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Review of  The Morpho-Syntactic and Lexical Encoding of Tense and Aspect in Semitic

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: The Morpho-Syntactic and Lexical Encoding of Tense and Aspect in Semitic
Book Author: Lutz Edzard
Publisher: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Hebrew, Ancient
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 28.2321

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“The Morpho-Syntactic and Lexical Encoding of Tense and Aspect in Semitic”, edited by Lutz Edzard, represents the proceedings of a one-day workshop held in 2014 at Erlangen in Franconia. It contains six papers; some (co-)authors are based in Germany, others in Semitic-speaking countries, and Silje Susanne Alvestad in Norway. (Two papers presented at Erlangen are not included here because their authors had other publication plans.)

For description of Semitic languages, the area of tense, aspect, and modality (TAM) is not just one structural issue among others but a central problem. In a recent Linguist List review (, I explained how Biblical Hebrew (BH) has two contrasting verb conjugations, often called “prefix” and “suffix” conjugations from the differing position of affixes marking person/number/gender of subject, which clearly express a range of contrasts in the TAM area but where (despite the intensive study to which that language has been subjected over centuries) it often remains unclear and controversial why a given conjugation is chosen in a particular context. This might be said to rank as the leading problem of BH linguistics. BH is the only Semitic language of which I have detailed knowledge, but Gideon Goldenberg confirms (2013: 202) that the issue is problematic for the West Semitic languages in general, despite many differences between the verbal systems of the individual languages. (“West Semitic” covers all Semitic languages other than Akkadian.) One might think that difficulty in describing this issue in BH stems from the impossibility of consulting its speakers, but several contributors here make it clear that essentially the same problem arises with present-day Semitic languages.

The individual contributions to Edzard’s book are as follows. (I translate the titles of two papers written in German.) Since the contributions vary greatly in length, I include page counts.

Michael Streck, “Temporal adverbs in Akkadian” (13 pp.), points out that TAM contrasts can be expressed either by verb inflexions or by adverbs, and says that the latter have been neglected in the study of Akkadian: Streck offers an initial analysis. Part of his paper relates to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis: the fact that adverbs expressing past and future often derive from roots for ‘front’ and ‘back’ respectively has led some Assyriologists to describe Akkadian speakers as “walking backwards through time”, but this is a misunderstanding of the logic of these forms.

Silje Susanne Alvestad and Lutz Edzard, “Aspect in the Biblical Hebrew imperative from a modern Slavic perspective” (31 pp.), discuss seeming anomalies in the inflexions used in various Biblical passages expressing negative commands (i.e. prohibitions). One variant of the BH prefix conjugation gives a “jussive” rather than indicative sense, e.g. ‘you (m. sg.) bring’ is “tashib” in the indicative but “tasheb” in the jussive. The language has two negative particles, “lo’ ” and “al”, and prohibitions are commonly expressed either as “al” + jussive or as “lo’ ” + indicative. (Weingreen 1959: 115 explains the difference as ‘don’t do it (now)’ versus ‘don’t ever do it’, respectively. For instance, the Ten Commandments use the lo’ structure.) In certain cases, though, we find the opposite combinations of particle with inflexion. Some Hebraists have treated this as a matter of loose usage, and (since the jussive/indicative contrast is realized as a difference in vowels, which were indicated in writing only late in the history of Hebrew) others have taken the anomalous combinations for scribal errors. Alvestad and Edzard believe they may be non-erroneous and systematic, and they use a comparison with Slavonic languages (whose verbs systematically contrast perfective and imperfective aspects) to develop a hypothesis about what lies behind the “anomalies”.

Norah Boneh, “Some thoughts on grammatical aspect in Modern Hebrew” (27 pp.), points out that Modern Hebrew can be seen as having three “tenses”, expressed by prefix and suffix conjugations and by a participle form used predicatively. Setting aside the prefix conjugation, used in Modern Hebrew in modal and future senses, Boneh notes that a 2010 Amsterdam PhD thesis by Nurit Dekel uses corpus data to argue that the contrast between suffix conjugation and participle expresses a distinction of aspect (respectively perfective and imperfective), without specification of tense. Boneh argues to the contrary that the primary use of this contrast is to express a time distinction, past versus present, though there are also secondary aspect connotations. The difference between the grammatical concepts “tense” and “aspect” can itself be rather obscure, but Boneh uses ideas derived from Reichenbach (1947) to define the terms in a precise and language-independent fashion.

Melanie Hanitsch, “On the path through the lexicon: thoughts about the history of the interaction between grammatical and lexical aspect in Modern Arabic” (28 pp.), sets off from the observation that a leading contrast between older forms of Arabic, including Classical Arabic, and the various modern dialects is that the latter have adopted a range of verbal modifiers, often auxiliary verbs, expressing TAM senses. For instance, in many varieties of Modern Arabic a word “ ‘ammāl” or a reduced form of it, i.e. ‘doer, doing’, is added to a main verb to indicate progressive action. Hanitsch quotes David Cohen as describing a cyclical process in the history of Arabic dialects whereby a periphrastic construction arises in order to express a particular TAM sense, causing the simple form to be restricted to the complementary sense, but later the new construction is extended to the full sense-range originally covered by the simple form, and later still another new construction arises to express the more specific sense and the earlier periphrastic form is itself restricted to the complementary sense.

Hanitsch traces in detail the paths by which various originally lexical verbs have been grammaticalized in this way in different Arabic dialects. She argues that main-verb senses can be assigned locations in a two-dimensional space with respect to their propensity to enter new periphrastic constructions.

Salah Fakhry, “Tense, aspect, and modality in Baghdad Arabic” (24 pp.), describes the verbal system of the Arabic of present-day Baghdad. As well as simple prefix conjugation, simple suffix conjugation, and participle, he lists five auxiliary + suffix-conjugation combinations and fourteen auxiliary + prefix-conjugation combinations. For each of these 22 alternatives Fakhry shows whether its sense relates to tense-and-aspect or to modality, illustrating that sense or range of senses from corpus examples. Like Nora Boneh, Fakhry uses Reichenbach’s approach in order to define TAM senses precisely.

Finally, Ronny Meyer, “Aspect and tense in Ethiosemitic languages” (81 pp.), examines TAM-related phenomena in the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea (including Amharic, Gǝ‘ǝz, Tigré, Tigrinya, the languages collectively referred to as Gurage, and others). Much of Meyer’s long contribution examines the evolution of the verb forms in different lines of descent from a common Proto-Semitic ancestor language. But later in the chapter he moves on to discussing the semantics of the alternative forms. Previous scholars have disagreed about whether individual Ethiosemitic languages are primarily aspect-based or tense-based. Meyer concludes that “the two core conjugations in the indicative mood denote viewpoint aspect, but not tense nor relative tense”. (He contrasts “viewpoint aspect” with so-called Aktionsart, the latter referring to the inherent nature of a predicate, e.g. state, action, or process, while the former refers to the feature of a situation foregrounded by an utterance, e.g. its beginning/end or the phase between its implicit starting and ending points.)

A distinctive feature of almost all Ethiosemitic languages, not found in the rest of the Semitic family, is what Meyer (following Hans Jürgen Polotsky and Robert Hetzron) calls “converbs”: dependent verbs used for adverbial modification and in narrative-clause chaining. Converb constructions are thought to have arisen in the Ethiosemitic subfamily through contact with neighbouring languages of the Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan families, most of which possess converbs. The fact that converb forms in different Ethiosemitic languages do not appear all to share the same origin makes the contact explanation particularly plausible.


Gideon Goldenberg remarked in his 2013 book that there continues to be “a constant flux of publications” on the topic of the book reviewed here. This book will not bring that stream of scholarly discussion and debate to a close, but it is an extremely useful contribution to it. The book is particularly commendable for the way that it brings together expertise on a wide range of Semitic languages, both Asian and African, and on present-day colloquial speech as well as ancient writings; and for the efforts contributors make to analyse the cloudy phenomena of TAM in precise terms independent of the philological traditions of individual languages.

Even linguists with no special interest in the Semitic family should be fascinated to see how essentially the same intractable descriptive problem recurs over thousands of miles of territory and thousands of years of time. I can think of no close parallel to this in the Indo-European family.

Few books are flawless, of course, and this one is not the exception. It is marred by a moderately high incidence of editorial oversights. Some are trivial, e.g. “have certainly be aware”, “the the discussion”, “at-tested” (all in one paragraph on p. 22), “Fäbung” for “Färbung”, etc. More troublesome are cases where it is not obvious whether the text as it stands is incorrect, or whether variation among technical terms is meaningful. Page 57 has a passage turning on the mathematical contrast between inclusion and proper inclusion, but the symbol for (general) inclusion is used where proper inclusion is intended. Nora Boneh’s morpheme-by-morpheme example glosses repeatedly give the Hebrew root t-p-r as ‘sow’, though her translations correctly give it as ‘sew’. Since Semitic verbs are inflected by varying the vowels between the unchanging consonants of a root, it is usual to identify a particular inflexion by inserting the relevant vowels in a standard root – for BH normally p-‘-l, ‘do’. Melanie Hanitsch’s Table 1 uses the Arabic equivalent, f-‘ l, but on the facing page she uses k t-b, ‘write’. The unwary reader wonders whether there is significance in this contrast, but I believe there is not. Likewise Nora Boneh’s morpheme-by-morpheme glosses seem to use ‘SUFF-V’ and ‘PAST’ interchangeably to denote suffix conjugation. Boneh certainly knows a very great deal more than I do about Hebrew, so I spent a long time trying to discover a meaningful basis behind this variation, but I could not find one. If Boneh is using the tense name PAST to stand for “suffix conjugation”, this creates a regrettable appearance of assuming what she claims to be demonstrating.

When Alvestad and Edzard introduce the BH jussive inflexion, their first example is the word for ‘bless you’ at Numbers 6:24, “The Lord bless you and keep you”. They transliterate it into phonetic notation corresponding to IPA [jǝva:rexxa:]. A sequence -xx- would be phonologically exceptional in BH; the point below the first [x] letter is an ambiguous symbol, and I wonder whether it should not be read here as vocal shwa, [jǝva:rexǝxa:].

Contributors sometimes assume pieces of knowledge that may have been common to the workshop participants but will not necessarily be familiar to a wider readership. Nora Boneh has a term “futurate” which is evidently not quite the same thing as “future”, and in addition to Reichenbach’s symbols for tense analysis she introduces “P” for “perspective time”, in each case glossing the terms only via literature citations. It would have been helpful to include brief wording giving at least a broad-brush understanding of the terminology.

Most contributions are admirably empirical. I was startled, though, to read in Nora Boneh’s concluding section that “The theoretical framework endorsed here forces there to be a grammatical aspect category even in a language that does not morphologically mark the distinction.” I had not noticed any earlier statement of such a theoretical commitment, and I was left wondering how it affected the substance of the debate between Boneh and Nurit Dekel.

Like so many books published in Continental Europe, this one contains no index.

But it is a reviewer’s task, or part of it, to nit-pick. The issues I have listed do not negate my assessment that Edzard’s volume is a very worthwhile publication. Anyone interested in its topic will want to read it.


Goldenberg, G. 2013. Semitic Languages: features, structures, relations, processes. Oxford University Press.

Reichenbach, H. 1947. Elements of Symbolic Logic. Macmillan (London).

Weingreen, J. 1959. A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent some years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent book is a new edition of ''Writing Systems'' (Equinox, 2015).

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