Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hebrew time check?

I'm afraid my semester of Hebrew ("some islands of knowledge, but much is still sea") doesn't allow me to comment, but surely F de Saussure is wrong to say that:

Hebrew does not recognize even the fundamental distinctions between the past, present and future.

Course in General Linguistics pp116-117 quoted in Hawkes, Terence, Structuralism and Semiotics (London, Routledge, 1977), pp27-28

That seems kinda important to me. Maybe someone could explain it all to me and save me from the possibility of much sermon-silliness along the way?


Neil said...

Depends what he means by "recognise the distinction". It is true that the perfect and imperfect (Hebrew's 2 tenses) can both be past, present or future depending on context, but even then there are various markers commonly accepted to point you one way or t'other. James Oakley recently blogged about Bible translations in which he suggested translating Hebrew is even more of an interpretative task than translating Greek.

More controversially, does any language recognise the distinction: I understand that there is a movement amongst some grammarians to argue that in many languages where we think verbal tense = time, it actually refers more to aspect. But then, the more PhDs are written, the more difficult it is to find something original to say!

ros said...

There are certainly ways to express concepts like 'two years earlier' and 'tomorrow' in Hebrew, as well as 'now', 'then', 'when'.