(long) Aspect junkies relative importance of aspect
furuli at online.no
Sat Dec 12 07:59:23 EST 1998
I do not want to continue a discussion about aspect, but would like to
focus on a few things.
>>If one try to understand Greek aspect in the light of English
>>"continuous/past continuous versus past tense/perfect, the student will
>>almost certainly fall into the trap of defining Greek aspect with
>>Aktionsart terms such as "durative" and "punctual".
>Rolf's differentiation above (...vs...) makes no sense to me, and perhaps it
>is inadvertantly a straw man argument. I hope the trap to which he refers is
>the misconception of thinking that aspect is describing actions in their
>reality and concluding that "durative" are time-consuming while "punctual"
>actions are of the split-second type. That certainly is a trap that
>beginning students may fall into.
The trap includes what you say above about durativity and punctuality but
it includes more, namely the claim that "durative" and "punctual" are
Aktionsart terms and it is confusing to use them at all as descriptions of
the perfective and imperfective aspect. To illustrate the point, let me ask
a question: What actually does the words "durative" and "punctual" mean as
In the linguistic literature the words are used to describe objective
properties often in relation to lexical meaning. The words "run", "sing"
and "write" are lexically durative and the words "knock", "fall" and "find"
are punctual. Most verbs in Greek are durative regardless of aspect.
Let us use GRAFW as an example. In John 5:46 we have the aorist form, in
8:8 the imperfect, in 19:22 the perfect, and in 1 Corinthians 4:14 we have
the present. In all these instances is GRAFW durative because this is its
lexical property. If now the imperfective aspect is defined as "durative"
what is the extra, aspectual property it gets in 1 Cor 4:14. Does the
aspect make the verb more durative? Or does aspectual durativity mean that
the action occurs at speech time? ( But if this is the case, how can we say
that GRAFW in John 8:8 is durative, because here the time is past?)
Similarly with the word "punctual": In which sense is GRAFW "punctual" in
John 5:46? Does it blot out the fact that the writing of Moses occurred
over time, or is only the end-point of the writing meant? And what about
the perfect of John 19:22, can either "punctual" or "durative" be used in
In my view it is very misleading to define aspects with Aktionsart terms
such as "durative" and "punctual", but the four situations above can be
described by the help of non-aspectual parameters, such as "time",
"telicity", "stativity", and "durativity".
John 5:46: past time - telic - durative - non-static
John 8.8: past time - atelic - durative - non-static
1 Cor 4:14 present time - telic? - durative - non-static
John 19:22: past time/present time - telic - durative - static (the end of
an action is passed and the following state obtained)
The aspects used do not contain the properties above, but add extra nuances
to each situation.
In order to be able to work with as small units as possible I only use
Aktionsart for the lexical meaning of the verbs. There are, however, other
objective properties which are quite similar to Aktionsart, but which are
signalled by other factors than lexical meaning. We can speak of actions
which are iterative, habitual or frequentative. I claim that these
properties neither are aspectual. If I said: "Last year I read the New York
Times." my action would be interpreted as habitual. The simple past would
suggest a single, finished event, but our knowledge of the world would
outrule this. Similarly will the interplay of several factors, including
aspect, help us see that some actions in Greek sentences are habitual,
iterative or frequentative.
> My advice to those
>>struggling with Greek aspect, is to try to find the the *differences*
>>between the continuous tenses of English and the Greek imperfective aspect
>>rather than the similarities, because the differences are more profound.
>>The student should realize that there both is a quantitative and a
>When I was a student I used to agree, and it made Greek seem mysterious and
>exciting, which may have contributed to my extended study of it. But what
>Randall said is much closer to the truth. The excitement of learning Greek
>for NT study does not so much lie in its mysterious differences from
>English, but in acquiring the ability to see what it really says, as opposed
>to how it may have been translated.
I do not understand how you can ascribe to me a mysterious view of Greek
from my words above. My view is empiric rather than mysterius. The
qualitative difference between Greek and English is based on the fact that
aspect is grammaticalized in Greek and is the backbone of the whole verbal
system, while this is not the case in English. (The same difference is true
for Hebrew and English). The quantitative difference is based on the
observation that the English participle, which is supposed to express the
English imperfective aspect, has a Greek counterpart, while Greek present
and imperfect have several functions which is completely absent in the
English participle. To claim that the Greek consciousness and understanding
of aspect, based on a verbal system where aspect permeats everything, is
very different from the English understanding, where a supposed perfective
aspect is difficult to differentiate from simple past or perfect, and the
imperfective aspect is just a part of the system, is no bold claim. An it
certainly is neither metaphysical nor mystical.
There is a similarity between the participles of English and Hebrew, both
having a certain nominal and verbal force. This is also true for the Greek
participles but they are at the same time modified by the aspects. If we
should compare anything in the English and Greek verebal system, it must be
the participles. The Greek aspects have, however, additional properties.
The use of the present participle in English is very restricted compared
with the Greek imperfective aspect. Three examples where the Greek
imperfective aspect together with other factors signal particular
properties and behave differently from English participles:
(1) Conative situations: Gal 5:4 "Whoever you are that try to be declared
righteous (DIKAIOUSQE) by means of law."
(2) Ingressive situations (beginning included) Acts 11:2 "When Peter came
up to (ANEBH) Jerusalem,those who were circumsized began to debate
(DIEKRINONTO) with him."
(3) Factitive/resultative situations (the object is lead into a state) Mark
2:5 "Your sins are forgiven (AFIENTAI)."
I wrote to Randall:
>>I think that some of your views expressed above may mislead the reader.
>>Particularly dangerous is it to compare English and Greek as far as aspect
>>is concerned. The Danish linguist, Carl Backe ("Verbal Aspect", 1985)
>>compared Russian and English aspect. He said (p 5):
>>"Since aspect is probably one of the most controversial areas not only in
>>language-specific grammars but also in general linguistics, it is
>>impossible to refer to any single generally accepted definition. However,
>>most definitions in the literature have as their central theme
>>"Gesichtspunkt, unter dem ein vorgang betrachtet wird" (Porzig 1927;152),
>>"the speaker/writer's view of the action or situation described."
>We really should put this old concept to bed once and for all, or else
>clarify it. To say that aspect is "the viewpoint from (or under) which an
>action is viewed" is technically correct (given the Latin term 'aspect' for
>"look at"). However, it is the way that action is *described* as determined
>by verbal grammar, regardless of how the writer personally views it. I dare
>say that it also has nothing to do with the way the reader views it, since
>the choice of description is the writer's alone.
(I do not understand where the reader enters the scene.)
Fanning defines aspect this way: "Aspect involves a way of viewing the
action, reflects the subjective conception or portrayal by the speaker;
focusses on the speaker's representation of the action." This accords with
Backe's words above, and I agree with Fanning in this definition. I would,
however, deviate somewhat from Fanning as far as the details of the aspects
are concerned. I find that aspect does almost the same for the verbal part
of a clause as the article does for the nominal part. The article has no
objective meaning of its own but plays an important role together with
other factors. Together with PAS for instance, will a lack of article often
let the focus be on the individual member of the group but the occurrence
of the article will help focus on the group as a whole. In a similar way do
I not find that aspects have an objective meaning of their own, (but
participles have such a meaning), but together with other factors are the
aspects important for conveying small nuances in the process of
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo
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