Prefix vs. suffix conjugations
Biblical Hebrew has two main ways that each verb can be conjugated. The suffix conjugation takes suffixes indicating the person, number and gender of the subject, and normally indicates past tense (or alternatively, perfective aspect). The so-called prefix conjugation actually takes both prefixes and suffixes, with the prefixes primarily indicating person (and sometimes number and/or gender), while the suffixes (which are completely different from those used in the suffix conjugation) indicate number and gender whenever the prefix does not mark this. The prefix conjugation in Biblical Hebrew normally indicates non-past tense (or alternatively, imperfective aspect).
However, early Biblical Hebrew has two additional conjugations, both of which have an extra prefixed letter waw, with meanings more or less reversed from the normal meanings. That is, "waw + prefix conjugation" has the meaning of a past (particularly in a narrative context), and "waw + suffix conjugation" has the meaning of a non-past, opposite from normal (non-waw) usage. This apparent reversal of meaning triggered by the waw prefix led to the early term waw-conversive (in Hebrew waw hahipuch, literally "the waw of reversal"). The modern understanding, however, is somewhat more nuanced, and the term waw-consecutive is now used.
The waw prefix
This Hebrew prefix, spelled with the letter ו (waw), is normally a conjunction with the meaning of "and" or "and the". Although always appearing in unpointed texts as a simple waw, it has various pronunciations depending on meaning and phonetic context. Specifically:
- When meaning "and", it is pronounced (and vocalized) as /wə-/ in most contexts, but as /u-/ either when the next consonant is a labial consonant (e.g. /b/, /p/, /m/, /w/) or when the vowel after the next consonant is a schwa.
- When meaning "and the", it is always pronounced as /wa-/, and triggers gemination of the next consonant (marked with a dagesh, or dot in the center of the letter, in vocalized text). Additional complications arise when the following consonant is in the class of consonants that cannot be geminated. /wa-/ is thought to be a contraction of /wǝ-ha-/ "and-the-" (note that the definite article /ha-/ likewise triggers gemination and similar complications).
- yôm wə-laylâ
- יוֹם וְלַיְלָה
- Day and night.
When the waw prefix appears as part of a waw-consecutive form, it appears as /wǝ-/ (or /u-/) before the suffix conjugation, but /wa-/ + gemination before the prefix conjugation. Furthermore, the form of the prefix conjugation in the waw-consecutive form is sometimes different from that of the plain form, with stress retraction and concomitant weakening of the final vowel, e.g. in the hip̄ʿīl and nip̄ʿāl lexical conjugations.
|Suffix conjugation||Prefix conjugation|
|"he entered"||"(and) he will enter"||"he will enter"||"(and) he entered"|
Consecutive verb syntax
Used with verbs, the prefix has a double function. It is still conjunctive, but also has the effect of altering the tense and aspect of the verb. Weingreen gives the following example. If we consider two simple past narrative statements, we expect to find them in the perfect tense:
- šāmar hammeleḵ eṯ dəḇar YHWH
- שָׁמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת דְּבַר יהוה
- The king kept the word of the LORD
- šāp̄aṭ eṯ haʿam bəṣeḏeq
- שָׁפַט אֶת הָעָם בְּצֶדֶק
- He judged the people in righteousness.
Šāmar ('kept') and šāp̄aṭ ('judged') are simple perfect qal forms, and in fact they are the citation forms of these verbs. If however these two sentences are not separate but in one continuous narrative then only the first verb is in the perfect, whereas the following verb ('and he judged') is in the imperfect (yišpôṭ) with a prefixed waw:
- šāmar hammeleḵ eṯ dəḇar YHWH wayyišpôṭ eṯ-haʿam bəṣeḏeq
- שָׁמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת דְּבַר יהוה וַיִּשְׁפּוֹט אֶת הַעַם בְּצֶדֶק
- The king kept the word of the LORD and he judged the people in righteousness.
Conversely, in a continuous narrative referring to the future, the narrative tense will be the imperfect, but this becomes a perfect after the conjunction:
- yišmôr hammeleḵ eṯ dəḇar YHWH wəšāp̄aṭ eṯ-haʿam bəṣeḏeq
- יִשְׁמוֹר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת דְּבַר יהוה וְשָׁפַט אֶת הַעַם בְּצֶדֶק
- The king will keep the word of the LORD and he will judge the people in righteousness.
The origin of this construction is usually placed in a shift in the meanings of certain verbal forms between Proto-Semitic and the Central Semitic languages. In Proto-Semitic, still largely reflected in East Semitic, prefix conjugations are used both for the past and the non-past, with different vocalizations. Cf. Akkadian niprus "we decided" (preterite), niptaras "we have decided" (perfect), niparras "we decide" (non-past), vs. suffix-conjugated parsānu "we are/were/will be deciding" (stative). According to Hetzron, Proto-Semitic had an additional form, the jussive, which was distinguished from the preterite only by the position of stress: the jussive had final stress while the preterite had non-final (retracted) stress.
Central Semitic significantly reshaped the system:
|Form (Akkadian)||Proto-Semitic meaning||Waw-consecutive meaning||Central-Semitic meaning|
|ní-prus||preterite||past (esp. narrative)||—|
|ni-p-taras||perfect||—||made part of lexical conjugation system (cf. Form VIII -t- conjugation in Arabic)|
Essentially, the old prefix-conjugated jussive broadened to cover the non-past in general, while the stative switched from a non-tense-specific form to something specifically indicating a past action; meanwhile, the old prefix-conjugated non-past was discarded, as was the prefix-conjugated past (which increasingly came to sound the same as the prefix-conjugated jussive). New suffixes added to distinguish different grammatical moods (e.g. indicative mood vs. subjunctive vs. jussive).
However, in Hebrew, elements of the old system survived alongside the new system for a while. Hetzron suggests that the uses of the prefix-conjugated past were prefixed with */hawaya/ "it was" to clearly distinguish it from the often-homophonous prefix-conjugated non-past, and this evolved into /wa-/. This in turn was confused with /wa-/ "and the", causing it to take on the same phonological properties (e.g. the gemination of the following consonant). The non-past "/wǝ-/ + suffix-conjugation" was created by analogy, quite possibly influenced by the survival of the suffix conjugation as a stative form with nonspecific tense. Because the /wa-/ or /wǝ-/ was naturally interpreted as meaning "and" in addition to a signal for a different tensal interpretation of the forms, the waw-consecutive forms tended to be used in narrative, particularly in continuing rather than starting a story—precisely the places where the use of "and" would make sense.
Older explanations tended to posit that Hebrew was a "mixed language" derived from multiple Semitic sources, and that the two different tense systems reflect this mixed heritage. G. R. Driver writes: "All attempts to explain this at first sight strange phenomenon, whereby two tenses apparently exchange functions, on logical grounds, have failed, but the historical development of the Hebrew language readily accounts for it. When it is remembered that this is a composite language containing elements drawn from all the Semitic languages, it is at once seen why it has two pronouns for the first person...[n 1] So there are two different systems, drawn from different sources, merged in the Hebrew scheme of tenses." On this view, the consecutive constructions are connected with the verb systems of East Semitic (Driver makes a comparison with Akkadian), whereas the ordinary verb construction reflects the usage in Northwest Semitic (Aramaic). The two have survived side-by-side in the Hebrew verb paradigm.
This explanation (and "mixed language" explanations in general) are not commonly accepted among current linguists.
Modern Hebrew makes little use of waw consecutive constructions, but they are still found in classical allusions and references, and are readily understood.
- Hebrew has two words for "I": אֲנִי (ʾănî), which Driver explains as a West Semitic form, and אָנֹכִי (ʾānōḵî), which is East Semitic.
- Weingreen, Practical Grammar p. 90.
- Robert Hetzron. "Biblical Hebrew" in The World's Major Languages.
- G. R. Driver, in a letter to J. Weingreen, printed on p. 252 of Weingreen's Practical Grammar
- Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, §49, §111, §112
- J. Weingreen, A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, Oxford University Press 1939.
- A.B. Davidson, Hebrew Syntax, 1894, reprint of 3rd edition T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1981.