LINGUIST List 13.1536

Tue May 28 2002

Sum: Verb Tense Inversion

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. William Morris, Summary

Message 1: Summary

Date: Wed, 22 May 2002 05:53:42 -0700 (PDT)
From: William Morris <>
Subject: Summary

Several weeks ago I asked whether any other languages had phenomena
that in some conceptual realm might be like the verb tense inversion
that is found in Biblical Hebrew. I said that I was most interested in
verb phenomena, but that I was also interested in other contrary 

I received two types of responses; the first responses to arrive (and the 
very latest, too) were discussions of the Hebrew phenomenon that 
triggered the question in the first place. Almost all of these responses 
pointed out to me, correctly, that the near-universally-accepted 
interpretation of Biblical Hebrew verbs is that they did not encode 
tense at all; rather, they encoded aspect. (There IS a minority view.)

The second type of response was to the question that I actually asked. 
These responses were discussions of "contrary phenomena" that one 
actually finds in languages.

This being a collection of contrariness in various ways, I list
the responses to the actual question first. The discussion of 
Hebrew verbs and the "waw con..." construction
will come at the end.

I thank the following people, all of whom took the time,
in many cases considerable time, to respond to my 
query. I am grateful. 

Bob Binnick
Ilhan M. Cagri
Peter T. Daniels
Roland Hemmauer
Michael Johnstone
Arsalan Kahnemuyipour
Mike Maxwell
Christopher Miller
Asya Pereltsvaig
Taylor Roberts
Lameen Souag
Peter Unseth
Dom Watt
And one anonymous Biblical scholar whom I contacted.

I hope that I have contacted everyone who sent me a response. If I failed to, I am very sorry.

My original query:

Short question:
Does anyone know of any language in which past tense verbs
can take on future tense meaning and vice versa?

The background:
Biblical Hebrew has a strange syntactic/morphological construction
that is usually called the waw-consecutive (or vav-consecutive).
Other names for this construction are "waw conversive" & "waw

The word for "and" in Hebrew is the letter "waw", which is attached to
the beginning of the following word. In Biblical Hebrew (mercifully
not in Modern Hebrew) the attachment of a waw to a verb causes the
sense to invert; past becomes future, future becomes past. And, since
Biblical Hebrew was primarily a verb-initial language, this usage
occurred frequently. It appears that the heavy use of "and" was the
standard narrative style, as can be seen in almost any translation of
the Hebrew Bible.

Deeper, but still shallow, background:
Weingreen, 1959, A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, 2nd
Edition, p252, quoting Professor G.R. Driver of Oxford, attributes
this to Hebrew being a "composite" language, with elements of both
Aramaic style verbs and Akkadian style verbs. According to this
explanation, some Akkadian verb forms denoting aspect were
superficially similar to the Aramaic verb forms that denoted tense,
and regularization led to . . . you get the picture.

A friend recently asked me whether any other languages have anything
at all similar to this. I am most interested in verb phenomena, but I
would also be interested if some odd construction causes singular
nouns to mean plural, and vice versa.

I will post a summary. Thanks!

Bill Morris

>From Christopher Miller

I can think of two cases where constructions originally (if I remember
correctly) involving a verb 'to go' became grammaticalised as past tense
in one case and as future in another, as well as taking on a role as
'subsecutive' tense markers. Sorry, but I have no references for you but
I suppose they shouldn't be too difficult to track down, perhaps with
further help from LINGUIST subscribers.

First case is the verb 'anar' (to go) in modern Occitan and modern
Catalan (neighboring and closely related southern Gallo-Romance
languages). In Occitan, 'anar' plus infinitive gives a future tense,
whereas in Catalan exactly the same construction has largely displaced
the old morphological preterit as the normal means for expressing
punctual past tense. (The counterpart preterit is still vital in
Occitan, or at least as vital as the language itself.) Here are
conjugated examples from the two languages to illustrate:

Person+number Occitan
meaning Catalan meaning
1sing. vau manjar I am going to
eat vaig menjar I ate
2sing. vas manjar you are going to
eat vas menjar you ate
3sing. va manjar he/she is going
to eat va menjar he/she ate
1pl. anam manjar we are going to
eat vam menjar we ate
2pl. anatz manjar you are going to
eat vau menjar you ate 
3pl. van manjar they are going
to eat van menjar they ate

Two notes on 'vam' and 'vau':
1) These two forms are particular to the compound preterit in Catalan:
when 'to go' is used in its normal meaning, the 1 & 2 pl. forms are
'anem' and 'aneu'. The grammaticalised forms seem to have regularised on
a single root.
2) I don't know what their distribution is, but there are or were
variants of 'vam' and 'vau': 'v�rem' and 'v�reu', which appear to be
analogised on the endings of the morphological preterit:

Person+number Occitan Catalan
1sing. mang�ri -ere
2sing. mang�res -eres
3sing. mang�t -V (depending
on conjugation class)
1pl. mang�rem -�rem
2pl. mang�retz -�reu
3pl. mang�ron -eren

As far as I understand, the Catalan use of this construction derives
originally from its use as a subsecutive construction, in other words,
one with the meaning 'and then/subsequently X does/did/will do'. I
remember a medieval Occitan text where this construction was used for
much of a long paragraph describing a succession of dishes and
entertainments presented to the guests at a sumptuous banquet. (The
narration proceeds along the lines of "...(and then) they GO (and) bring
out a huge stuffed boar... they GO (and) bring out trays laden with
XYZ..." and so on.) In the subsecutive, there is a sense of futurity
subordinated to a matrix past verb that encodes an anchoring event, and
I think it is relatively easy to see how this subsecutive use of the
construction could come to be reinterpreted in such contexts as a *past
tense* marker. It may be worth your while to consult sources on the
history of Catalan for more information on when and how this semantic
change took place.

The second case I have in mind is in eastern Bantu languages. Here, my
knowledge of the facts is somewhat shakier but I believe -ka was
etymologically a verb meaning 'go' and is still used as such in a number
of Bantu languages. In eastern Bantu languages, it has become
morphologised as a tense marker, in at least one language marking future
tense and in at least one other, marking past tense. What I *do* know
for sure is that in Swahili, future is marked by -ta(ka)- from a verb
meaning 'want' and past by -li- 'be' or -me-, from -mele, an old
perfective of -mala 'finish'; in this language, -ka- is used as a
subsecutive tense marker. With an anchoring past tense, it is
interpreted as referring to a past event; with an imperative or
subjunctive, it is interpreted as referring to a (desired) future event.

Please realise that I have reconstructed this all from memory and
doubtless there are errors I haven't noticed here and there in what I
have told you: I hope you find it useful, but I would very much
recommend that you only use this information as a guide to what can be
found out from more knowledgeable sources.

Best regards,

Chris Miller

>From Taylor Roberts

There may be verb tense inversion in (some varieties of?) Pashto.
Adjectives and nouns combine with transitive and intransitive auxiliaries
to form compound verbs, which are a fairly open class, and constitute the
majority of verbs in the language. Both present and past perfective and
imperfective auxiliaries form compound verbs, and carry the expected
temporal interpretations in indicative mood. In imperative mood, however,
there is a tense inversion that varies with the number of the addressee.

In imperatives with a single addressee, the singular imperative suffix
_-a_ appears on the auxiliary, regardless of the gender or number of the
intended object, while the adjectival portion of the compound verb varies
with the gender and number of the intended object:

(1) a. dzhorr k-a
 built(masc sg) do(pres perf)-2sg(imp)
 'build it(masc sg)!'

 b. dzhorra k-a
 built(fem sg) do(pres perf)-2sg(imp)
 'build it(fem sg)!'

 c. dzhorr k-a
 built(masc pl) do(pres perf)-2sg(imp)
 'build it(masc pl)!'

 d. dzhorri k-a
 built(fem pl) do(pres perf)-2sg(imp)
 'build it(fem pl)!'

When the imperative has a plural addressee, however, the auxiliary is past
tense, and bears the 2pl suffix _-ey_; the adjective continues to agree
with the intended object:

(2) a. dzhorr krr-ey
 built(masc sg) do(past perf)-2pl
 'build it(masc sg)!'

 b. dzhorra krr-ey
 built(fem sg) do(past perf)-2pl
 'build it(fem sg)!'

 c. dzhorr krr-ey
 built(masc pl) do(past perf)-2pl
 'build it(masc pl)!'

 d. dzhorri krr-ey
 built(fem pl) do(past perf)-2pl
 'build it(fem pl)!'

Aside from showing tense inversion of the sort you asked about, the
sentences in (2) are doubly unusual because the past tense auxiliary
agrees with the subject (i.e., the implied addressee); Pashto is otherwise
ergative in past tense, and so the auxiliary verb might have been expected
to agree with the object here, as it would do in indicative mood.

A static citation for the above data is Taylor Roberts (2000) "Clitics and
agreement" (PhD dissertation, MIT), pp. 44-45, although you can quickly
find more context online in Kurdica 5.3 at

I advise considerable caution with respect to these data, as I don't know
how general they are. A similar paradigm is given by Habibullah Tegey and
Barbara Robson (1996) _A reference grammar of Pashto_ (Washington, D.C.:
Center for Applied Linguistics), pp. 131-132, and there the present
perfective auxiliary takes both singular (-a) and plural (-ey)
imperative suffixes. In checking those data with a consultant from
Yusufzai, though, he preferred having past tense with the plural
imperative, as in (2) above. The verb tense inversion in (1-2) may be a
genuine quirk of Yusufzai Pashto, but it would be wise to check the data
with other speakers if they interest you.

I hope this info helps!

Taylor Roberts <>

>From Asya Pereltsvaig

Dear Bill,

There are some (pragmatic) contexts in Russian, where a past tense is
used as future and vice versa.
A good reference to check is Forsyth (1970) A Grammar of Aspect. Usage
and Meaning in the Russian Verb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



>From Ilhan M. Cagri

Hi Bill,

I once heard about a phenomenon in Arabic that might be
related. Apparently, in Arabic, the use of the dual denotes opposites so
that salt and pepper is denoted as 'salt-DUAL'. At the time I found a
number of such words in the dual: for example: "two easts" means 'east and
west' .

The reason I thought this might be relevant is because this might be
semantically interpreted as X and Y, or a use of 'and' to denote the

Just a thought.


>From Dom Watt

Dear William
I think it's probably not what you're looking for, but maybe you could
consider constructions in English to be a phenomenon at least allied to the
one you describe for Hebrew:

have been able to collect me on the way.

find Bob's house this afternoon [i.e. in future time] - don't be fooled,
you've gone completely wrong.

These all have a conditional or hypothetical sense, of course, but the forms
of the verbs are identical to those you'd use for accounts of events in past
time. I'm no syntactician, though, so perhaps verbs in these constructions are
classified in a different way.

Just out of interest, my wife (a speaker of Scottish English) uses a
construction which I still have to think twice about, because I often can't
tell if she's asking whether it was possible for me to do something in the
past or in the future:

I'm a speaker of Scottish English myself, but am not aware of ever using this
sort of politeness strategy.
Hope the above examples are of use!
Best wishes
Dom Watt.

More from Dom Watt:

Dear Bill
A student just provided another (I hope relevant) example just now from an
essay he's writing on English verbs in the subjunctive mood, a concept which
seems to be mystifying him a bit, probably because people of his age very
rarely use subjunctive forms any more. His example is:

He begged that the ban was lifted.

The student was completely stumped when I suggested there's another form of
'be' that can be used in this context (he first suggested 'is', but the penny
dropped eventually).

I'm surprised to hear you say that you wouldn't/couldn't produce the first two
examples I sent yesterday - I'd have imagined these were more or less
universally acceptable in English. So much for my native-speaker intuitions!

>From Arsalan Kahnemuyipour:

ear William Morris,

I found the Biblical Hebrew data fascinating. Here is some data from
Persian which you may find related or at least somewhat interesting.

What is traditionally known as 'past stem' in Persian is used in the
(formal) future construction as well. In (1) I give an example of the
regular past tense use and in (2) its use in the formal future.

(1) Ali raft
 Ali go.past.3sg
 'Ali went'

(2) Ali xaah-ad raft
 Ali want.present-3sg go.past
 'Ali will go'

In fact, in a paper to be presented at the Canadian Linguistics
Association Conference, we (Karine Megerdoomian and myself) are using
such data (plus some other data) to argue that the so-called past tense
marker (a t or a d at the end of the so-called past stem) is really an
aspect marker indicating perhaps completion (or something else we still
need to figure out!). But, one could, of course, interpret the data
differently, so I thought you might be interested to know.

Let me know if you have any questions regarding the data.


Arsalan Kahnemuyipour
PhD Candidate
University of Toronto

>From Mike Maxwell:

This is clearly not the same thing, but--in Cubeo (a Tucanoan language of
Colombia), there are two classes of verbs, which we called stative and
dynamic. ("We" is Nancy Morse and myself--she and I wrote a grammar, which
was published by SIL in '99 and reviewed in Linguist List about a year ago.)
The same set of affixes denotes either habitual or progressive aspect on a
stative verb, and one of two past tenses on a dynamic verb. There is a
further set of affixes that switches stative verb stems to dynamic, and vice
versa; these latter might be analogous to the 'waw'.

The other thought I have is whether the 'waw' in Hebrew is the word for
'and' in these cases, or whether it is really an auxilliary verb which just
happens to be homophonic (or homographic, really--who can tell what vowel
the two might have been pronounced with?) with the word for 'and'. Of
course, I have to admit that I know nothing about Hebrew, so this is just a
wild guess, and should be treated with as much respect as any wild guess

 Mike Maxwell
 Linguistic Data Consortium

>From Lameen Souag:

A vaguely similar example you are no doubt familiar with in the older
stages of most Semitic languages, including Biblical Hebrew: gender concord
on the numbers 3-9...

And past tense ergativity - as in neo-Aramaic, where the present tense
pronominal object and subject suffixes are reversed in meaning on past
tense verbs - surely counts as well?

Best wishes,
Lameen Souag

At least some modern Arabic dialects have lost the feature - North African
Arabic for instance has simplified the distinction to masculine for numbers
modifying nouns and feminine for count numbers, eg "xems emlayen" 5
million, "thelth sa3at" 3 hours, but xemsa, thlatha on their own. I'm not
sure about other Arabic dialects offhand, but I know that the number
concord laws cause great difficulties with Arabic news broadcasters from
all over the Arab world, so I imagine they too have lost it.

A friend of mine here at Cambridge is finishing a PhD on the modern Alqosh
Neo-Aramaic dialect of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, and tells me that, while
it is not fully ergative (although some Jewish dialects have apparently
taken the process further), it is ergative in pronoun concord for past
tenses, eg (I think - my memory is a bit sketchy of this...) qaaTil-li "he
kills me", qTiil-li "I killed him", under the influence of Kurdish and
other Iranian languages, with the present and past stems deriving from a
reinterpretation of former active and passive participles. The feature is
said to have started in some dialects as early as Imperial Aramaic


Classical Arabic - the written language, which is spoken mainly on TV and
radio, especially by news broadcasters - does have number concord of the
same kind as Hebrew. However, the modern dialects - at least North African
Arabic - which are the broadcasters' native tongues (and are not used in
formal situations) do not have number concord (or duals, or feminine
plurals of verbs, or cases and moods...), so it causes some trouble - just
as formal English "taller than I" or "He and I" cause confusion and
hypercorrection for many people.


>From Peter Unseth

I think I have an example of a reversal. In some East Cushitic languages
of Ethiopia, by changing
the gender on a noun, I believe the number changes between singular and
plural. That is, if
a masculine noun is marked for feminine, it becomes plural. And vice

I'm sick at home today so have no useful references handy. I think it is
documented in at least
Oromo and Hadiyya. I would look first in Ferguson's article on the (now
somewhat discredited notion of)
Ethiopian Language Area. I think it is one of his grammatical features.
Jonathan Owens' grammar of
Harrar Oromo may note it, but he did not realize it was an areal feature.

Hope this is helfpul,

Pete Unseth

Biblical Hebrew verbs: A tense situation?

>From Peter T. Daniels

Just about everyone who's ever dabbled in Semitic linguistics has
attempted to deal with this question.

The first thing you need to recognize is that it _isn't_ "past" and
"future"; it really is a matter of aspect and not tense.

The basic understanding remains that developed by S. R. Driver, *The Use
of the Tenses in Hebrew* (1892) [father of the G. R. you mention, who
was rather a dilettante in Semitic philology]; a fairly up-to-date
account should be found in Bruce Waltke and M. O'Connor, *Introduction
to Biblical Hebrew Syntax* (ca. 1990; several corrected reprints).

Peter T. Daniels

>From Roland Hemmauer


There is one important point to comment on your query
about Biblical Hebrew. Concretely, I'm afraid you can-
not speak of TENSE(!) inversion in Biblical Hebrew, as
'tense' does not seem to have been a grammatical cate-
gory in Biblical Hebrew at all. Instead, this language
is assumed to have had two ASPECTUAL categories:

imperfective vs. perfective

Neither of them can actually be associated to any fixed
temporal categorial notion such as 'present' or 'past',
but only to the typical aspectual dichotomy of bounded-
ness of an event (cf. Comrie, Bernard 1976: Aspect. New
York et al.: CUP):

imperfective -> unbounded
perfective -> bounded

Both forms can equally be used to refer to either past
or present or future, with the only difference being
the way in which they present the event in question,
i.e. as a bounded or as an unbounded event.

Any temporal interpretations of these aspectual forms
emerge from situational context and are therefore not
part of the semantics of the verbal category itself.
So the origins of what you term 'tense inversion' in
Biblical Hebrew, by adding the proclitic WA- ("and"),
has to be sought within this aspectual distinction in
itself, rather than within any temporal connotations
that in fact might have arisen from these aspectual
semantics in certain contexts only.

Although the WA-forms do acquire a kind of temporal
reading in Biblical Hebrew, they do not do so with-
out an additional notion of 'consecutive event':

WA- + imperfective: consecutive event in the past
WA- + perfective: consecutive event in the future

So the actual function of WA- seems to have been to
mark an event as following another event previously
mentioned. So it appears that the temporal reading
of Biblical Hebrew verb forms is a secondary pheno-
menon which ONLY occurs with proclitic WA- "and",
yet lacking in the simple forms which continue to
have aspectual meaning alone. Consequently, it is
highly problematic to term this 'tense inversion',
as there are no TENSES to be INVERTED.

Of course, the foregoing explanations are not my own
ideas, but in fact, they are only a brief sketch of
the hypotheses proposed by Rudiger Bartelmus in his
1982 dissertation:

HYH. Bedeutung und Funktion eines althebraischen "Al-
lerweltswortes". Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Frage des
hebraischen Tempussystems.

This is a quite recent account of the problem of the
semantics of Biblical Hebrew "temporal" categories.
In contrast to the quote from Weingreen, it avoids
the hypothesis of Hebrew being a "composite" langu-
age, which - to my knowledge - is generally consid-
ered rather awkward nowadays.

Yet I'm afraid you will need these additional bib-
liographical information, as the book might not be
easily accessible to you:

The book appeared as issue no. 17 of the series:
'Arbeiten zu Text und Sprache im Alten Testament'
(Essays on text and language in the Old Testament)
of the Katholisch-Theologische Fakultat (Catholic
Theological Faculty) of the University of Munich,
Germany, as part of the 'Munchener Universitats-
schriften' (Munich University papers), published
at EOS-Verlag in St. Ottilien, Germany, 1982.

I'll gladly give you some more bibliographical re-
ferences on this topic on request.

Hoping to have been able to help you,
kind regards,

Roland Hemmauer (

[student of General Linguistics and Semitic Philo-
logy at Munich University]

>From Bob Binnick:

It wasn't entirely clear from your query whether you subscribe to the
waw-conversive theory or not, but in any case you might want to look at the
brief and admittedly not very conclusive discussion of it in my book "Time
and the Verb" at pp. 439ff.

- Bob Binnick <>

Almost finally, I asked a prominent Biblical scholar and translator about 
the issue, in particular asking for examples of imperfects that should not
be construed as future tense, and perfects that should not be construed
as past tense. Here is part of his response:

The forms that you identify as past and future can function otherwise
even without a conversive waw. See, for examples, the verbs in the
first half of Gen 2:5, where the imperfects can't possibly be the
future; likewise Jonah 1:9, where the verb tab�' is imperfect but not
future. In poetry, it's even more striking; see, for example, Jonah
2:4, where yesobeben� is imperfect but not future; likewise Exod 15:7
and 14. On the range of the perfect, see Thomas Lambdin,
Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, pp. 38-39.

For other examples of how the preposed subject marks the past
perfect, see, for examples, Jonah 5:5, which must mean "Jonah had
gone down;" Num 34:15 , which must mean "The two tribes and the half
of a tribe had taken their legacy;" 2 Sam 17:14, which must mean
"And YHWH had arranged to nullify Ahitophel's good advice." For a
treatment of this entire matter, see The Anterior Construction in
Classical Hebrew (Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, No
50) by Ziony Zevit.

And, finally, From Michael Johnstone, a suggestion that I look at the write-up
on Hebrew in "The World's Major Languages", edited by Bernard Comrie,
Oxford University Press (1990). The article on Hebrew is by Robert Hetzron.
Just to stir the pot a bit, it would appear that Hetzron does not believe that 
Biblical Hebrew verbs should be considered to be aspect-oriented.

Dear William,

No great new information, but I wondered if you'd read the explanation of
the Hebrew verb forms given in "The World's Major Languages" (ed. Comrie),
p.697, which involves *haway(a) 'was' as an auxiliary which became the wa-
prefix. Then the other waw-prefixed forms came about for 'symmetry'.

A similar phenomenon is of course the strange endings on the Hebrew
numerals, which is said to be due to an old 'polarity' system of
Afroasiatic (p.701, 652).

All the best,

Michael Johnstone

Additional communication from Michael:

Just to complicate things, the book I first starting learning Hebrew from
(a textbook in Hungarian from Szeged University) dismisses the tense idea:
'the West Semitic verb system does not recognise tenses in the objective
sense, but is based on subjective aspects...' but it then goes on to
mention what for some reason is called the "tempus theory":

'Beside the traditional, generally accepted aspect-theory, there is also a
theory that the role of the individual "tenses" is primarily to show the
character of a given text: the predominantly occurring tense-forms
indicate to the reader whether it is a narrative or a communicative text.

According to the tempus theory, the imperfect and imperfect consecutive
are main tenses, the perfect and perfect consecutive are secondary tenses.
The main tenses are mutually exclusive within a given context, and their
use indicates the text's character. In a narrative text (which preserves
the hearer's independence and freedom to maintain distance) the imperfect
consecutive predominates. The perfect as a secondary tense belongs to the
background of the narrative; it does not carry the action forward, but has
only a perspectival function, expressing retrospection.

A communicative text (which evokes a reaction in the hearer, who cannot
remain disinterested, e.g laws, preaching, prophetic declarations, psalms,
and also the dialogue sections of narrative) is characterised by the
predominance of imperfect forms. (The imperfect here expresses neither
tense nor aspect; its only function is to indicate the communicative
nature of the text.) As a secondary tense both the perfect and the perfect
consecutive are found here, having only a perspectival function indicating
relative time: the perfect is retrospective, the perfect consecutive looks

Unfortunately no references are given specifically about this theory -
there's just a general list of Hebrew grammars at the end of the book.
Maybe some of your other replies have alluded to the theory?


Oh - I forgot to say, another example of a total mirror-image of markings
would be the Old French noun paradigm:

Latin > French
lupus loups Nom. Sg.
lupum loup Acc. Sg.
lupi loup Nom. Pl.
lupos loups Acc. Pl.

Not surprisingly, this didn't take long to die out either, in favour of -s

And a snippet from Hetzron's article on Hebrew in Comrie (1990), page 697:

It seems that the archaic system may be reduced to a dual opposition of 
two tenses (the traditional label 'aspect' for these is unjustified and rests 
on indefensible arguments): past and non-past (present and future in one, 
though the beginnings of separate present already show), appearing in 
different guises in two main contexts: sentence initial and non-initial.

Again, I thank all who responded to my query.
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