What is wrong with calling the Hebrew verb “an aspect”?

Home/ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew verb, Hebrew as second language, Reading biblical languages/What is wrong with calling the Hebrew verb “an aspect”?

What is wrong with calling the Hebrew verb “an aspect”?

The biggest problem with calling the Hebrew verb “an aspect” is the English language. This problem also applies to any language that clearly differentiates aspect from tense, like most of the European languages including Greek. Unfortunately, because Hebrew is quite different from Greek or English, the verb is often described as an “aspect” system that only marks events as ‘whole/complete events’ versus ‘incomplete’ events. But the Hebrew opposition of qatal vs. yiqtol carries more than aspect and includes time, despite popular notions to the contrary.


Students tend to interpret grammatical terminology literally, especially if they have never internalized the language’s morphology through fluent use. The grammatical terminology becomes a kind of life-preserver for them when trying to understand the meaning of a particular sentence. Without the thousands and tens of thousands of hours to refine, correct, and redefine what the grammatical terminology for Hebrew actually means, the students can walk away from their language training with a mistaken understanding of the verb system. Furthermore, in-depth reading and interpretation require a reader to know what a Hebrew writer may or may not have said at any one place, in order to appreciate more fully what the writer actually chose. If the student constructs false options, then the process of reading and interpretation will be skewed.


If a student is told that the Hebrew yiqtol and qatal are only “aspects and not tenses,” then a simple conclusion is that these Hebrew verbs would not carry any potential time value within themselves. Books and teachers often reinforce that conclusion by saying that ‘adverbs’ mark the time reference, “not the verb, the verb marks the aspect.” But that would be false. For example, the Hebrew qatal (also the vayyiqtol category) is not used with an adverb like מחר ‘tomorrow.’ But a pure “aspect” would be able to co-occur with a future adverbial phrase in its clause, just like aorist participles in Greek (which are marked for aspect and with zero time marking) are able to be used with a main verb that is a future indicative.


The Greek participles (aorist, continuative, and perfect) are pure aspects. The participles do not carry potentially absolute time reference. In Koine Greek a person may say αὔριον ἐλθὼν ποιήσω “tomorrow, come (aorist) I will do,” that is—“Tomorrow I will come and do (it).” The aorist participle marks an aspect, the ‘coming’ is viewed as whole, undifferentiated, and complete. The end point of the ‘coming’ is included in the aorist.


But Hebrew does not work like Greek and uses only one verb “tense-aspect” category (yiqtol) with מָחָר ‘tomorrow.’ Hebrew does not allow the qatal category with מָחָר ‘tomorrow’: *מָחָר בָּאתִי “*Tomorrow I came” is not Hebrew. Correct Hebrew with ‘tomorrow’ would be מָחָר אָבוֹא even if the ‘coming’ is viewed as complete. (Likewise, Hebrew does not allow vayyiqtol *וָאָבוֹא מחר “*and I came tomorrow.” Instead, correct Hebrew is ve-qatal ובאתי מחר “and I will come tomorrow” or וַאֲנִי בָא מָחָר “and I am coming tomorrow.”) The best term for an English speaking student describing the Hebrew verb may be “tense-aspect.”


The Hebrew verb had two opposing tense-aspects covering the whole referential world of time, aspect, and mood, though already by the First Temple period the Hebrew participle had also been incorporated within the tense-aspect system, despite its pre-Hebrew origin as an adjective (seen in its endings –im, –ot). So Hebrew had 2 1/2 “tense-aspects” the qatal/vayyiqtol (one tense-aspect), the yiqtol/ve-qatal (a second tense-aspect), and the participle (“1/2”) as available for marking actual presents. See the chapter “Short Syntax of the Hebrew Verb” in Living Biblical Hebrew Part 3 for more information.


This can be diagrammed



The Five Indicative Hebrew Verb Categories

↓                Tense-Aspects                

Definite Tense-Aspect

Indefinite Tense-Aspect






Sequential Past
vayyiqtol  וַיִּקְטֹל
 ‘and he killed’

Sequential Future
veqatal  וְקָטַל
‘and he will kill’
‘and he would kill’





hu qatal  הוּא קָטַל
‘he killed’
‘he had killed’

yiqtol  יִקְטֹל
‘he will kill’
‘he would kill’

hu qotel  הוּא קוֹטֵל
 ‘he is killing’




About the Author:


  1. Ed Mishoe May 29, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Dr. Buth,

    How does the Tower of Babel fit into your linguistic model? In other words, when God instantly created multiple languages and thereby divided the nations, does your linguistic model accept that there is not an “evolutionary” model to languages because multiple languages started independent of one another all at the same moment of time. I’m not a linguist and my question may be a bit naive, but could you do your best to read in between the lines and figure out what my real question is? I greatly respect your model and have been in full agreement with you. I am just wondering if linguist presuppose one point of origin of languages, rather than many points of origin of languages.

  2. David Guldseth June 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm


  3. Randall Buth June 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    shalom Eddie,

    Your question is a bit off topic but I’ll briefy deal with it. First, you don’t know how the Tower of Babel worked and it may have included a rapid increase of language change where a millenium of change took place in day and continued for months. Secondly, no language is static. We see differences in First Temple Hebrew and Second Temple Hebrew and can find features of Hebrew in older and contemporary-sister Semitic languages. Perhaps your focus was on ‘evolutionary/developmental’, and then it may be important to point out that most language change is done to make communication easier, smoother, faster. In the 19th century people romanticized the older languages and called the descendants “corruptions”. Today language change is usually viewed neutrally, neither a corruption or a sophistication but simply change.

  4. […] have not used this term up to this point because there are Hebrew scholars who will say there is no “Perfect Tense” in Hebrew. This seems like semantics to me. However, I am not an expert in Hebrew and will therefore […]

Leave A Comment