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The grammatical function of Hebrew wayyiqtol



yiqtol is plain future tense with no exceptions

qatal is plain past tense with no exceptions 

wayiqtol means "and + yiqtol". For example, wayyomer is "and he would say."

weqatal sometimes means "and + qatal," and other time reverses qatal into future tense 

Wayyomer, "and he would say" construct refers to the past events. The narrator actually employs wayyomer as future tense - but from the shifted deicted center. The narrator is immersed into the recited events. He moves with the timeline of his recital. For the narrator, the words after wayyomer are not yet pronounced, but remain in future. He indeed means, "and he would say." The narrator uses wayyomer as future tense.

Hexapla records wayyiqtols and weyiqtols similarly. That suggests that separate form of wayyiqtol and its grammatical function are invented.

Note that yiqtols are rarely used for past reference, but mostly wayiqtols. That's extremely characteristic of recital. "And" is commonly inserted specifically in recitals. Recall how often, for example, "and + verb" is used in the Gospel of Mark.

Deictic center shifts are uncommon in English, but extremely common in old Russian which is why I always found it completely natural to read Hebrew precisely, "and he would say." 

Similarly, weqatal is often employed superficially as future reference. But that occurs predominantly in prophetic visions. Prophets relate the visions which had already occurred to them, which they had fully seen. The action is, indeed, past to them - and they employ the past tense, wecatav means "and he wrote." The event is still in the future for listeners, but past, occurred for the prophet.

Weqatals also used to denote future, but highly assured actions (Ex25), considered as done, past. Parallel to Russian strong command, "-, !" (Now, jumped!)

Apocopation is purely phonetic. When the accent shifts onto the first syllable, unaccented final syllable is sometimes lost.


Hebrew is highly structured, and possesses intricate system of verb paradigms and others forms. Intensity, causation, passivity, reversal (hophal), and other relations are grammaticalized in verbs, possibly distinguishing more than thirty paradigms. Grammaticalized are also possession and conjunction, tense or aspect reversal (wayiqtol), and imperative mood. Hebrew is agglutinative language, and emphasizes verbs. Every imaginable relation is thus grammaticalized in verbs. It would be odd for so developed verb structure to lack tenses.

Agglutinative languages should grammaticalize the common concepts: verbs are generally used with subject, and pronouns became affixes. Tenses are more needed than aspects, and should have been grammaticalized before them.

Chinese, commonly cited for absence of grammaticalized tenses, employs participle for aspects and adverbs for tenses; aspects and tenses have grammatically similar status. Chinese also has nothing like the Hebrew flexibility of verbs. It is not difficult to conceive of a primitive or morphologically inflexible language that relies on context to establish temporal reference. But when verbs have so many inflexions as in Hebrew, it unlikely that time reference, a basis of human thought, is not among them.

Polynesian Tagalog is cited to the contrary. Yet, the fact that different grammars claim either aspects or tenses in that language testifies to ambiguity of determining the nuances of meaning in a language with no history of writing and heavily affected by loans. The locals who use the same verb for He ate; he has eaten; he had eaten but not for he eat; he is eating or he will eat; he will be eating seem to relate tense rather than aspects.

Tenses are sufficiently important that Romance languages preserved them, though lost many other features of Latin. Even pidgins and generally slang preserve tenses. Hebrew recognizes aspects through paradigms. Qatal/ yiqtol forms etymologically make tenses.


Pundits of the aspects theory assert that tenses are unnecessary because context makes the time reference clear. That is a misuse of the term context which is normally reserved for explicit details. Adverbial context in Yesterday he study makes the time reference unambiguous, but such context is uncommon in Tanakh. Past reference is contextually clear in the historical books of Tanakh, but consider, for example, the last phrase of Isaiah 53:12 where explicit context offers no guidance on the time reference. The tense hypothesis dictates reading in the future tense. The aspects theory allows temporal flexibility, and makes also possible the convenient past tense translation. Interpreters working from the aspects theory present their exegetical views as context.

Aspect-only language would be very ambiguous, since completion is often open to doubt and whether the action was prolonged or not is highly subjective; different writers may describe the same process with different aspects. That flexibility makes the aspect-only hypothesis attractive to biblical interpreters, and enables them to adapt the text to exegetical needs.

2Kings8:29: Arameans wounded Joram in battle. Genesis2:6: mist was sent on earth. Neither of these yiqtols is significantly continuous. Standard translations of the Bible render only a minority of yiqtols as imperfective.

Almost any action could be labeled continuous; all yiqtols could be claimed imperfect. A hypothesis so flexible that no counterexample could be construed to test it is unscientific.

Genesis1:2: the earth was void. Genesis38:21: there has been no harlot at Enaim. Use of qatal for these and other past continuous shows that Hebrew accentuates time rather than completion or continuity.


The hypothesis of tenses passes Occams razor: it is the simplest, most unambiguous way of translating verbs. Moreover, if Hebrew words have tenses, then prefixes waw have plain meaning of tense reversal. The hypothesis of aspects makes for more complex interpretation, and is inferior in Occams framework.

There is nothing enigmatic about Hebrew qatal/yiqtol verb forms: they are tenses. Sometimes, a deictic center shifts. Sometimes, idioms etymologically based on future tense acquire specialized meaning. But, by default, qatal refers to the past, and yiqtol to the future. Explicit shift of the deictic center warrants a different understanding. Even then, a translation must move a deictic center, not redefine the tense. For example, Judges 9:38, And Zebul said to him, Where is your big talk now, you, who would [routinely] say rather than, you, who said or was saying.

Context does not change the meaning of tenses. Future tense remains future, just the deictic center shifts backwards. Narrator is transposed into the past events, and what is past for his contemporaries, is now future for him.

            Deictic center shift was the original meaning of prefix waw, and tense reversal is derivative sense. "And he would say" (wayiqtol) about past events and "and he said" (weqatal) by a prophet who relates his vision - evolved into "he said" and "he will say," respectively.

If the tense hypothesis is correct, yiqtol should be used in descriptions of past events much more often then qatal in the accounts of future. This is because narrators are often mentally transposed into depicted events (and use future tense for the past), while mostly prophets who describe their visions are transposed into the future (and use past tense for already envisagednot yet happenedevents). That deduction is consistent with facts.

The tense hypothesis also explains a common mix of wayiqtols and weqatals in prophecies. When a prophet relays his vision, he fluctuates between vision and reality. Visionssomething which he had seenare described generally with the past tense, qatal and wayiqtol. Reality is his presence among the listeners, and prophet switches from live report to narration of the future events, thus future tense, yiqtol and weqatal.

Some wayiqtols relate future events, "and + future tense verb" without deictic center shift.

Testing the tense hypotheses means answering a question: does the text generally make sense if the verbs are read as having tenses rather than aspects? The hypothesis could be disproved by examples of verbs meaningless in their tense, like "yesterday he will say," or implausible.


Practical definition of tenses involves a question of the deictic center, past or future relative to what? In English, deictic center generally coincides with the time of writing. Consider, however, I told him, I will/would do it with future tense for the past reference; also, He wouldnt agree to any of the options that were offered him. Grammatical future tense may express timeless reference, Who would oppose such force?

President X will attend the conference tomorrow in a year-old newspaper, and In a few days, he will become a new emperor in a historical novel have future tense referring to past events. In the first example, the events are past from readers viewpoint, and in the second example from the writers. Yet, tenses are recognized in English.

In some languages, notably Russian and Hebrew, deictic center shifts are widespread. The deictic shifts are commonplace in ancient narrations whose authors are less disciplined than modern historians; Thucydides routinely say, Next to refer to the events long apart, but which are indeed next on his mind. The idea behind deictic center shifts is emphasis: narrator is mentally transposed into the events, and what is past for his readers or contemporaries, is still ahead for him. Likewise, a prophet may be mentally transposed into his vision, and describe some of the envisaged events as already past. The authors of Leviticus list the items in procedural order rather than in the order of importance (Lev8:14-26).

Consider how flexible the emphatic speech is in Russian: He told me get out! And I as would tell him ( ) let yourself went away ( )! or And I tell him ( ) you shall go ( )! Just any combination of tenses occurs. Take the first clause, "I met him." If a speaker imagines himself just before the event, he uses future tense. If he imagines the encounter already taking place, he uses present tense. If he does not imagine anything, and realizes his present, and that he is talking of the past event, then he would use the past tense.

Such usage of tenses or, rather, of the deictic center, is literary. Emphatic speech is commonplace in Russian: literary narration, historic accounts, agitated speech, testimony at trial (e.g., a criminal speaking of his relations with victim). Deictic shifts (ostensibly irregular use of tenses) in Tanakh are also concentrated in emphatic lines.

Russian examples demonstrate that wild swings of deictic center, indeed, occur in some languages, and could explain Hebrew use of tenses. The examples also oppose application of English grammatical mentality, with limited deictic center shifts, to Hebrew. If deictic shifts, common in Russian, explain Hebrew usage of future tense in similar environments, then likely Hebrews indeed understood future tense in the same way as Russians, as prone to deictic shifts. If exactly the same turn as ci-yiqtol exists in Russian, and makes perfect reading of Hebrew text without compromising the future tense of yiqtol, then likely ci-yiqtol has idiomatic meaning similar to the Russian.

Every language has idioms and specifics in using the word forms. A person unfamiliar with English forms might interpret "I was going" as causative. How could we know what Hebrews meant by "future in the past"? Only by comparing those turns to similar turns in current languages. Russian has exactly such turns, and English - remotely similar.

Deictic center shifts do not invalidate the concept of tenses. Rather, tenses relate to the narrators deictic center, not to the time of writing. With that in mind, Hebrew verb forms generally conform to the pattern of tenses.

Deictic shifts cannot be positively proved; no proposition could be proved in natural sciences. The hypothesis of deictic shifts, however, is not unreasonable and explains the facts, and thus might be accepted. In similar environments in Russian, deictic shifts are universally accepted. Interpretation is ambiguous; e.g., choosing a meaning of homonyms. Deictic center shifts are explicit in the context: a yiqtol among qatals in a phrase in emphatic text. Identification of deictic shifts is much less subjective than interpretation generally.

2 Kings 8:29, King Joram settled in Jezreel to be healed from the wounds the Arameans had inflicted (yiqtol) upon him. The tangled narration moves from Jorams death (8:24) back to his wound (8:28). The confused writer shifted his attention (and the deictic center) from settling in Jezreel to the previous verse where Joram and Ahaziah lead army against Arameans. The writers associations are clear: when he was to mention wounds from Arameans, he was transposed to Joram moving against them, and wounds remained in future. Another association was Ahaziah coming to see Joram in Jezreel (later in 8:29), and that also transposed the writer to the same earlier account of Joram and Ahaziah moving against Arameans.

Genesis 2:10: And a river would go (yiqtol) out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it would part (yiqtol), would become (weqatal) four heads. The writer transposes himself into the beginning of the events; partition of the river is still ahead of that deictic center. He lives the situation before the major event he is going to describe, like a sports commentator reviewing a playback of past match: "Now he will move forward." It is a sense of anticipation - of the coming future. The "historic future," also existing in Russian, indeed qualifies as future event - from narrator's shifted time reference. Similar historic present is universally recognized in Russian and English as stemming from deictic shift. If the text were read with the participle ci implied, the actions described would acquire the sense of continuity.


Hebrew future tense was also used to express relativity of past actions. English developed a specific form, past perfect, to that end. Hebrew past/future and English pre-past/past pairs express similar notion. Hebrew past perfect is always explicit: a combination of future and past tenses with time clause. Genesis 37:18, and before he reached (yiqtol) them, they had plotted (wayiqtol) to kill him. Except for the convention of using past perfect with time clauses, English future in the past comes even closer to Hebrew: and before he would reach them, they plotted to kill him. The form possibly implies deictic shift: narrator transposes himself to the time point between the two actions; one action remains in the past (the plot is already a fact), another in the future (Joseph did not come yet).


Hebrew employs future tense for what appears to be strong imperative mode. There is no reason, however, to translate future as imperative: You will not covet reading is not inferior to You shall not covet, and even agrees with English and Russian stylistics. The commandments particularly are meant as statements of the expected facts, not instructions, and will is preferable to imperative shall. Thou+yiqtol is not semantically different from I+yiqtol, yet the first is often categorized as imperative, while the last as future. A choice between translating as future or imperative is often subjective. Language, and yiqtol in particular, has many shades of meaning, rolling and intertwining; inventing a category for every such shade is superfluous.

Marking out cohortative yiqtol is hair-splitting. Adding suffix hey (participle na) just softens the command. Russian similarly employs imperative with participle ka without the speakers recognizing them as separate mood.

Strength of accent is the only grammatical difference between future and jussive. Strong accent of jussive elongates u/i to o/e in aynwaw,iod verbs.

Imperative, cohortative and jussive are shades of meaning of future tense, and could be translated as future.


Some Hebrew idiomatic expressions with future tense are paralleled in Russian, but not in English. Genesis 37:15, A man asked him, asking, What wilt thou (yiqtol)? Ultra-polite Russian equivalent, ? employs future tense. The writer had unconsciously attributed to commoner piety toward Joseph. Where the use of yiqtol for future tense seems wrong to English and German translators, it is generally correct to Russian speakers, and might be correct for Hebrew speakers.


Yiqtol sometimes describes habitual, prolonged, or anticipated action, often in the idiomatic form ci-yiqtol. And he spoke to her: `As I spoke (yiqtol) to Nabot the Jezreelite , I told him..., 1 Kings 21:6. In the emphatic speech, Ahab, the narrator, first imagined himself just before meeting Nabot. The deictic center then shifted to the present (time of narration), and Ahab continued in the past tense. That sounds wild under English speaking conventions, but consider: Every time I would speak to Nabot, I tell him or, Now, I speak to Nabot and tell him. English is also mildly flexible in using tenses, and allows for deictic center shifts inside a phrase. Deictic shift alone explains the use of the future tense; Russian equivalent idiom, however, suggests habitual action, and such action is plausible in the context.

The narrator possibly had in mind not a single, but routine clash of Ahab and Nabot over the vineyard. Also possible is a sense of prolonged rather than habitual action: narrator relates the encounter in a few words, but keeps many more issues (like the subsequent actions of the queen) implicit. English equivalent would always is not formally future tense; it is, however, related to will, and Russian preserves future tense in this idiom ( , ). Russian, like Hebrew, employs as with the verb. Russian commonly uses the idiom for highly anticipated events, , and he as would assault the enemy Habit, longevity, and anticipation are intertwined, and not surprisingly all those shades of meaning could be recognized in 1Kings 21:6.

It is not incidental that habitual action was originally denoted by future tense, though that meaning blurred in idiomatic usage. A narrator transposes himself to the time reference point where some of the sequential events are still ahead of him. Speaker is mentally transposed back; at least some meetings are in the future for him. His deictic center shifts, and he employs future tense.

1 Samuel 11:5 is an example of ci-yiqtol used for prolonged action, What is about the people that they should weep?

Yiqtol in Genesis 32:33 parallels English would never, Therefore the children of Israel would never eat (yiqtol) the sinew Russian employs historic present, , but could also use future tense, . Abstinence remains in the future for the narrator transposed into the event that caused the abstinence.


A related idiom, ca-asher yiqtol, describes comparable habitual action. Deuteronomy 1:44 "they pursued you, as the bees would [habitually] do (yiqtol)."

If bees would take the place of the pursuers, the bees would behave thus. Narrator mentally clears the pursuers off the table, puts bees in their place, and expects the bees to operate similarly. New deictic center is the moment of putting bees on the table, and their actions are in the future.

The mode of thinking, of the deictic center shift, is purely conventional. Russian allows both future ( , as the bees would pursue) and, more conventionally, grammatical past form ( , as the bees might have pursued). In the last case, the narrator is detached, his deictic center is in the present, and he relays of the past events.


Why is it important to follow the future-related meaning of yiqtol rather than to translate the verbs as suits the context? One reason is the same as for use of idioms: to make the text vibrant. Compare Job 1:5, Thus Job did all the time and Thus Job would do all the time.

Another reason for literal translation is that it limits exegesis that interpreters introduce into translation.


Yiqtol originally meant future tense. Idioms with yiqtol eventually lost the sense of future, and took on idiomatic meaning. The etymological sense of future reference is often traceable in idioms, usually through deictic shifts. Hebrew usage of future in idioms is paralleled in Russian, and, if we accept would as related to will and etymologically to the future tense, is also paralleled in English. That must be more than a coincidence, and reinforces the argument that Hebrew idioms are semantically related to the future tense: narrators of important accounts re-live the events, are mentally transposed back before the events they describe as future reference; they pause before a major event in awe, and the event is in the future for them. The partition of the river of Eden is past for us or for the first readers, but it was in the immediate future for the narrator whose time reference point shifted back in Genesis2:10.

Would, originally a past tense of will, parallels yiqtols use for past reference. Would eventually became specialized for idiomatic use, and interchangeable with will in some environments to reflect subtle shades of meaning. Yiqtol remained equivalent of English will/would. Spanish, for example, also do not differentiate (like will/would) between future reference and future tense idioms; Italian employs future in conditional future constructs (if) where English employs would.

Occasional idioms and deictic shifts do not invalidate tenses in those languages, and should not in Hebrew. The large ratio of deictic shifts and idioms to all yiqtols in Tanakh is not representative of the Hebrew: Tanakh contains much of emphatic narrations and prophecies where deictic shifts are much more common than in regular speech. Intensely figurative style of Tanakh also expectedly contains unusually many idioms. Literary English similarly employs the turns with would much more often than the colloquial language. The writers of Tanakh passed their work for ancient writings, and spiced it with idioms, odd turns, and otherwise unpopular wayiqtols.

Standard translations render only a minority (40% in RSV) of yiqtols as future tense. Other groups are, however, much smaller. Present tense makes 25% of yiqtols; many of them could be translated as future tense, cf. the example of Genesis 37:15. Imperative makes 16% of yiqtols; translating those as imperative rather than future is a matter of very questionable convention. Yiqtols in idioms are often translated as modal, though they should be rendered with would. Past tense translation of yiqtols is often future in the past, and should be rendered with future tense.

Those who do not accept the future tense with deictic shifts and idioms, wind up inventing a separate mood for every turn and every idiom. And then, they claim that those moods are "not exactly" future, that they are something hypothetical else. Of course, there are shades of meaning. But using English phrase, "You will do it" as a command does not invalidate general use of "will" as future tense. Likewise, yiqtol is future tense, sometimes used for idioms that derived from future tense semantics.

The mentality and moulds of English and German languages make the future tense of such idioms incomprehensible for translators. Russian speakers have no difficulty recognizing deictic shifts behind the use of future tense in idioms and for the past reference.



The accent shift in wayiqtol has to do with secondary accent on wa. Such
accent parallels the secondary accent on ha, as in hAbbOker. Why the
secondary accent?
One reason is that otherwise pro-pretonic vowel would tend to contract,
wayyomEr - w'yomEr. The Masoretes shifted accent in chanting to prevent the
contraction of wayIqtol into weyiqtOl.
Another reason is that the particle wa is morphologically independent of
subsequent word and retains its own accent. The secondary accent is, in my
opinion, responsible for post-tonic gemination (dagesh hazak), wa+yomEr -
Third reason for the accent shift is common usage of wayyiqtols with
subsequent noun, as in wayyomer elokim. There is a similar English
convention, thirtEen, but thIrteen hundred.
Fourth reason for the accent shift is the specific soft intonation of
recital. Again appealing to Russian parallel, "
" becomes ":-"
(and pronounced - andprO-nOunced).
In the end, the word had three accents: on wa (reasons 1-2), on the second
vowel (reasons 3-4), and the third vowel (original accent of omEr). That mix
caused accent shift to the penultimate syllable.
There is an opposite tendency. Accent shift causes hirek to be stressed,
wayyIqtol. That's counter-intuitive for Hebrew speakers because only final
hirek could generally be stressed. Absent of the specific chanting
intonation, wayiqtOl would retain the original ultimate accent.

It seems to me that most wayiqtols have penultimate accent, but that it is
not a strict grammatical rule but rather a matter of pronunciation in
chanting or recital. Singers and even poets not rarely shift accents. The rule, if any, is likely to account for context and intonation of phrases rather than work on the level of words. The same
word could contract in one context and retain the final unaccented vowel in
another context.

Accent placement variation among various verb stems seems to me to do with moraic stress, wayyOmer, watE-dabEr. That could be important in chanting or recital.

We might have extra-Masoretic evidence. Hexapla shows wayiqtols with ou,
like weyiqtols, and has no gemination. It seems that the Masoretes
introduced the differentiation between wayiqtols and weyiqtols.
Another possible evidence is lack of post-tonic gemination in the second
root letter, wayyOmer rather than the expected wayyOmmer. That suggests that
the accent shift, if any, occurred rather late after the "strength" of
consonants was fixed.
Overall, it seems that the accent shift is chanting phenomenon rather than
grammatical rule.