Chomsky's Separation of Syntax and Semantics

By Washburn, David L. | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 1994 | Go to article overview

Chomsky's Separation of Syntax and Semantics


Washburn, David L., Hebrew Studies Journal


From the time that Noam Chomsky began to popularize his transformational approach to grammar, he and those who followed him insisted on a strict separation between syntactic questions and those involving semantics. (2) Chomsky argued that the two are essentially separate realms and should be examined separately. Syntax involves structure of sentences, whereas semantics involves meaning. (3)

Current approaches to Hebrew grammar do not separate the two. In this paper I would like to explore what sorts of conclusions we may reach in Hebrew if we do separate them. As will be shown, keeping syntax separate from semantics can have far-reaching consequences for Hebrew grammar, especially our understanding of the verbal system.

This paper will focus on a single feature of that verbal system: the socalled imperfect with waw-consecutive (WP). (4) Specifically, it will show that, while current classifications of the WP may often be correct in a semantic sense or within certain semantic/pragmatic contexts, they do not take a truly syntactic approach. When we isolate the syntactic force of the WP, we discover that it carries the force of a simple declarative sentence, and this force provides a unifying factor for what appear at first to be divergent, sometimes mutually exclusive usages.

No attempt will be made to describe transformational generative grammar (TG) in detail. This paper will begin with certain assumptions based on TG, including the following:

1) Syntax is autonomous from other components of a speaker's mental grammar;

2) Syntax begins with a basic set of phrase structure rules and proceeds to a transformational component mat performs certain movement operations on the output of the phrase structure rules;

3) A speaker's mental grammar includes a deep level and a surface level (this is greatly oversimplified, but the details need not concern us at this point);

4) Phrase structures based on the subcategorization frames of individual words are a function of the speaker's mental lexicon, not of the syntactic component proper. (5)

Hebrew grammars generally assume the prevailing view that the tenses in Hebrew express various aspects, or types of action. But in order to maintain such a view, we must give each "aspect" a rather broad definition. For example, the second-year grammar by Waltke and O'Connor calls the WP "perfective" and "subordinate." "Perfective" suggests completed action viewed as a whole, that is, a perfective statement would say "It happened," viewing the overall event from start to finish, whether that event is the twenty year reign of a king or the blink of an eye. The problem is, in order to maintain this view, they must include subcategories such as "persistent perfective" and "indefinite perfective," (6) which are nebulous at best. Sometimes it is difficult to see how an example fits the idea "perfective" at all; for example, Josh 5:9 reads "So that place has been called [WP] Gilgal to this very day" (emphasis mine). A surface reading of this suggests that the force of the verb carries over into the statement "to this very day," which seems to rule out a perfective force. (7)

Both Hopper and Rafferty show, using several languages, that aspect is at its heart a semantic/pragmatic, not a syntactic, phenomenon. (8) Joiion essentially admits this: "Certains verbes ont par eux-memes l'aspect instantane" ou l'aspect duratif.... Certains verbes peuvent avoir l'un ou l'autre aspect selon les nuances du sens et selon les circonstances." (9) That is, their aspect is based on the semantics of the word in question and on the surrounding context, not on the syntactic form of the verb.

This question is crucial for exegesis, as well as for discourse study. The WP is the single most prevalent construction in the Hebrew Bible. If we misunderstand it, such a mistake will throw off all of our study and lead us into a wilderness of our own creation. …

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