Thursday, 7 May 2009

Poetic yiqtol as a "deictic centre shift"?

In response to my question on the Biblical Hebrew List on how to translate the yiqtol in Ps 24:2, a certain Vadim Cherny has kindly e-mailed me the following thoughts:

Yiqtols are a bit hard to understand in the English linguistic mentality. As I argue elsewhere (, yiqtol represents a deictic center shift. A close approximation in English is, "and upon rivers he would establish it," using nominal future tense for past events as the author is immersed in the recited (past) events. The deictic center shift is extremely common in, for example, Old Russian.
Any thoughts?


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the pointer - I find his article quite believable. The deitic shift is a helpful concept. It also explains why I have been struggling with the 'rules' and ignoring them. Isn't grammar fun!

Phil Sumpter said...

I was surprised at his translation of wayomer as "he would say."

John Hobbins said...

It's quite an exercise to separate the wheat from the chaff in Cherny's discussion. He makes a number of valid points, but throws doubt on things it hardly makes sense to throw doubt on.

I'm not convinced that he understands the nature of the evidence from the Hexapla. I don't think that evidence can bear the kind of weight he wishes to place on it.

If a wayyiqtol / weyiqtol distinction did not exist in ancient Hebrew, it would appear that not only the Masoretes, but also the Old Greek translations, including the Septuagint, felt a need to invent it. This is a weak point in Cherny's discussion.

Similarly, the idea that weqatal is not (usually, not universally) grammaticalized as a future tense in ancient Hebrew, but views a future event as if it already happened, does not explain the use of weqatal in complex commands as the default continuation of an imperative.

I could go on, but criticisms aside, I agree with Cherny that deictic shift in narrative is a concept worth exploring further with respect to ancient Hebrew. I just don't think it should be understood as the passepartout that opens up all doors.

Phil Sumpter said...


I dig her poetry. Thanks for the link.


thanks a lot for your comments. You know more than I, but I think I'm on board with your criticisms.

Vadim Cherny said...

Deictic center shift must be really hard to understand in English linguistic mentality, but it is ubiquitous in Old Russian which otherwise draws heavily from Hebrew.

Weqatal in commands directly parallels its Russian use which can be approximated with English, "Have it done!" Russian, especially the milspeak, uses past tense for commands to this day, apparently in order to emphasize that the action is as certain as done. We can see similar usage in Hebrew commandments.

As for the wa/weyiqtol difference, I won't bet my mortgage on it, but it seems that weyiqtol refers to straightforward future, or perhaps the difference is merely phonological. There are many cases of environmental difference in LXX, and we/wa can be one of them.

Phil Sumpter said...

But surely the fact that Russian has different forms for the imperative means that the past-tense usage is marked off from the others, i.e. it carries meaning that distinguishes it from the other forms. Hebrew only has one form (doens't it?), weqatal as the continuation of the the imperative. If it only has one form, then the meaning it conveys must be fare more general and context dependent.

Again, I'm getting out of my depth here so sorry for my presumptuousness! Thanks for responding to the comments.