Fwd: Complexity

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Thu Mar 17 19:10:10 UTC 2011

I am forwarding a note from A. Gianto, SJ, a noted Semiticist.  He is 
not on the list but I think his post is relevant.  TG


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 	Complexity
Date: 	Thu, 17 Mar 2011 16:35:20 +0100
From: 	A.Gianto <gianto at biblico.it>
To: 	Tom Givon <tgivon at uoregon.edu>

The TAM system in Biblical Hebrew (BH) is a good example of a grammaticalization process that adds complexity to a previous system, Aramaic, though stemming from the same system as BH, took the opposite path.

The development of the "prefix conjugation" in BH (generally called "imperfect, yixtov 'he writes'; cf. Arabic yaktub-u) is a strategy to handle the confusion resulting from the loss of final short vowels /a,i,u/ at the end of a word in a previous stage. Comparative evidence (cf. Arabic) suggests that the prefix conjugation in this earlier stage had at least four forms, i.e, 3masc. sg.  imperfect: yaktub-u, narrative yaktub-ø (=zero); jussive: yaktub-ø, optative yaktub-a. (The narrrative and jussive have the same form but they have a complementary distribution.) When the final short vowels dropped, the forms risk to get confused with one another and their special use got compromised.  In Hebrew, yixtov<  *yaktub<  *yaktub-u was generalized as the imperfect form in BH. This is a grammaticalization process that introduces complexity rather than simplifying the situation. But the story goes on. The narrative yaktub-ø, however, still looked very much like the imperfect. To deal with this, BH only allows the narrative yaktub-ø to stand in the first-position - and to "seal" this constraint, a conjunction wa- was prefixed to it, hence the form wayyiqtol ("converted imperfect") is always clause initial.

The old optative yaktub-a took another path. When the final vowel -a was dropped, it became yaktub, making it too similar to the imperfect. The strategy taken is interesting. The optative paradigm gave up its 2nd and 3rd persons. But the sg and pl of 1st persons got stabilized into what BH grammar calls "cohortative" 'ektva: and nektva: 'I/we wish to write'.

At the beginning Aramaic took a similar path, i.e, generalizing the old imperfect into just one form yixtuv<  *yaktub<  *yaktub-u. The old narrative *yaktub disappeared and its function was taken over by the so-called narrative participle. Unlike BH, the old optative formally did not survive and the category became no longer operative in Aramaic. All kinds of wish are now expressed either by the imperfect or jussive.

The skeletal picture above shows how two closely related languages like BH and Aramaic took opposite paths. BH opted for an ever complex grammaticalization, Aramaic, so to speak, reduced the grammaticalization process to the basics.


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