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Review of  A matter of time

Reviewer: Yishai Tobin
Book Title: A matter of time
Book Author: Nurit Dekel
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Hebrew
Issue Number: 21.5165

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AUTHOR: Nurit Dekel
TITLE: A Matter of Time
SUBTITLE: Tense, Mood and Aspect in Spontaneous Spoken Israeli Hebrew
SERIES TITLE: LOT Dissertation
PUBLISHER: LOT Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke - LOT
YEAR: 2010

Yishai Tobin, Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and Department
of Behavioral Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


This published University of Amsterdam dissertation is divided into eight chapters.

1. Introduction: Chapter 1 presents the goal, the research questions,
assumptions and methodology of this study. Dekel investigates ''the possible
existence of Tense-Mood-Aspect'' (TAM) in spontaneous Spoken Israeli Hebrew (SIH)
focusing on the temporal, aspectual and modal properties of SIH. The research
questions include: (a) whether all of these categories can be found in SIH and
(b) to what extent they appear and (c) how they are represented through
linguistic means. The conclusions reached are that: (i) SIH is more aspectual
than tense-oriented and (ii) these categories are expressed on all levels
through morphological, syntactic and lexical means. Dekel maintains that there
is a direct correlation between form and meaning in the representation of TAM
categories in SIH. She uses a corpus of spoken language from various cross
sections of a diverse population and reports that there are no significant
differences in the use of TAM categories among the different groups in the
population studied.

2. Research plan and methodology: Chapter 2 outlines in detail the corpus, the
population recorded (without sufficiently describing the Ashkenazi vs. Oriental
speakers), the collection and organization of the data, the research methods and
data analysis, the division into speech units and their TAM classifications and
affiliations, and the isolation of form and structure. The next section deals
with the handling of participles (the core of the aspect-tense difference in the
classification from biblical/classical Hebrew to Israeli Hebrew (IH)). (In
classical Hebrew the so-called past forms were traditionally classified as
perfective suffixes and the so-called future tense forms were traditionally
classified as prefixed imperfective forms and both were conjugated for person,
number and gender. The participles are both nominal and verbal forms inflected
for number and gender but not for person.) This chapter then deals with: the
expression of TAM in more than one speech unit, subordinate speech units, speech
units containing two TAM elements, the listing of linguistic means used to
express TAM, methods for the formative sorting of the data, statistical methods
for analyzing the data, and a schematic description of the research process.

3. TMA systems: Chapter 3 presents definitions of: tense, aspect and mood,
situation, action, state, event and 'Aktionsart'. Then follows a discussion of
TMA systems, their treatments in language in general and in Hebrew in particular
including the theoretical background of these categories and their
classifications and sub-classifications such as: tense (absolute and relative),
aspect (perfective, imperfective). Broader issues like discourse structure, the
quantification vs. qualification of events, and the interaction between TAM
categories are discussed. The theory of Functional Discourse Grammar (FDG)
(Hengeveld 2004, Hengeveld & Mackenzie 2006), an adaptation of Simon Dik's
Functional Grammar (FG) (Dik 1977a-b), is introduced. The principles of the
theory (e.g., predicates and arguments, predications, episodes, propositions,
modifiers, scope hierarchy) and TAM interaction are applied to a wide variety of
linguistic contexts and categories including: the expression of tense, mood and
aspect, lexical and auxiliary verbs, verb constructions in main and subordinate
clauses, infinitives and subordinating particles that appear as concatenated as
well as participles and nominal complements, and relative and adverbial clauses.
In other words, this volume covers most if not all of the linguistic contexts
and categories related to tense, mood and aspect in spoken Israeli Hebrew.

4. Hebrew, Spoken Israeli, Hebrew and the Hebrew verb system: Chapter 4 presents
a brief history of the Hebrew language accompanied by the major theoretical and
methodological implications, ramifications and controversies associated with the
unique history, development and the so-called revival of Hebrew followed by a
description of the verb (and nominal) systems including the morphological root,
stem and other patterns in the complex synthetic system of word formation in Hebrew.

5. Results: Chapter 5 is the heart of this dissertation. It begins with a short
preface and a brief exposition about how IH has been conceived as a tense-based
language followed by a summary of the traditional normative approach to the
Hebrew verb system. Then the quantitative details of the research data and its
analysis are presented. Dekel elaborates the basic points of her argumentation
including why SIH is not a tense-based language because of the non-past uses of
the suffixed forms and the non-future uses of the prefixed forms as well as the
non-present uses of the participles. This is followed by claims concerning why
IH should be classified as an aspect-based language for historical and
quantitative reasons, followed by exegeses on mood, imperative forms and a wide
range of verbal constructions and combinations found in SIH discourse reflecting
the tense-aspect categories with the addition of counterfactual -- assumptive --
hortative -- commissive -- optative -- speculative - moods. A series of pie
charts presenting the formal quantitative distribution of these categories is
presented to further illustrate and support Dekel's assumptions, results and
conclusions followed by a discussion of the lexical expressions of TMA. The
analysis is applied to the various hierarchical discourse layers of FDG
implicitly equating meanings to the TAM categories, uses and functions to
support the argument that SIH as an aspect-prominent language according to these
traditional TAM categories, their formal quantitative distribution as determined
by the principles of FDG.

6. TMA studies in Hebrew and Semitic languages: Chapter 6 compares and contrasts
other TMA studies in Amharic, Classical Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and Neo-Aramaic
as well as presenting previous TAM studies in Hebrew.

7. Sociolinguistic Aspects: Chapter 7 shows that Dekel has only found the most
marginal differences between the various cross sections of the population she
studied and has concluded that there are no significant differences in their use
of the TAM categories in SIH.

8. Summary, conclusions and recommendations: In chapter 8 Dekel summarizes her
research and makes recommendations.


Dekel's dissertation is an interesting and thorough study of the TAM categories
as they appear in spoken SIH within the theory of FDG using a much needed and
very welcome corpus-based methodology. The reviewer is familiar with Dik's FG
based on his direct involvement with Junger 1987 (the first FG dissertation
dealing with the Modern Hebrew verb system). If one accepts the traditional TAM
categories as meanings and the principles of FDG, the formal quantitative
distribution of the SIH data are persuasive and accurately reflect the complex
verbal system of SIH. Indeed, the reviewer's own research reached similar
conclusions using a different kind of analysis based on the sign-oriented
theoretical approach of the Columbia School (founded by William Diver) using a
larger spoken and written corpus representing a broad array of diverse styles
and registers (e.g., Tobin 1988a-b, 1989a-b, 1990a-b, 1991a-c, 1993, 1994/1995,
1997, 1998, Oron and Tobin 2004, Tobin and Perez 2010).

Reading this volume raises certain fundamental theoretical and methodological
research issues (inductive-deductive-abductive approaches) and questions: (Which
comes first: the chicken or the egg?) or, less metaphorically, in the case of
linguistics: What should precede or come first in linguistic analysis: the
traditional linguistic categories or the actual use of the language itself?
Should we search for the existence of a priori theoretical categories in a
specific language as if they are unquestioned givens or should the particular
language itself determine what phenomena it encompasses?, or as Cornelis van
Schooneveld used to say: ''Let the language tell you how to analyze it!'' In the
case of IH (the nomenclature this reviewer prefers) this is the central question
related to the volume under review. Biblical/Classical Hebrew was traditionally
classified (like Arabic) as an ASPECT language while Modern Hebrew (including
IH) has long been classified as a TENSE language. The solving of this
problematic diachronic dichotomy -- this contradiction in nomenclature -- is
directly related to the goals and research assumptions of this dissertation.
Dekel concludes that SIH is an aspectual-prominent rather than a tense-oriented
language. As far as this reviewer is concerned, the signifiés postulated for the
specific signs used in the so-called TAM system in IH must be discovered and are
more important than the a priori traditional categories to explain and motivate
their distribution in the language. The reviewer's analyses have provided
signifiés that embody elements of tense, aspect and mood within the same signs
as Dekel points out in this dissertation.

Although I agree de facto with most or all of her conclusions, I do have certain
reservations de jure having reached the same conclusions with a different set of
theoretical axioms: I postulated a new set of Saussurian sign-oriented signifiés
(invariant meanings) rather than employing the traditional TAM categories. I
also take issue with two points: I do not think that (S)IH has five and not
seven verbal patterns: my corpus of both spoken and written data representing a
wide range of diverse styles and registers revealed the use of eight verbal
patterns appearing in unequal frequencies explained by their invariant meanings
and their appropriateness to be exploited in more extensive versus more limited
situational and linguistic contexts (Tobin 1994/1995:241-286, Tobin 1997). I
have recorded Dekel's ''missing patterns'' used both seriously and facetiously in
spontaneous conversations. I also do not agree with Dekel's willingness to adopt
Zuckermann's (2008) suggestion to call the language under study ''Israeli'' (a
claim which appeared in a book in Hebrew which I have reviewed in Tobin 2009).

This reviewer has claimed that traditional linguistic categories can be very
''convenient tools'' until they may become ''tools of convenience'' (i.e., when they
are accepted unquestionably as a priori givens preventing us from looking at the
language specific data with open eyes and a fresh point of view) (Tobin 1990,
1994/1995). My reservations about this dissertation may be viewed as being
idiosyncratic because I do not accept a priori categories as having meanings in
the same sense as invariant meanings (in the Saussurian sign-oriented sense) and
therefore I question -- or at least am skeptical -- concerning the theoretical
and methodological status of these categories as an explanation and a motivation
for the distribution of linguistic signs in a specific language. Admittedly,
this point of view is in the minority in linguistics today. However, I totally
agree with Dekel that tense, aspect and mood are expressed by morphological,
syntactic and lexical means and there is a direct correlation between form and
meaning in these so-called TAM categories in IH. I also laud her use of spoken
spontaneous corpus data although in my own research I have used a larger corpus
of both spoken and written data of diverse styles and registers which represent
different exploitations of the same language system as it is applied and adapted
to all potential spoken and written discourse and situational contexts. Where I
disagree with her methodologically is in her exclusion of structures with a low
number of instances or her declaration that certain verbal patterns do not exist
in SIH: she just may not have found them in the specific corpus she was using.
Like animals in general and the pigs in particular in George Orwell's novel
''Animal Farm'' -- not all signs are equal and some are ''more equal'' than others.
Less metaphorically speaking, the signifiés of some linguistic signs are
suitable for a more frequent and general exploitation while other signs with
more specific and precise signifiés are limited to more specialized discourse
and situational contexts. However one must consider that they could be
potentially relevant in a spontaneous conversation containing suitable
contextual discourse messages. Every appropriate use of a form is worthy of
analysis regardless of the frequency of its use and/or whether it can be
replaced by a paraphrase to express a particular extra-linguistic message.

In sum, I find this thought-provoking dissertation to be of great interest and I
agree with many if not most of the conclusions that basically concur with those
of my own which were established with different theoretical assumptions using a
corpus-based data culled from both spoken and written IH representing diverse
styles and registers. This reflects the fact that there are alternative
explanations to describe and explain the non-random distribution of forms in a
language and -- as linguists -- we should adopt the motto of: Vive la différence!


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Yishai Tobin is a professor in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author and editor of 18 books and over 230 articles in sign-oriented linguistics, acoustic phonetics, developmental and clinical phonology, and discourse and text analysis. He serves on the editorial boards of several international linguistic journals and is the editor of the Studies in Structural and Functional Linguistics series at John Benjamins.