How we know what we know--about Koine

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Sat May 4 18:19:58 EDT 2002

I am forwarding this to the list just as I received it with the thought
that, inasmuch as it has arisen in the course of list discussion, it may
evoke some worthwhile discussion and that we can keep it focused as much as
possible on Koine/Biblical Greek rather than on the broader and more
abstract questions of linguistic epistemology (or epistemological
linguistics). Let's begin with on-list discussion; if it gets too far
removed from issues clearly associated with Koine Greek, we'll ask those
interested to correspond with each other off-list.

>From: Glenn Blank <glennblank at>
>To: cwconrad at, emory2oo2 at
>Date: Sat, 04 May 2002 07:59:03 -0700
>I did not send this to the list because it moves beyond BGrk itelf to
>questions of heuristics.  But your discussion with Mark raised afresh
>for me long standing questions about how we come to know what we know
>about Koine Grk, and I really would like to have input from the list
>on the issue.  Would you consider forwarding this to the list with
>instructions about whether to respond to me on- or off-list?
>Thank you.
>glenn blank
>"Mark Wilson" <emory2oo2 at> wrote on
>Sat, 04 May 2002 03:12:00 +0000
>>I am NOT seeing the iterative . . .in the verb-form. [snip]
>> What I am suggesting is that the iterative aspect is found
>>equally in all tenses, because iterative is NOT related to the
>>lexeme or its inflection per se. It is related to the context
>>AND these other factors.
>>The list I cited earlier was randomly selected by turning to
>>the pages of the GNT. The iterative aspect "can be" found in
>>all tenses and contexts. In fact, the only verbal component
>>that logically can NOT denote iteration is the lexeme, contra
>"Can be found" needs to be clarified a bit.  As was discussed
>recently on the B-Hebrew list, what is found in aspect is a semantic
>notion, not a referential notion.  (A rough definition -- "referential"
>is what actually happens in the real world {Actionsart}; "semantic"
>is the perspective that the author chooses to take on what happens,
>ie, how he chooses to package the information.)
>To illustrate, all of theses examples may in fact reference the exact same
>event(s), albeit from differing perspectives:
>1)  He was breathing deeply
>2)  He has breathed deeply
>3)  He breathed deeply
>Now as a native-speaker of English, I know what the inflections <was -ing>,
><has -ed>, and <-ed> "mean."  I know what each one would contribute to the
>sum-total of meaning in any given context.  I know intuitively the
>in sense between (1), (2), and (3), based *solely* on the difference *in the
>verb form*:
>(1) depicts the action as in the past, and
> or something of that nature (suggesting a series of deep breaths was
>(3) says nothing about how many deep breaths were taken, but merely says
>that it happened somtime in the past.
>(2) likewise says nothing about how may breaths -- it differs from (3) only
>by laying greater stress on the accomplishment of the action.
>A non-native speaker could not deduce these differences from the
>referential event:  all three my in fact refer to the same event:
>(2) and (3) may refer to a series of deep breaths, or (1) may in fact
>refer to only one deep breath, as in "He was breathing deeply when a button
>popped"  (As someone on B-Hebrew described it, aspect merely indicates where
>the textual sphere intersects the referential sphere -- whether in the
>or at the end of the event -- not the nature of the event itself).
>Mark, when you argued that iterative "aspect" [sic] can be found equally in
>all "tenses" and contexts, the evidence you adduced to your examples comes
>from knowledge of the referential world:
>> >
>> >"Our fathers repeatedly worshiped...
>Your line of thinking is that since we know people in that culture
>typically went to a place of worship weekly, then this must be iterative.
>>>How many times Paul besought Timothy is unknown, but one could
>>>argue equally that he besought him only once, or repeatedly.
>In other words, you are arguing from what is possible in the referential
>realm.  But with this line of argument, your hypothesis that the iterative
>"aspect" occurs equally in all "tenses" is unfalsifiable, since most every
>action in the real world can happen more than once (with the exception of
>certain lexemes like "die") and hence, as Carl said, there can be NO
>demonstrable difference between imperfect, perfect, and aorist.  Even
>APOQNHSKEIN "to die" occurs in imperfect tenses, so is there no difference
>signalled between imperfect and perfect aspects?  Of course there is a
>difference, but it is to be found in the semantic realm, not the referential
>>I realize [Carl] contend[s] that the iterative aspect is more so
>>denoted by the Imperfective forms, but that is exactly what
>>needs to be shown, not presupposed.
>Yes, indeed, but now my question is, if aspect signals something in the
>semantic realm rather than in the referential realm, how can someone
>possibly demonstrate what it's significance is?  In other words, what we
>know to be true of the real world in a particular context is no predictor of
>what aspect will be used.
>What then?  Context?  What features of context? Discourse clues?
>But discourse analysis can only tell us things like on-line
>and off-line in narrative structure, or other such patterns of useage, and
>nothing about the instrinsic semantic value of a certain aspect.
>That leaves perhaps interrelationships between subordinate and main clauses,
>such as "He was painting the room when she walked in."  But that still does
>not help.  Assume for instance that we have a morphological form {X} the
>aspect of which we are trying to determine.  Assume that we find {X} in
>contexts like this:
>(4)  He paint{X} the room when she walk{Y} in.
>This would make equal sense with either an imperfective or perfective
>understanding of {X}:
>    "He was painting the room when she walked in"
>             or
>    "He had painted the room when she walked in."
>In short, I do not know how ANY combination of lexemic, inflectional, and
>contextual considerations can nail down aspect for the non-native speaker of
>a language, unless s/he knows a priori what the inflections mean, and the
>only way to know that is for a native speaker to explain the meanings, and
>since we have no native speakers of KOINE Grk to ask . . .
>glenn blank
>Pensacola FL

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months:: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at OR cwconrad at

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