This post continues the series of word order in Biblical Hebrew.  Previously, we examined several features of Biblical Hebrew syntax that affect word order, namely grammatical words at the heads of clauses, and Irreal mood (parts available here and here). If we accept that standard, unmarked word order in Biblical Hebrew is SV, each of these triggers inverted VS word order.

Arguably the most common feature that triggers inverted word order is the traditionally-called wayyiqtol  or waw-consecutive pattern. In the past, it was thought that the waw-consecutive form “converts” the meaning of a usually present-tense verb to past; however, we now are reasonably certain that the wayyiqtol form is, in fact, a true past-tense form, having evolved from the protosemitic form *yaqtulu, distinctive from the imperfect *yaqtul. Therefore, we should not think of this form as merely “converting” the verb tense from present to past; rather, we should see the wayyiqtol form as its own unique form, independent from the imperfective yiqtol form.

That said, let’s look at some examples. Since unmarked Biblical Hebrew word order is relatively rare, I have constructed my own examples, showing how they would exist in unmarked word order, followed by how they exist in the past narrative form.

(1)   וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ Now, the man knew his wife. (Gen 4:1)
(unmarked, no inversion)
  *וַיֵדַע הָאָדָם אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ The man knew his wife. (reconstructed)
(marked, triggered SVO inversion)
(2)   *וְאָבְרָהָם הִשְׁכִּים בַּבֹקֶר וְחָבַשׁ אֶת־חֲמֹרוֹ וְלָקַח אֶת־שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ Now, Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and he took two of his youths with him. (reconstructed)
(unmarked, SV word order, no inversion)
  וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and he took two of his youths with him (Gen 22:3a)
(past narrative wayyiqtol, triggers SV inversion)

The presence of the Past Narrative vayyiqtol, along with the frequency of grammatical words at the heads of clauses, contributes to the assumed conclusion that the standard word order is VS.  VS is certainly the “most common” word order in Hebrew narrative. However, just because it is the most common does not mean that we should assume that it is the “default” word order, which  grammarians have believed for hundreds of years. We should not be afraid to question the preconceived notions of medieval grammarians. 🙂

Up next, we will examine the final characteristic of Hebrew grammar that triggers inverted word order – the concepts of Topic and Focus.



4 thoughts on “Word order in Biblical Hebrew, pt. 4: The Past Narrative Conjugation

  1. Refael Shalev says:

    Hi Johnathan,
    I think that wa’yiqtol is the short form like in arabic (majzum). The indicativ is yaqtulu, thus ויבך the short form versus יבכה.
    Although there is a difference between the short form of the imperfect in hebrew and arabic.

    • You are correct. I had the yaqtul/yaqtulu forms switched around! Nice catch.

      In any case, linguists are arguing for a Past Narrative form precisely based on the Akkadian preterit. In this case, it’s not simply a matter of protosemitic reconstructions and conjectures – we actually have a regular Past Narrative form in Akkadian.

      Thanks for your comment! I probably should edit the post!


      • Refael Shalev says:

        Thank you Johnathan.

        I heard about the akkadian “wa’ yaqtul” but I really don’t see the need to comparison with akkadian. The form is quite clear even when it seen like waw+ verb.

    • Jonathan says:

      Very true, but historical grammarians and linguists care very much about this stuff! It’s one of the hot debates in the field right now. 🙂

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