RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Wed Mar 19 1997 - 07:30:54 EST

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your post. Nothing that is said about a dead
language is final, and I think the members of the list
benefit when weaknesses of particular arguments, both mine
and others, are pointed out. I appreciate your comments and
this opportunity to elucidate the points you mentioned.

Paul Zellmer wrote:
<In the first case (the durative imperfect), it may be that
<your image of the camera lense shows an characteristic of
<aspect that has not been brought out as nicely in the past,
<but I would be very careful in using a model as
<proof-positive that another model or viewpoint does not
<also bring out an important characteristic, that the other
<model is "wrong." Since you did not give us examples of the
<superiority of your model to the other, how can we check it

The presentation of my model was just a sketch. However, it
was my intention to argue from data and not on the basis of
an illustration. What was said to be wrong, was the
definition of the imperfective aspect as `durative`. Neither
Fanning, Porter or McKay accept this definition, and I am
not aware of any recent work which in a scientific way has
defended the durative/punctiliar model. However, I would not
use the word `wrong` about the works of the writers
mentioned above even though we disagree in some points.

<In the second case (Joshua 7:6), you obviously disagree
<with the choice of verb form. But, instead of calling this
<out as a problem to be investigated further, you simple
<classified it as "wrongly" translated. This classification
<is based on *your* interpretation of the aorist and
<the imperfect. Now, I realize that all translations are
<not as accurate as the original, and I assume you are
<referring to the LXX treatment of this verse. (Sorry, I'm
<away from my copy.) But, Rolf, let's suppose
<that the LXX translators considered both the aorist and the
<imperfect for this verse. Who do you think would have a
<better "feel" for the meaning of the original Hebrew and
<the Greek of the times--you in twentieth-century Oslo or
<the Hebrew-speaking translators of a couple thousand years
<ago? If anything, this variance in data should drive you
<to re-examine your theory instead of declaring that the
<translation was "wrong."

Because of the adverbial of Josua 7:6, the only possible
interpretation of the H consecutive imperfect is an act
(fall) leading into a state (remain fallen). Aorist normally
views the action/state as a whole, and I am not aware of any
example where an aorist is used for a similar situation.
This was the reason for the use of `wrong`. I agree it would
have been better to say that the LXX rendering just convey
one side of the H verb. There are modern translations both
in Norwegian and English which say hat Joshua `fell to the
earth until the evening`. Such renderings are wooden, but to
a target group interested in as literal renderings as
possible, they are excellent, even suggesting that the
Hebrews viewed `punctiliar` verbs different from us.

<The third case, the 3% of cases on non-past imperfect
<consecutives which result in, in your opinion, the
<falsification of the view that the imperfect consecutives
<carry a sense of past-tense, is just the opposite
<situation to the last one. You are now taking the position
<that, if there is a variance from a model which describes a
<vast majority of cases, the obvious result is that the
<model is shown to be false. Rolf, are picking and choosing
<the support for your pet theories? Language is not
<math--there are always "exceptions" to the rules. In these
<399 cases which you claim are clearly non-past, what is the
<characteristics of the imperfect consecutives which are
<being brought out? And, because I am assuming that there
<are reasons for the use of the imperfect in these cases,
<does the finding of 3% of cases which emphasize some other
<characteristic other than time really result in the
<conclusion (or hypothesis) that the other 97% also then do
<not call attention to past-tense? I hope you can see my
<confusion in you logic processes.

Among all the linguistic categories related to verbs, `past
tense` is one of the easiest to define; thus lending itself
to the falsification scheme used in the natural sciences.
Illustration: If you propose the theory that all swans are
white, and you travel around and see hundreds of thousands
of white ones you have not proved your theory, just made it
more likely. One occurrence of a black swan would falsify
it. Language is individual and may be used in different
ways, so in many instances more weight can be given to 97%
agreement rather than 3% disagreement. But regarding `past
tense` we have an ideal situation.

A principal part of my MA thesis of 380 pages was used for
this investigation. When 97% of H consecutive imperfects
have past meaning, there are two possibilities: (1) the
forms code for past tense, and (2). The forms don`t code for
past tense but for something else, and are for other reasons
used in past contexts. To test this, I made the following
prediction: If ICs code for past tense, it must be
meaningful to translate all such with past tense, save
special cases.`
I used the whole OT and found about 750 candidates with
non-past meaning. These were reviewed in the light of all
kinds of special situations that could account for a
preterite used as non-past , and 20 Bible translations in 6
languages were used to confirm the past meaning of the
candidates. By this method the number were reduced to 399
which definitely seem to be non-past. One example is Jer
38:9 were the verb either means `will die` or `is on the
point of dying`. The 97% do not make a strong case for past
tense, because there are two possibilities. But in my mind,
if they cannot be accounted for, the 3% do falsify the view
of ICs as preterites.
Let me add that an investigation like this of the whole
Bible has never been published. Two studies appear, Harris
Birkeland (1935) and Frank Blake, 1951, who investigated
less than 150 of the 750. Both agreed that the 150 don`t
falsify the preterite notion, Birkeland because he found all
of them to be true preterites, save one or two, and Blake
because he found most of them to be non-past, but being
wrongly pointed by the Masoretes.

I agree with you that H and G have quite different verbal
systems, G being more restricted because the time of the
verb is a more important part of some of the conjugations
(tenses). Aspect is much more easy to see in H than in G.
What led me to compare the two languages was that after I
had done extensive work on H aspect, I read Fanning and
discovered that he had followed exactly the same basic
methodology for G as I ahd done for H, with the same basic


Rolf Furuli
Ph.D candidate in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:38:10 EDT