncertainty typical of scholarship on the intensively studied BH verbal system also characterises—to varying degrees and in varying combinations—scholarship on the verbal systems of its often less intensively studied sister languages, to say nothing of their respective linguistic antecedents. With this in mind, when it comes to ancient Semitic languages, proposals regarding developmental probabilities based on typology and common grammaticalisation paths must be judged speculative.14 In view of the paucity of ancient Semitic verbal morphology, it seems possible, if not likely, that TAM values were variously combined in the Semitic languages from the earliest times.

4.3.1. Aspect and Aspect Prominence

  • 15 Citing Andrason (2010, 36 n. 50).
  • 16 Cook’s argument is based on Haspelmath’s (1998) work on old present tense forms that develop anomal (...)
  • 17 In this connection, it is pertinent to cite Geoffrey Khan’s contribution to the present volume, in (...)

20John Cook’s oft-cited 2012 aspect-prominent treatment of BH is arguably one of the more lucid, current, and thoroughgoing on offer. Cook seeks to account for the intricacies of BH verbal semantics on the basis of common cross-linguistic patterns of TAM development, typological comparisons, and grammaticalisation paths. His account is persuasive in some cases (e.g., the proposed evolution aspect > tense in the case of BH qaṭal); it is intriguing, but open to question, in others. For example, on yiqṭol Cook himself (2012, 221) admits that the “progressive-imperfective path of development does not adequately account for the future and irrealis mood meanings that the yiqtol conjugation expresses in BH.”15 He manages to explain the centralisation of yiqṭol’s ostensibly once-peripheral “general (perfective) future” and “subjunctive” values on the assumption that an early progressive yiqṭol with peripheral future and habitual force lost its progressive meaning due to competition with the participle.16 This proposal merits far more attention than it can be given here.17 Of immediate pertinence is Cook’s explicit acknowledgement of genuine temporal, aspectual, and modal semantics. Albeit endorsing an aspect-prominent view of the BH verb, he readily acknowledges the reality, and even centralisation, of temporal and modal expression, too.

  • 18 Cook (2012, 208) readily acknowledges the diachronic perspective of his approach. In his discussion (...)
  • 19 The BH imperative also defaults as aspectually perfective or undefined, a given verb’s lexical aspe (...)

21The most obvious problem with an aspect-prominent classification of BH is its lack of synchronic explanatory power:18 whatever the upside of an aspect-prominent account of the development of BH verbal semantics, as Hornkohl (2018, 29–30) notes, a decisive downside is the limited role that aspectual distinctions actually play in the classical BH verbal system as documented in ancient sources. Whereas aspectually prominent languages regularly oblige users to select between aspectual alternatives (such as the choice in the case of many ancient Greek verbs between perfective and imperfective roots in the past, imperative, and infinitive), in BH this choice is relevant only in the sphere of the past, since, as already stated, future tense verb forms default as aspectually perfective or undefined and present tense verb forms are by default imperfective.19 Further, even in the sphere of the past in BH, the unambiguous expression of habituality via use of an explicitly imperfective yiqṭol or weqaṭal is optional; even where adverbials and/or verb forms in the context indicate habituality, eventualities can be expressed with the default perfective past forms (qaṭal, wayyiqṭol), e.g.,

  • 20 For further examples of wayyiqṭol forms where one might expect imperfective alternatives, see the l (...)


... ו ַ צי ׁ א ָ ו ש ָ ר ׁ י ׁ לפ ּׁׁ ש ּ ת ֹ םי ו ַ י ּׁ ה ׁ י ׀ מ ּ ד ׁ י אצ ֹ ת ָ ם ש ָ כ ַּ ל ד ָ ו ּ ד ַ מ ּ לכ ַ ע ַ ב ׁ ד ׁ י ׁ ש ָ א ִ לו
‘Then the commanders of the Philistines came out to battle, and as often as they came out, David succeeded more than all the servants of Saul… ’ (1 Sam. 18.30)


ו ַ י ּׁ קל ׁ ט ּ ו תא ַ ו ב ַׁ רקב ב ִַ רקב ּ א ָ י ׁ ש כ ּׁ פ ׁ י א ָ כ ׁ ל ֹ ו ׁ ו ַ ח ּ ם ה ַ ש ָ מ ׁ ש ׁ נו ָָ מ ָ ׃ס
And they gathered it morning by morning, each one according to their consumption, but when the sun would grow hot, it would melt.’ (Exod. 16.21)


... ׁ ש ָ וט ֩ ה ָ ע ִָ ם ׁ לו ָָׁ טק ֜ ו ׁ טו ָ ח ֲׁ ונ ב ָ ר ֹ ח ַ י ּ ם א ּ ו ד ָ כ ַ ו ב ַ מ ׁ כד ִָ ה
The people set out and they would glean and they would grind it with a hand mill or they beat it in a mortar… ’ (Num. 11.8)20

  • 21 These are two of Bhat’s (1999, 95–97) four criteria for assessing TAM prominence within verbal syst (...)

22The explicit signalling of grammatical aspect is neither obligatory nor pervasive in the BH verbal system.21

23This dissonance between Cook’s theory and reality inevitably results in strange terminological and notional pairings in his argumentation, some of which are disturbingly reminiscent of early modern attempts to unite all verbal semantics under the banner of a single value. Despite Cook’s aforementioned awareness that Hebrew verbal semantics can be plotted along all TAM dimensions, his version of aspect-prominence seems to ill-suit the facts on the ground. Thus, Cook (2012) insists on a “perfective qatal” (205–8) that is largely the semantic equivalent of “simple past” wayyiqṭol (256–65), and on an “imperfective yiqtol” that “only infrequently expresses past and present imperfective” meanings, “while (general) future and subjunctive meanings are becoming primary functions” (221). More categorically on yiqṭol semantics:

while yiqtol continues to be employed for some imperfective expressions, the progressive [i.e., predicative participle] is the more favored construction for these expressions, while yiqtol is preferred for future and subjunctive (irrealis) expressions, which tend toward perfective aspect (267).

24Finally, forestalling the argument that Cook is interested only in the historical development of BH verbal semantics, rather than dominant synchronic uses, his summary tables explicitly classify the BH qaṭal as perfective (208) and the yiqṭol as imperfective (222).

Table 1: BH qaṭal resultative path (adapted from Cook 2012, 208)

Table 1: BH qaṭal resultative path (adapted from Cook 2012, 208)

25Even if one accepts the basic correctness of the suggested ‘resultative path’ for qaṭal and the ‘progressive path’ for yiqṭol, based on the dominant BH uses of these forms and in the absence of documented forms of BH in which qaṭal and yiqṭol have as their core meanings the semantic values schematised in the tables, it would be more accurate to substitute ‘proto-Hebrew’ for BH and postpone BH on the developmental continuum, closer to RH.

4.3.2. Modality and Mood Prominence

26It is also sometimes argued that BH verbal semantics operates on the basis of a fundamentally modal distinction: realis versus irrealis. In his classic work on tense Comrie (1985, 45) notes that languages that draw this distinction often group perfective past and actual present in the realis category, while “irrealis is used for more hypothetical situations, including situations that represent inductive generalisations, and also predictions, including predictions about the future.” The potential relevance of this dichotomy for BH verbal semantics is apparent. In addition to indicative (absolute and/or relative) future—asserting the certainty of an eventuality posterior to the present—yiqṭol and weqaṭal are employed to express various shades of deontic and less-than-certain epistemic modality, and the habitual present and past, but—crucially—not the cardinal realis values of progressive, whether the actual present or past continuous (i.e., present and past progressive, respectively, in BH both the purview of the active participle), or perfective past (typically conveyed in BH via qaṭal and wayyiqṭol). Joosten’s 2012 (31–33) monograph on the BH verbal system is a recent application of a modal approach to BH.

27Even so, it seems prudent to raise a few considerations. First, as Comrie (1985, 44) writes:

  • 22 See also Lyons (1968, 311).

… the question of whether future time reference is subsumed under tense or mood, whether in general linguistic theory or in some specific language, is an empirical question that can only be answered on the basis of the investigation of grammatical expressions of future time reference across a number of languages.22

  • 23 See Bybee et al. (1994, 236–39); cf. Palmer (2001, 2, 188–91). One of Cook’s (2012, 219) objections (...)
  • 24 Indeed, together with tense, aspect, and mood, some scholars treat the parameter of evidentiality a (...)

28I take this to mean that, from a linguistic perspective, evidence of TAM categorisation in real human language data should trump arguments from other domains of enquiry, e.g., philosophy, psychology, theology, physics, quantum mechanics, etc. In this vein it is telling, though not decisive, that some concerned typologists entertain serious doubts as to the centrality of the realis–irrealis dichotomy, highlighting the notional looseness of modal categories as well as the various and idiosyncratic ways in which individual languages differ with respect to assigning meanings to the so-called realis and irrealis categories.23 There are, also, of course, alternative (partially overlapping) modal dichotomies, e.g., indicative versus subjunctive or assertion versus non-assertion (Palmer 2001, 3–4) and epistemic versus evidential (Palmer 2001, 8–9).24 However, notwithstanding the diverse degrees to which apparently mood-prominent languages fit prototypical mood-prominent divisions, it must be admitted that semantic distinctions in BH conform well to a common cross-linguistic pattern of modality expression, lending apparent credence to a modal categorisation of BH centring on the realis/irrealis distinction. Be that as it may, mood-prominent approaches to BH arouse doubts similar to those that attach to aspect-prominent approaches.

29Pedagogically, it is legitimate to ask whether this is just one more way for students to misunderstand the BH verbal system, specifically, and ancient Israelite cognition, in general. With special regard to the notion of future, will learners misconstrue the idea of a concept of future defined as inherently irrealis as evidence that BH users conceived of time posterior to the present as particularly hazy or nebulous compared to that envisioned by users of other languages? This would be unfortunate. Given persistent misconceptions regarding the BH verbal system among not just students, but professional academic practitioners in such fields as Hebrew studies, Semitics, linguistics, Biblical Studies, and theology, it is especially incumbent upon Hebrew language specialists, whatever TAM-prominence they avow, to combat such fallacies by emphasising the combined TAM expression of the BH verb system.

  • 25 In addition to Dallaire, the distinction between the modality of the BH directive–volitives and tha (...)

30Secondly—and most importantly—from the standpoints of actual synchronic language use and terminological and notional precision, it is reasonable to question the legitimacy of describing BH as mood-prominent. The reckoning of modality as pervasive in BH is contingent on a few assumptions. First, mood must be understood to include not only the restricted deontic modality of the first- and third-person directive–volitive yiqṭol forms—i.e., those with volitive force explicitly signalled by means of clause-initial word order, special morphology (e.g., short jussive, lengthened cohortative), and/or special particles ( נ ָ א , לא )—but also that of those yiqṭol forms that Dallaire (2014, 39) calls ‘nonvolitive modals’, i.e., those that denote shades of deontic and epistemic modality far broader than the modality expressed via the explicit directive–volitives and without the aforementioned syntactic, morphological, and/or lexical indications of volitivity.25 Second, non-volitional modality must be understood to include not just shades of what are traditionally considered meanings associated with deontic and epistemic modality, but also various shades of habituality and—crucial to the present discussion—indicative futurity.

31In this connection, it is worth considering two complicating factors, both raised by Comrie. First,

the so-called future tense in English makes a clear prediction about some future state of affairs, and is in this way clearly distinct from modal constructions that make reference to alternative worlds. Thus it will rain tomorrow is a very definite statement about a state of affairs to hold at a certain time subsequent to the present moment, and its truth can be tested at that future time by seeing whether it does in fact rain or not. This can be contrasted with it may rain tomorrow, which is simply a claim about a possible world in which there is rain tomorrow; the truth value of this statement cannot be assessed by observing whether or not it rains tomorrow (since both presence and absence of rain are compatible with may rain)—indeed, evaluation of the truth of such a modal statement is extremely difficult, involving demonstrating the existence or non-existence of a certain possible world which may not coincide with the actual world. It is thus possible to have future time reference which is not necessarily modal. (Comrie 1985, 44; italics mine: ADH).

  • 26 See also Bybee et al. (1994, 149–50) and, regarding BH, Cook (2012, 232–33).

32Second, observing that English has several options for future encoding, Comrie (1985, 46–47) notes that one difference between the future as encoded with the English present tense, e.g., the train departs at five o’clock tomorrow morning, is that this usage is generally felicitous only in the case of planned/scheduled events. He compares the generally infelicitous it rains tomorrow.26 This has relevance for BH. Among BH options for expressing indicative future semantics is the active participle, with its default realis progressive force, e.g.,


ו ַׁ רמאי א ֱֹ ל ֹּ םיה א ֲ ב ָ ל ַ ש ָָ ר ׁ ה א ּׁׁ ש ׁ ת ָ ך ֹ לי ּ תד ל ָׁ ך ַ ב ִ ן ׁ קו ָָ ר ּ תא ָ ־תא ׁ ש ׁ מ ָ ו י ּ צ ָׁ ח ֹ ק
‘God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac…”’ (Gen. 17.19a)

33If future marking is by definition modal, then this means the participle, one of whose default senses is the prototypically realis value of actual present, also has irrealis use as a future. The same logic applies to the participle encoding habitual semantics, e.g.,


... ע ַ ןכ־ל ֩ א ֲ נ ִּ י בז ַ֜ ח ַ ל ָ הי ָֹ הו כ ָ פ־ל ּ רט ר ַ םח ַ ה ַׁ כז ָּ ר ִ םי ׁ כו ָ ב־ל ׁ כ ּ רו ב ָ נ ַָ י פא ׁ ד ָ ׃ה
‘Therefore I sacrifice to Yhwh all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’


ׁ הו ָ ע ׁ בר ֹּ םי מ ׁ ב ּ אי ִּ םי ֜ ול ל ּ םח בו ָ ש ָ ר ַ ב ַ ב ִ רק ׁ לו ּ םח בו ָ ש ָָ ר ב ָ ע ָֹ בר מו ּ ה־ן ַַ נ ָ ח ַ ל י ּׁ ש ׁ ת ָ ׃ה
‘And the ravens would bring him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, while from the brook he would drink.’ (1 Kgs 17.6)

34Conversely, perhaps the future use of the participle should be viewed as encoding a relatively indicative futurity in line with the typically realis semantics of the present progressive. But if so, then it stands to reason that when a similar future value is expressed by the yiqṭol, this should also be categorised as realis future.

35With regard to subsuming habituality under modality—by virtue of the fact that they refer to discrete, actualised, falsifiable eventualities, the perfective past and progressive and continuous past and present may deserve a higher realis score than the gnomic or habitual past and present. But surely the realis–irrealis dichotomy is a cline, with they used to eat cake and they eat cake much closer on the scale to they ate cake, they were eating cake, and they are eating cake than to they may/could/ should/must eat cake, I wish they’d eaten cake, or let them eat cake!

  • 27 I wish to express my thanks to Geoffrey Khan for a useful discussion on the various levels of futur (...)

36These objections are not necessarily fatal to mood-prominent approaches to BH, nor to the widespread irrealis classification of futurity and habituality, but they do underscore a difficulty inherent in determining the ‘basic’ meaning of a multifunctional form (here, yiqṭol). As with the suggested modal cline, it is probably advisable to view the modality of futurity as scalar, from absolute certainty, expressing total conviction, and/or mere description, on the one hand, to possibility, doubt, and/or expression of will, on the other.27 This arguably necessitates the recognition of indicative futurity.

  • 28 Hatav (1997, 29); Joosten (2012, 33); Penner (2015); on Penner see (Hornkohl 2016).

37Though there are theoretical and philosophical arguments, supported by both cross-linguistic evidence and diachronic typology paths, in favour of the view that future-oriented and habitual utterances should by their nature be deemed modal,28 there are also valid reasons for doubting whether this should necessarily be seen as a linguistic universal (Hornkohl 2018, 31). Just as some of the parameters of tense and aspect are often conflated, so some conceptions of modality may gratuitously blur temporal, aspectual, and modal dimensions that it is useful to keep separate. In the light of Bhat’s (1999, 175–78) contention that the TAM classification of, inter alia, future and imperfective past should be done on a language-by-language basis with reference to the way in which each language patterns in terms of TAM-prominence, and considering the ongoing lack of consensus regarding both modality, in general, and the nature of the BH verbal system, more specifically, the subsuming of apparent temporal and aspectual nuances in BH under a realis–irrealis modal rubric should not be considered a foregone conclusion.

5.0. Conclusion: Indicative versus Modal Future

38To bring this discussion to a close, it will be useful to consider various shades of future expression in BH. While there is a growing body of research supporting the semantic distinction in BH between directive–volitive modality and broader modality, it is not obvious that all shades of futurity and habituality should necessarily be included in the latter. Pending a more definitive verdict from language typologists on the suitability of mood, especially the dichotomy of realis–irrealis, as an umbrella concept suitable for encompassing not just modal categories as typically understood, but also values traditionally categorised under tense, e.g., indicative future, and aspect, e.g., habitual, it seems prudent to discuss BH verbs using a clear, notionally distinct, three-dimensional TAM axis with semantics of individual verbs plotted using discrete temporal, aspectual, and modal terminology. Indeed, even given the acceptance of an over-arching realis–irrealis distinction, TAM terminological precision will remain useful.

39As evidence for the enduring explanatory value of the notion of indicative future, consider the contrasting semantics of the following pairs of examples.


י־תא ׁ ה ָ ו ׂ ה א ֱֹ הל ָ י ָ ך ת ּ י ָ ר ָ א ׁ או ׁ ות ת ַ ע ֲ ב ֹ ד ...
‘Yhwh your God will you fear and him will you serve… ’ (Deut. 6.13)


... ְׁ ח־לעו ְׁ בר ְׁ ך ָ֣ ִ ת ְֶֽׁ יח ֶׁ ה ְׁ או ֶׁ א־ת ִָ ח ַׁ֖ ךי עת ֲ ב ֹ֑ ד ...
‘… and by your sword you will live and your brother you will serve… ’ (Gen. 27.40)

40There is a difference between the future-oriented prescriptive ‘you will serve’ in (25a) and the future-oriented, but purely predictive ‘you will serve’ in (25b). The former is a clear example of Dallaire’s ‘nonvolitive’ (i.e., agent-oriented [Bybee et al.] or objective deontic [Verstraete; Cook]) modality—not a (directive–volitional [Dallaire], speaker-oriented [Bybee et al.], or subjective deontic [Verstraete; Cook]) wish, but description of obligation (see above, n. 25)—while the latter merely relates a not-yet-realised eventuality as an inescapable future fact. Similar contrastive examples include the following pairs, in each of which example (a) has broad non-volitional modality, while (b) conveys a future eventuality considered an indicative fact:


אג ׁ ל ה ַָ ד ִ ם ה ּ או י ָּ מ ָ תי ה־תא ָ צר ַֹ ח ב ׁ פ ּׁ ב־ועג ָ ו ה ּ או י ׁ מ ּ תי ָ ׃ונ
‘The avenger of blood—it is he that will put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he will put him to death.’ (Num. 35.19)


ׁ הו ָֹ י ָ ה ה ַ נ ּ מ ׁ ל ָָ ט חמ ּ בר ח ֲ ז ָ א ָ ל י ָּ מ ׁ תי י ֹ אוה ׁ הו ַ נ ּ מ ׁ ל ָָ ט חמ ּ בר הי ָ או י ָּ מ ּ תי א ֱ ל ּ י ׁ ש ָָ ׃ע
‘And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael Jehu will put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu Elisha will put to death.’ (1 Kgs 19.17)


... ִ כ ִּ֧ י א ֶׁ א־ל ְׁ ר ִ צ ִ֛ י ְׁ או ֶׁ לומ־ל ְׁ ד ִ ת ַׁ֖ י ֵׁ ת ֵׁ ל ְֹ֑ ך
‘Rather to my country and to my kinfolk you will go… ’ (Gen. 24.4a)


... ע ַ ־ל ׁ חג ׁ נ ָ ך ׁ ת ִ ךל ׁ עו ָ פ ָּ ר כאת ַָ ל כ ָ י־ל ׁ מ ּ י ח ַ י ָ י ָ ׃ך
‘… on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.’ (Gen. 3.14b)


... ל ׁ ע ַּ ם נ ָ כ ּׁ ר ָ י י־אל ּ מ ׁׁ ש ּ ל ׁ מל ָ כ ָׁ ר ָ ה ב ׁ ב ּׁ ב־ודג ָָ ׃ה
‘… to a foreign people he will have no right to sell her in his betraying her.’ (Exod. 21.8)


ְׁ ו ַׁ֖ ה ּ או י ִ מ ְׁ ש ָ ב־ל ְֶָֽ ׃ך ...
‘… and he will rule over you.’ (Gen. 3.16b)


ְׁ ו ִ א ֶ֥ שי א ֶׁ מ־ל ִ ש ְׁ פ ְׁ ח ַׁ֖ ות ת ָ ש ֶֽ ב ּ ׃ו ...
‘… and each to their own family you must return.’ (Lev. 25.10)


ִ כ ֶֽ ע־י ָ פ ָָ֣ ר א ֶ֔ ת ָ ה ְׁ או ֶׁ ע־ל ָ פ ַָׁ֖ ר ת ָ ש ֶּֽ ׃בו ...
‘… for you are dust, and to dust you will return.’ (Gen. 3.19b)


ש ּ ה ת ָּ מ ָ םי ז ָ כ ָּ ר ־ןב ׁ ש ָָ נ ָ ה י ּׁ יה ׁ ה ל ָ כ ֹ ׃ם
‘A spotless year-old male lamb it must be for you.’ (Exod. 12.5)


ל ְׁ מ ָָ ח ֶ֥ ר י ְִׁ יה ֶַׁׁ֖ ה ה ָ א ֶ֥ ת זה ֶֶֽׁ ׃ה ...
‘… for tomorrow this sign will be.’ (Exod. 8.19)

41In such cases, the verbs with indicative future semantics are classifiable as modal only if indicative futures are so deemed by definition. If this turns out to be the collective decision taken by linguists, based on empirical cross-linguistic typological data, in conjunction with Hebraists, in view of language-specific TAM-prominence patterns, then so be it. However, on the assumption that the aim of an account of BH verbal semantics is (at least partially) to capture how users expressed and interpreted TAM values, then, given the reality of the semantic distinction observed in the foregoing examples, even if the two nuances are conveyed by one and the same verbal form, it is useful, if not essential, to retain a place in BH analysis for indicative future semantics and to keep this notionally and terminologically separate from the category of non-volitional modality.



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1 For an application Bhat’s (1999) notion of tense-prominence (as opposed to aspect- and mood-prominence) to the BH verbal system, see Hornkohl (2018, 28–33).

2 See also, more recently, Anstey (forthcoming). Buth (1992) also emphasises the combined TAM values of BH verbal forms.

3 In the forceful words of Rainey (1990, 408–9):
In the present context, it remains to state the obvious fact that the behavior of the suffix verbal forms in the el-ʿAmârnah letters, as in the Hebrew Bible, is in flat contradiction to the prevailing theory that the basic meaning of the Suffix Conjugation is completed action. So we reject outright the use of the term “Perfect” for this conjugation pattern. It is irrelevant, inaccurate, and misleading. Our acceptance of the term “Imperfect” should in no way be construed as acquiescence to the common view that the ancient Semitic verbal systems were based on the expression of “aspect” rather than tense. The ancient Semites knew when to sow their fields and to milk their cows; their own language was quite adequate to explain these things to their sons. The idea that the Semites only viewed verbal action as completed or incomplete is a European conceit. It has no basis in fact.

4 For generic and habitual aspect as subtypes of gnomic imperfectivity, see Carlson (2012); Bybee et al. (1994, 126, 141) equate generic and gnomic. The basic distinction that Carlson (2012, 829–31) draws is that between expressions with individual or group subjects (habituals) and those with “[g] eneric noun phrases that do not intuitively designate any particular individuals or group of individuals.” I am grateful to Geoffrey Khan for highlighting this distinction.

5 Bybee et al. (1994, 126–27) usefully distinguish between habituality (customary action over a period of time), frequentativity (frequent customary action over a period of time), and iterativity (repeated action on one occasion); see also Comrie (1976, 26–27); Carlson (2012, 828– 31). In BH, the former two categories more consistently correlate with explicit imperfective encoding than does the latter, e.g., the perfective iterative in וַיּׁשַׁתּחו אַׁרצָהַ ׁשׁבַע פׁעָמִּים ‘and he bowed to the ground seven times’ (Gen. 33.3). Other semantic notions associated with imperfectivity, such as progressiveness (durativity of dynamic events), continuousness (durativity of states), and lexical frequentativity (e.g., English blabber from blab, crackle from crack) are also routinely conveyed without resorting to dedicated imperfective encoding. For example, the expression of continuousness with yiqṭol or weqaṭal forms is not rare (see, e.g., Joosten 2012, 286, on statives), but is frequently formulated otherwise, e.g., qaṭal for extended and repeated action and for states (often associated with specific lexical aspects), as well as the participle for continuity of verbal eventualities (Driver [1892] 1998, 13, 15–16, 35–36; Joosten 2012, 84–93, 195–200, 242–43). Yet there are exceptions, in which various sorts of imperfectivity are identically coded, e.g., שָׁרפִּים עׁמּדּים ׀ מּמַעַלַ ִלו ׁשׁׂש כׁנָפַָיּם ׁשּׁש כׁנָפַָיּם לׁאָחֹד בּׁשַׁתׁיּם ׀ ׁיכַסׁה פָֹנָיו ובּׁשַׁתָיּם יׁכַסּה ַרׁגלָָיו ובּׁשַׁתּיּם ׁיעופָף׃ ׁוקָָרִא זּה אל־זהַ ׁואָמִַר קָדׂוׁש ׀ קָדָוׁש קָדָוׁש יׁהָוׁה צׁבָֹאות מׁלּא כָל־הָָאָרץ כׁבוָדו׃ ‘Seraphim were standing above him, each with six wings: with two they covered (continuous) their faces, with two they covered (continuous) their feet, and with two they flapped (iterative). And each called (frequentative) to the other and said (frequentative) ‘Holy, holy, holy is Yhwh of hosts. The whole land is filled with his glory.’ (Isa. 6.2–3).

6 See Garr’s critique in Driver ( [1892] 1998, xxv–xxvi).

7 To his credit, Driver ( [1892] 1998, 35–36, 166–168) correctly viewed the active participle, not the yiqṭol form, as the default for progressive/continuous action, both past and present.

8 Cf. Haspelmath (1998, 55 n. 23).

9 In both English and BH (as in many languages), the default aspectual interpretation of present tense forms is in the nature of things imperfective, since principal uses are to describe what is currently happening (actual present) or what happens with a degree of regularity (generic present), neither of which entails an end point. However, certain specialised uses of present-tense forms must be categorised as perfective, e.g., performatives (I hereby confirm…), sports commentating (He shoots! He scores!), and choose-your-own adventure/joke/riddle genres (You enter a bedroom. There are thirty-four people. You kill thirty. How many are in the bedroom?). Note: these differ from the so-called ‘historical present’, whereby present-tense grammatical forms are for the sake of vividness used to narrate past events.

10 In agreement with Cook (2012, 221). In English, too, the default interpretation of future verbs is perfective or undefined, with inference of alternative meaning based at least partially on the lexical aspect of the relevant verb. In the interests of clarity, it is worth emphasising that default perfective interpretation of future forms is not limited to the English construction known as future perfect. In other words, the future options He will return/is returning/returns/is going to (or gonna) return tomorrow at 7pm is no less perfective than He will have returned by tomorrow at 7pm. In all options, the act of returning is understood as a completive whole, rather than as progressive, durative, or habitual. The difference is that the future perfect is a relative tense option denoting temporal location in relation not just to speech time (like the other alternatives), but to a reference time as well. The future perfect makes an assertion about a future situation relative to a completed event, not about the event itself.

11 See Hornkohl (2018, 29–30) for examples in BH of both the default perfective or undetermined aspectual character of the future and the explicit signalling of future imperfectivity via alternative means.

12 Cook (2012, 203–4). Examples of historically traceable development within other language families include the transparent voluntative origins of English future will; Romance futures built from infinitive + ‘have’, e.g., Latin amare habeo ‘I have to love’ > Italian amerò ‘I will love’; Germanic perfects composed of ‘have’/‘be’ + past participle.

13 In agreement with Cook (2012, 219): “The second complication for substantiating imperfective yiqtol is that the comparative-historical evidence is simply not as transparent for the form compared with the case for qatal.”

14 The same does not necessarily apply, however, to modern Semitic chronolects, e.g., vernacular Arabic dialects, Neo-Aramaic dialects, Modern Hebrew, where scholars often have access to far more information, including both considerable historical data and data from mother-tongue informants.

15 Citing Andrason (2010, 36 n. 50).

16 Cook’s argument is based on Haspelmath’s (1998) work on old present tense forms that develop anomalous meanings.

17 In this connection, it is pertinent to cite Geoffrey Khan’s contribution to the present volume, in which he traces the path progressive > habitual > modal/future for the Neo-Aramaic historical participle qāṭel.

18 Cook (2012, 208) readily acknowledges the diachronic perspective of his approach. In his discussion of the qaṭal form he summarises: “This reconstruction has been argued, not based on statistical analysis of individual examples, but primarily on the basis of typological arguments along with the consensus views regarding the primary meanings of the conjugation in each period.” Aside from the fact that the best that such typological arguments can offer is probability based on comparison— which is hardly probative, since, in respect of the semantic development of any given feature, it is possible that BH (or any language) simply ‘took the road less travelled’—as noted above, there are considerable grounds for suspicion when it comes to “consensus views regarding primary meanings.” At least as far as BH is concerned (and likely other ancient Semitic languages, too), scholars have all too often simply rehashed outmoded theories and dressed them up in modern linguistic jargon, without properly addressing the questionable or even fallacious assumptions on which they rest.

19 The BH imperative also defaults as aspectually perfective or undefined, a given verb’s lexical aspect and other clues aiding in semantic disambiguation. By contrast, RH, often deemed less aspect-prominent than BH (Cook 2012, 208, 221–22), allows for imperfective imperatives, as it permits the volitional use of the håyå+participle construction, chiefly restricted to the sphere of the past in BH.

20 For further examples of wayyiqṭol forms where one might expect imperfective alternatives, see the lists given in Joosten (2012, 174, 178).

21 These are two of Bhat’s (1999, 95–97) four criteria for assessing TAM prominence within verbal systems, the other two being grammaticalisation and systematicity (paradigmatisation). Morphosemantic uncertainty involving PS yaqtul hinders assessment of the extent to which TAM categories have been grammaticalised or systematised in BH.

22 See also Lyons (1968, 311).

23 See Bybee et al. (1994, 236–39); cf. Palmer (2001, 2, 188–91). One of Cook’s (2012, 219) objections to Joosten’s mood-prominent theory of BH is that the latter “must make the category ‘modal’ endlessly elastic, such as by the claim that ‘there is something inherently modal about questions (Joosten 2002, 54).” While defining mood remains problematic, interrogative modality is recognised cross-linguistically (Palmer 2001, 172) and would seem to have relevance for the semantics of the BH yiqṭol form. It is interesting that the prose examples of progressive yiqṭol cited in both Waltke and O’Connor (1990, 504) and Cook (2012, 268) are restricted to questions. Arguably, the modal character of interrogatives is intrinsically both epistemic (involving uncertainty) and deontic (imposing the questioner’s will on the interlocuter in the form of expecting an answer). This accounts for the reference to the actual present via a mix of yiqṭol in the question and predicative participle in the answer in וַיּׁמצָאׁהו אִּיׁש ׁוהּנּה תעָה בַשָדֹה וַּיׁשׁאָלׂהו הָּאָיׁש לאמָר מַה־ׁתבַָקׁש׃ וַי֕אמר את־אַַחָי אָנּכׁי מׁבַקֹׁש ‘And a man found him wandering in the countryside. And the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “I am looking for my brothers…”’ (Gen. 37.15–16a).

24 Indeed, together with tense, aspect, and mood, some scholars treat the parameter of evidentiality as a fundamental semantic category, in which case TAM becomes TAME (Dahl 2013).

25 In addition to Dallaire, the distinction between the modality of the BH directive–volitives and that of the yiqṭol and weqaṭal forms more broadly has been repeatedly discussed. Hornkohl (2018, 31–32) contrasts the classic BH directive–volitive triad of cohortative, imperative, and jussive with what he calls the ‘unmarked deontic modality’ of standard yiqṭol and weqaṭal when the latter denote degrees of obligation. Cook (2012, 247–48) distinguishes between the directive–volitive system and irrealis yiqṭol, the former always indicating subjective deontics (with speaker-oriented obligation), the latter either subjective or objective deontics (where the speaker is not the source of obligation). Cook expressly bases himself on Verstraete (2007, 32–35), but see also Bybee et al. (1994, 177–79), who contrast speaker-oriented modality and agent-oriented modality. For her part, Shulman (2000, 180) distinguishes between jussives, for deontic modality, and indicative forms, for either epistemic or, more rarely, deontic modality. It is not surprising that yiqṭol should merge deontic and epistemic modality; consider the fact that English modals such as can, could, may, should, ought to, must have both deontic and epistemic modal force. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore the merits of these approaches. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note the broad recognition that yiqṭol routinely expresses deontic modal force including, but also beyond, the narrow semantic confines of the directive–volitive categories. As Dallaire states, the non-volitional modality of BH yiqṭol is characteristic of BH weqaṭal, which Cook renames “irrealis qatal” (2012, 249–56).

26 See also Bybee et al. (1994, 149–50) and, regarding BH, Cook (2012, 232–33).

27 I wish to express my thanks to Geoffrey Khan for a useful discussion on the various levels of future certainty.

28 Hatav (1997, 29); Joosten (2012, 33); Penner (2015); on Penner see (Hornkohl 2016).

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: BH qaṭal resultative path (adapted from Cook 2012, 208)
Fichier image/jpeg, 19k


Aaron D. Hornkohl (PhD, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012) is the author of Linguistic Periodization and the Language of Jeremiah (Brill, 2013), a translated adaptation of his doctoral dissertation, and co-editor (with Geoffrey Khan) of Studies in Semitic Vocalisation (University of Cambridge and Open Book Publishers, 2020). He holds the positions of Hebrew Language Teaching Officer and Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. His research is philological/linguistic in nature, focusing on ancient Hebrew, and encompassing diachrony and linguistic periodisation; syntax, pragmatics, and the verbal system; the Tiberian written and reading and non-Tiberian Hebrew traditions; textual criticism and literary formation; and historical and contemporary exegesis. He serves on the editorial board of the series Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures.


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