Changing Tense?

24 10 2008

This is not going to be much of a post, given that I am presently at university, writing my literature review. For the record, if I have been a poor correspondent of late, the blame rests entirely with the nature of this review (bastard spawn of Satan that it is) and the manner in which it has been utterly consuming my brain.

No, I merely write today to make an observation on the state of Classical Hebrew education in Australian high schools. I took on a new student yesterday; he is going to be sitting for the HSC in October-November, 2009. He is studying Classical Hebrew: both “Continuers” and “Extension” and was looking for a tutor. He encountered my advertisement in the local Jewish paper, and I was happy to oblige.

He’s a bright kid and his Hebrew is quite reasonable. There are, of course, a number of problems with it but – most bizarrely indeed! – many of those problems lie with the curriculum and not with him. Picture this: translating Isaiah 26, we came across the word ויבא – “and he came”. This is how my student parsed it for me:

Root = בוא
It’s a verb…
It’s masculine…
Future to Past.

Future to past!!?? What on earth does that mean!? And the worst part is: that’s how his school wants him to be parsing verbs! No wonder so many kids who take Hebrew in the HSC have a hard time with Hebrew in their first semester at university. I found it rough, given that I had to learn a whole lot of unfamiliar grammar; imagine how hard it would have been if I’d first had to unlearn a whole lot of rubbish!

For the record – and for the benefit of anybody who is frowning at the screen – the notion that this verb is converting a future tense to a past tense is an outdated notion, based on the idea that Hebrew has two basic “tenses”: past and future (with a participle standing in for the present). Given that the addition of a single letter (and a revocalising of the word) seems to change that tense to its opposite, grammarians were once under the misapprehension that this letter was responsible for “converting” the tense. The complex reality is that, in addition to the participle, Hebrew actually has four “tenses” (although it is easier not to think of them as tenses at all) and that the tense used in ויבא, while frequently translated as a past, is actually not at all the same as the tense used in בא – itself also frequently a past.

Suggesting that there is such a thing as a letter that converts the tense only opens the question as to why not just use that tense in the first place. It is obvious to every single grammarian today that the reality is more complex than that, and that a “future to past” must be doing something different to a “past”, and hence not actually be a “future to past” at all. Unfortunately, there are no grammarians working for the NSW Board of Education.

[Incidentally, John Hobbins had a couple of excellent posts, quite a while ago now, on the topic of tense vs. aspect in Biblical Hebrew. They are here and here. I had been meaning to weigh in on those for some time (particularly with the intention of refuting them, by offering up lists of perfects with future meanings and imperfects with past meanings), but never seemed to get around to doing so. I intend to do so soon…]




One response

29 10 2008
John Hobbins


I hope that you come up with examples that are anomalous with respect to my scheme, or that of someone else. It is instructive to look at both typical and a-typical examples.

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