(gnomic) These two positions don't even seem close

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Aug 29 14:26:26 EDT 2000

Cindy Westfall wrote

>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 categories
>that are shared between say the Present and the Perfect/Aorist/Imperfect.

Dear Cindy,

I think you hit the mark by starting with "gnomic", so you need not run. I
do not intend to discuss the meaning of the aspects, but I would rather
like to say something about their importance both for understanding Greek
and that an aspectual study can be quite simple. A principal reason, in my
view, why some students of Greek do not come to grips with the aspects, is
that they study without having a set of definite points of reference.
Without such points of reference, the presentations of the teachers are
studied (Porter, Fanning,McKay, and Wallace)together with intuition rather
than Greek grammar and syntax (in a systematic way).

Let me take your concept "gnomic" as a point of departure, and compare it
with the concept "conative". Doing that, we find a certain pattern; we have
gnomic present and gnomic aorist but not gnomic imperfect (gnomic imperfect
was mentioned in a post, but I suppose this was a typo), and we have
conative present and conative imperfect but not conative aorist? Why? I
will not attempt an in-depth explanation, just point out that it suggests
(but of course does not prove) a difference in the tense and aspect values
of the verbal system. The very nature of conativity (an attempt without
completion) would suggest that this was expressed *grammatically* (it can
be expressed lexically as well) by the imperfective aspect. This is the
reason why present and imperfect is used but not aorist. Gnomic expressions
do not tell us much about aspect, but they can tell us something about
time. I cannot exclude the possibility that different idioms exist in
particular languages, but because of the nature of "gnomic expressions", we
would expect that they are expressed by verbal categories which do not
signal a particular tense (tense= grammaticalized location in time). In
many languages, such as English, "present" is such a category which is
tenseless, i.e. present verbs do not just have present reference and no
other reference. Therefore we often find gnomic situations expressed by the
present. The fact that we have gnomic aorists but not gnomic imperfects
would similarly suggest (but not prove) that imperfect is a tense but not

For those who want clearcut points of reference to make a deeper study of
the aspects, there is no better place to start than with Mari's book
(thanks to Mike for his reference to Mari's Internet article). Her
application of tense and aspect to the English verbal system is crystal
clear. Particularly important for those who find the very concept "aspect"
difficult, is that her English aspect has an objective invariable meaning -
actions expressed by the imperfective aspect were not terminated at
reference time (the time of the focus of the event), and actions expressed
by the perefective aspect were terminated at reference time. Can we imagine
a clearer distinction? Her definition of tense is equally clear: past
tense, reference time comes before the deictic point (often speech time),
present tense, reference time coincides with the deictic point, and future
tense, reference time comes after the deictic point. A past tense, for
instance, signals only past reference with no other function. Exceptions
can occur, but they should be idiomatically explained. (It is not difficult
to understand the fundamental concepts "deictic point", "reference time",
and "event time".)

Mari's model of tense where each tense has an uncancelable relationship to
a deictic point is very simple, and it can be used as a point of reference
in the study of any language, also the tenseless ones. A test against this
model shows that Greek aorist is not a grammaticalised past tense. Mari's
model of aspect where each aspect in the English verbal system has an
invariable meaning, is also very simple. The advantage of using this model
as a point of reference in the study of any aspectual language, is its
clearly defined funfamental units. I cannot think of anything which is
farhter away from Clay's 'esoteric linguistics' which make him shudder.
This model allows the user to cut off his or her dependence upon other
grammarians, and instead by herself work with the real texts.

While Mari's aspect model, in my view,is unsurpassed, and can be used as a
point of reference without reservations, I disagree with her claim that it
is universal. Her tense model is not language dependent, and therefore it
is universal. But we cannot take for granted that "aspect" is exactly the
same in all aspectual languages. I therefore use her tense model in a
nomologic-deductive way, as a law of nature is used in the natural
sciences, but I use her aspect model in hypothetic-deductive way. The last
point means that I do not presume that aspect in Greek is exactly the same
as aspect in English, but I use the English definitions to see how much of
these can be found in Greek.

This hypothetic-deductive approach has lead to the following simple test
regarding aorist and present/imperfect: If the English definition of aspect
holds for Greek, we expect to find that the events described by an aorist
were terminted at reference time, and the events described by
present/imperfect were not terminated at reference time. After a test of a
great number of verbs I have found that the prediction comes true in a
great number of cases but far from all cases. My conclusion is that there
are many similarities between English and Greek aspects, but there are also
major differences. (I have done the same for Hebrew with the same result)
The next step is to explore these differences.

A reading of any translation of a text will give us the message, but only a
text where linguistic details are visible, will help us see the subtleties
of the source language. We can understand a Greek text without
understanding the aspects, but we can hardly grasp the subtleties of the
text without this knowledge. This is so because there are no "gnomic
aorists", "ingressive aorists", "consummative aorists", "proleptic aorists"
etc. But the combination of aspect, Aktionsart, lexicon, number and
definiteness of subject/object,syntax, word order, linguistic convention
etc creates situations which can be said to be "gnomic", "ingressive" etc.
A lack of knowledge of one principal part of this chain (aspect) will
prevent us from having a good understanding. It is well and good that the
units beyond the sentence is a popular subject for study today, and that so
many compare the views of different teachers. But the foundation for an
understanding of any language must be a study of the smallest linguistic
units, and this should be made on the basis of clearly defined points of
reference. We find such points in Mari's book. The study of aspects can be
really rewarding and it can even be done in a relatively simple way.



Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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