'Why does a vav turn the future into the past in Hebrew?" asks a reader. It's a great question, with a fascinating answer.
The reader is referring to vav hahipuch, the "changing" vav, which, in biblical Hebrew - but not modern Hebrew - appears to change verbs from the past tense into the future and vice versa.
Normally, in both biblical and modern Hebrew, a prefixed vav means "and." "Eilat and Tel Aviv" in Hebrew is Eilat v'Tel Aviv. But in biblical Hebrew, the vav seems to have an additional function. While y'dabeir means "he will speak," vay'dabeir - with a vav before the verb - means either "and he will speak" or "he spoke," as in the very common vay'dabeir Adonai el Moshe ("God spoke to Moses"). It works the other way around, too. While haya means "he was," v'haya means either "and he was" or "he will be." But we know from linguistics that letters don't magically change the tenses on verbs, so something else must be going on. We also know from linguistics that tense patterns vary widely within a language depending on circumstances.
For example, formal English prefers the past tense, as when a waiter at a fancy restaurant asks, "Did you want dessert tonight?" (The wrong answer is, "Yes, I did, but it's too late now.") Similarly, news about the past is often presented in the present tense: "Four rockets land in uninhabited areas in the North" might be the beginning of a newscast. Sports sometimes requires the future tense for what has already happened: After Maccabi Tel Aviv scores a winning goal seconds before the end of the game, the sports announcer cries, "And that'll be the game!" Will be? Why not "was"?
Jumping back to Hebrew, we find a different set of quirks. Perhaps the most interesting involves a tiny subset of verbs used for motion away from a place: halach ("go," or "go away from"), zaz ("move," as in, "get a move on"), etc. Surprisingly, a speaker can use these verbs in the past tense to express the rough equivalent of "let's go." Rather than the expected nazuz ("Shall we move?"), we usually hear zaznu? ("Did we move?"). Similarly, halachnu? ("We went?") substitutes for nelech? ("Shall we go?"). This past-for-future game only works with verbs of motion. Achalnu? ("Did we eat?") for "Shall we eat?" is simply ridiculous. Languages are like that.
Many languages have a default narrative tense. Both in English and modern Hebrew, it's the present. So rather than telling you, "Tomorrow I will fly to Spain," I'm just as likely to say, "Tomorrow I'm flying to Spain." And I might start a story, "So I'm walking along the street yesterday and I see this guy." I say "walking" and "see," not "walked" and "saw," even though it happened yesterday. Notice, too, how the introductory "so" helps pave the way for the present tense. Modern Hebrew behaves similarly.
But in biblical Hebrew, the narrative tense is what we now call the "future." (Better might be "imperfective," a topic we'll save for another day.) So in narratives we frequently find the "future," (default) tense, prefixed by the vav (akin to "so" in English) used for the past. A nice colloquial translation of vay'dabeir Adonai el Moshe might be, "So God says to Moses..."
Accordingly, we expect to find this "future for past" pattern even with other introductory words, not just with the vav. And we do. In Exodus 15:1, which introduces the famous Song of the Sea, we read, Az yashir Moshe uv'nei Yisrael, literally, "Then will sing Moses and the children of Israel," but obviously the point is, "Then Moses and the children of Israel sang." (The verb, as chance would have it, is singular, even though "Moses and the children of Israel" is plural. We'll add that mismatch to our list of future topics.)
Furthermore, if what we really have is a "narrative default" tense, we do not expect to find the vav changing tenses in poetry, as (by and large) it does not.
And what about the "past tense" verbs that are used for the future?
It's pretty much the same thing. While it's not a default narrative tense, it's hardly the oddest tense pattern we find.
They say there's no before or after in the Torah. That seems about right.
The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.
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