aspect/pragmatics, was (gnomic)...

yochanan bitan-buth ButhFam at
Tue Aug 29 04:06:43 EDT 2000

Shalom Cindy and thank you for the following:

>But briefly, I picked Gnomic as a category because it was listed as a 
>category in virtually every tense, but I could have mentioned Iterative, 
>Progressive, Perfective, Iterative, Future or Conative--any of the
>that are shared between say the Present and the Perfect/Aorist/Imperfect. 

>I find the charge that the semantics of lexis and context are transported 
>into the meaning of tense in these cases very convincing.  How do you know

>that a present/future/aorist/imperfect/perfect/future is gnomic?  Because
>the formal tense markers?  Obviously not.  You know it is Gnomic because
>context.  So what does the formal tense marker(s) contribute to the
>If all you can say is that a given verb is a Gnomic Aorist, you have said 
>nothing at all about what the tense has contributed to the meaning, you
>only described what you have derived from the context.  
>I'm not trying to build a system on the Gnomic, but a system should be
>to account for these occurances and be able to determine what the tense 
>contributes semantically.  

I think the problem with  semantic discussions in general is that people
are often not sensitive to using both temporal and aspectual semantics for
pragmatic effect. See below where I mention using Greek imperfect, not
because a specific semantic meaning exactly matches an event in its
context, but in order to shape and texture the whole story. (this relates
to foreground/background studies in textlinguistics). 
I have had such a perspective on Greek for 25 years, which is why I never
got excited about people who were in a tundry because their tight semantic
spaces didn't match obvious reality. It's not supposed to. Or put it this
way, I've never worked with a lnaguage that did not pragmatically play with
its tenses or aspects. And I've worked with a lot of languages. 
(Even English: "So he GOES, "Hey, come on in" and I SAID, "No way. I'm out
of here.")

Of course, that means that I will not be impressed with reductionist
semantics, since reality doesn't work that way. I am often even more
unimpressed with "exegetical" semantics as presented to poor budding Greek
students who are being presented with artificial classifications of trees
without seeing the forest. I'll be more impressed with prototypical
functions and semantics followed up with extended pragmatic functions. 

Below is a snippet from my introductory Greek notes that illustrate an
extended use of the imperfect. (I've posted this once before a year or so

for students without a generative syntax // semantics // pragmatics
worldview I call this imperfect the "stylistic" use. They can grasp and see
this immediately without the linguistic framework or metalanguage. 

c. Stylistic (footnote: the stylistic functions of Greek structure are part
of a branch of grammar called 'textlinguistics' or 'discourse analysis' by

LK 4.30 
and he, having gone through their midst was going away (=went away)

He actually did go away, but the event is reported in the imperfect as a
stylistic 'fade out' to the scene rather than as one of the main events in
the simple past. ...[ps to b-greek: this will not fit "pure, measurable"
imperfective semantic aspectual reference--RB] ... Contrast Lk 4.13 O
DIABOLOS APESTH "the devil went away" where the event is reported in the
simple past (aorist) as another one of the events of the story. 

Lk 15.5-6
He was saying (=said) to the first, "How much do you owe my master?"
and he (the other man) said "100 jars of oil." 
Semantically, both quotations were complete and could have been introduced
with the simple past (aorist) tense. However, the author stylistically
introduced the first quotation with the imperfect tense so as to portray it
grammatically as a kind of backgrounded leadin to the conversation.  " [ps
to b-greek: 'he began to say "How much" doesn't solve the tight semantics
because he also finished saying 'how much'. The basic problem is a
pragmatically motivated use of a normally semantic category--RB]

If Greek students could be taught such stylistic use of indicative
tense/aspects (participle demoting, and historical presents, too) a large
part of the problem would disappear. the semantic debate could also clean
itself up.
[PS. One interesting reverse prediction from aspect theory is that the
historic present is often used to refer to COMPLETE events in the immediate
context, (especially when two are used in a row). the historica present is
not used to portray in-process semantics, but pragmatically uses the
misportrayal present/imperfective to paint a live scene (often
introduction). this is similar to the stylistic use of the imperfect
mentioned above, but includes more of a 'tense' mismatch rather than an
'aspectual' mismatch as with the "stylistic imperfect".] 

While historical presents have been duly listed in grammar and stylistic
studies I have not seen a corresponding list, say, for "stylistic
imperfects" in the gospels and Acts. Anyone have one to forward me? Or does
a student want a paper to do? 

Randall Buth

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