At the web-site of the Society of Biblical Literature there is a
review of Furuli doctoral dissertation. If you want to read it, you can
go to www.bookreviews.org
and type "fururli" in the search
A New Understanding of the Verbal System of
Classical Hebrew: An Attempt to Distinguish Between
Semantic and Pragmatic Factors
Øvre Smestadvei: Awatu, 2006. Pp. 508. Paper. 300 kr.
In this version of his 2005 University of Oslo dissertation, Rolf J. Furuli presents the
results of his analysis of all 79,574 finite and infinite verbal forms found in the Hebrew
Bible, the Qumran material, Ben Sira, and the inscriptions. He studies 4,261 of these
forms in detail, with particular attention to their temporal reference, modality, and
discourse functions, in order to determine how many conjugations are found in the
classical Hebrew verbal system. Going against the common view that there are four
conjugations, Furuli argues that there are only two because the waw prefix of wayyiqtol
and weqatal is a syntactic, not a semantic, marker. Therefore, they are not two
independent conjugations with semantic meanings distinct from yiqtol and qatal.
Furuli posits that all four of these forms, plus weyiqtol, can have past, present, and future
reference, showing that tense is not grammaticalized in classical Hebrew. In addition, all
of these forms can describe incomplete or completed actions, which argues against the
Hebrew conjugations representing aspects, at least in the usual sense of the word. Such
conclusions put him at odds with the dominant views regarding the Hebrew verbal
system, and Furuli attributes this difference to the uniqueness of the method he employs.
That unique approach is best reflected in the book’s subtitle—a distinction is made
between semantic and pragmatic factors, the latter designated here by the somewhat
lumbering phrase “conversational pragmatic implicature.” The entire corpus of classical
Hebrew is examined synchronically, and Furuli points out that a comprehensive analysis
that downplays diachronic issues distinguishes his study from previous ones. Along the
way, a number of traditional assumptions about the Hebrew verbal system are tested and
rejected: that the wayyiqtol has an older preterite antecedent; that the yiqtol with past
reference represents durative past; and that the qatal with future reference is best
understood as a prophetic perfect.
Furuli identifies the Masoretes as the unwitting inventors of the four-conjugation model
of the Hebrew verbal system. In unpointed texts only two conjugations are visible, the
prefix conjugation and the suffix conjugation, and some of these have a prefixed waw. But
in the MT four or five conjugations are visible due to the addition of vowel markings.
Furuli notes that the pointing was done before the rules of grammar had been firmly set,
so the Masoretes were basing their decisions on what they heard in the synagogue rather
than conforming to established grammatical norms. In other words, it was pragmatic
factors, rather than semantic ones, that most influenced the way the vowels were added to
the text. But as systematic study of Hebrew began in the century after the Masoretes
completed their work, grammarians mistakenly interpreted the verbal conjugations in
semantic terms and ignored the pragmatic factors. That approach has dominated ever
since, and this book is an appeal to scholars to consider the pragmatic dimension of the
verbal system and to adjust their understanding of it accordingly.
Furuli sees communication as the act of making some things visible and other things
invisible from the reservoir of possible meaning. It is the context that primarily does this,
and this is at the heart of the difference between semantics and pragmatics for him.
Semantics is concerned with words, which are stable and static, but pragmatics is
concerned with context, which is elusive and dynamic. The features of the verbal system
that cannot be changed or cancelled by the context comprise the semantic meaning, and
those features that can be changed are the pragmatic ones. Furuli identifies three among
the former: durativity, telicity, and dynamicity. Nothing in the context can cancel or
nullify these three features in a given verb, so they constitute the verb’s semantic
The four Hebrew conjugations can be distinguished on the basis of morphology and
accent, but this does not prove they are semantically distinct. According to Furuli, the
statistics indicate that the four forms are not semantically fixed because there is no
uniform temporal distribution for any of them. Each can function in reference to the past,
present, and future, challenging the idea that tense is grammaticalized in classical
Hebrew. For example, by Furuli’s count, 6.9 percent of wayyiqtols have nonpast reference,
and 5.9 percent of weqatals have past reference. Similarly, 2,505 (18 percent) of qatals
have present reference, and 965 (6.9 percent) have future reference. Each conjugation is
used more with a particular time reference than with others, but Furuli claims this is due
to pragmatic factors that have nothing to do with semantics.
Furuli argues that yiqtol, wayyiqtol, and weyiqtol are one conjugation and that qatal and
weqatal are another, with the waw prefixes functioning simply as conjunctions. Often the
lack of an expected waw is a pragmatic feature of a text. For example, in 1,027 cases he
finds a yiqtol with past reference where he would expect to find a wayyiqtol. The most
common reason for this is that the author wanted another word element to precede the
verb, thus preventing the prefixed waw. This is what happens in 896 of those cases, and in
the other 131 the yiqtol is the initial word in the sentence. In this way, pragmatic features
allow Furuli to explain a grammatical irregularity that makes no sense from a semantic
point of view.
Throughout the work Furuli cautions against using modern languages such as English to
understand the Hebrew verbal system. This is particularly the case when it comes to the
concept of aspect. His study leads him to conclude that yiqtol, wayyiqtol, and weyiqtol
represent the imperfect aspect, while qatal and weqatal represent the perfect aspect. The
default form for past reference is qatal, and the default form for future is yiqtol, but other
forms can be used for each. Nonetheless, there are certain patterns that indicate that
particular verbal forms are used for particular purposes. Furuli’s general rule of thumb is
that when the requirement for precision is low any form can be used, but when it is high
certain forms must be used. This leads to a relationship between the aspects that is more
complicated than that found in English, as the following observations he makes about the
Hebrew aspects suggest: (1) both aspects make a part of the situation visible; (2) the
imperfect makes some of the details of an event visible, but the perfect does not; (3) the
imperfect makes a small part of an event visible, but the perfect makes a greater part
visible; (4) the imperfect can include either the beginning or the end of an event, but the
perfect can include both the beginning and the end; (5) unlike the perfect, the imperfect
can make visible a part before the beginning of an event and a part of the resulting state.
According to Furuli’s theory of how the Hebrew verbal system works, the authors chose
their conjugations and forms based on pragmatic considerations such as how much of an
event they wished to make visible.
In some places the evidence Furuli cites is ambiguous or open to other interpretations.
This is especially so in the poetic material, where it is more difficult to determine the
temporal references with certainty and precision. To his credit, Furuli acknowledges this
problem and, for the most part, focuses on passages that serve his purposes well. More
problematic is the lack of a comprehensive listing of all the data Furuli drew upon to
reach his conclusions. The reader is given dozens of tables of statistics and hundreds of
biblical passages, in both Hebrew and English, that illustrate and support Furuli’s
findings, but they represent just a fraction of the thousands of examples of usage that are
not cited or listed anywhere in the book. We therefore have to take Furuli’s word for it
that the somewhat limited evidence he does provide is representative of the large amount
of material left untreated. This is one of the drawbacks of linguistic theories that purport
to offer a revolutionary way of understanding an entire corpus of writings—they often
leave the reader wondering what is behind the curtain.
In addition to the occasional typo, in some places the Hebrew text does not match the
English translation of a passage (see, e.g., examples 4c on 186, 279 n. 165, and 7.5k on
360). A final critique concerns Furuli’s use of the cognate languages. He draws upon
Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Aramaic when he discusses whether or not an old
short prefixed form is the basis of wayyiqtol, but his analysis is somewhat superficial and
sweeping. In addition, he makes only a passing reference to Arabic. This is unfortunate
because it is well known that Arabic has preserved many ancient features that can be quite
valuable for biblical scholars seeking to understand obscure or unusual aspects of
Hebrew. In this case, the apocopated jussive form (majzum) in Arabic is a prominent
feature of its verbal system that Furuli should have studied carefully.
Semantic considerations have long dominated in treatments of the Hebrew verbal system,
and Furuli’s call to take into account pragmatic factors is an important one that is worth
considering. How his alternative model will be received remains to be seen, but at the
very least his work might encourage some to think of more than just semantics when
trying to understand the Hebrew verb.