FYI Hebrew not tenseless

From: Vincent DeCaen (
Date: Mon Oct 23 1995 - 09:47:18 EDT

I noticed that Porter and others appeal to tenseless Hebrew, etc, to
make the case cross-linguistically viable. let's be clear: Hebrew is
not tenseless. it became tenseless in the early 1800s under pressure
from Indo-European studies. basically, Indo-European began supposedly
from a simpler tenseless system and developed "tense"; fortunately for
the Romantics, only the Aryans managed this feat, while the rest of
the world languished in cognitive inferiority, including those
backwards Orientals (who by right needed to be colonized and pillaged:
can't make a train on time because they speak tenseless languages,
and all that).

the archaeology of tenseless analyses is fascinating, but depressing.
anyway, two points.

1. what makes Hebrew different is a) it has no "perfect"/anterior
(like most languages, including some European ones like Russian) and
b) its selection of aspectual privative (cf. Olsen) is imperfective
(perfective defaulter) vs European perfective (imperfective defaulter).

the irony is that languages like Greek are in the tiny minority on
most "parameters".

2. the model for Hebrew and Arabic in the 1800s is the foundation for
tenseless analyses throughout the world, and by simple osmosis is in
every textbook on TMA. it's simply that the analysis has become
detached from the theory and motivations of those German Romantics.

it's easy to show that the aspectual analysis of Hebrew is
descriptively if not empirically inadequate.

BTW, I assume a strong claim for Universal Grammar: essentially all
languages are the same except for the setting of "parameters". I
assume that TMA systems are essentially the same except for the
setting of aspectual parameter(s). the major difference is the
aspectual selection of privatives that Olsen devotes so much space to.

for what my two-cents is worth.


Vincent DeCaen

Near Eastern Studies, University of Toronto
Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University

I really do not know that anything has ever been
more exciting than diagraming sentences.
                                 --Gertrude Stein

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