Perfective, Imperfective, and Iterative

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Tue May 7 04:03:35 EDT 2002

Dear Mark,

I have for a long time been a lurker (after many discussions on 
aspect a few years ago) because I have been absorbed in work on my 
dissertation, which is based on an analysis of all the 80.000 finite 
and infinite verbs of the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scriptures. 
The conclusion is a completely new definition of the Hebrew 
conjugations (corresponding to Greek "tenses"). Whereas I do not have 
much time for discussions, I think I can outline some appraoaches 
which I believe is mandatory to give some reasonable comments on 
Glenn Blank's challenge which has been commented by Carl and Chuck; 
How do we know what we know about Koine Greek?

Your description of iterativity below is correct, and your 
differentiation between the different parts of language, lexical 
meaning, Aktionsart, aspect, syntax etc is very fine. There can be no 
doubt that the *meaning* signalled by the writer is based on a 
combination of all these factors, and others too. The strict 
differentiation between "semantic meaning" and "conversational 
pragmatic implicature" found in the book of Mari Olsen is an 
excellent point of departure. To try to fine which discourse factors 
cause which meaning, as appears to be your approach, is a rewarding 

I see two basic problems that curtail any good effort to understand 
Greek "tenses", 1) the lack of sophistication or detail in the 
definition of the aspects, and 2) the English aspectual system is 
used as pattern.

As to aspectual definition, the concept "punctiliarity" is very 
problematic. As Mari has shown, punctiliarity is not a semantic 
(uncancellable) property but a pragmatic one, so how can it be used 
in the definition of one of the aspects? Second, The Aktionsart tells 
us that an event is durative, and durative events (but not states) 
are by *birth* "progressive" (advancing, going forward); aspect 
cannot make them more progressive,so we should be careful with our 
words of definition. As examples, I chose the two typically durative 
words ESQIW  and TRECW and made a search , and came up with the 
following examples (I quote the NIV):

(1) Luke 17:28   "It was the same in the days of Lot. People were 
eating (IMPERFECT) and drinking, buying and selling, planting and 

(2) Luke 13:26   "Then you will say,  'We ate (AORIST) and drank with 
you, and you taught in our streets.'

(3) John 6:31 Our forefathers ate (AORIST) the manna in the desert; 
as it is written

The subjects of all three examples are plural, and all events 
occurred over a long time; we may even say that the actions of the 
one imperfect and the two aorists were habitual. So, how can we say 
that (2) and (3) less progressive than (1)? or do the author want to 
portray (2) and (3) as less progressive than (1)? How can we say that 
(2) and (3) are punctiliar when the Aktiosart of the verbs is 
durative? (BTW, "durativity" and "punctiliarity are Aktionsart terms 
and not aspect terms)

(4) Gal. 5:7 You were running (IMPERFECT) a good race. Who cut in on 
you and kept you from obeying the truth?

(5) Gal. 2:2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them 
the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately 
to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running 
(PRESENT SUBJ) or had run (AORIST) my race in vain.

The running events of both (4) and (5) are past and terminated at 
speech time. We can ask: How can we say that (4) is more progressive 
than (3)? And, is (4) punctiliar whereas (3) is progressive?

I think the examples show that the traditional definitions of the 
aspects are far from satisfactory.

In order to make a reasoned answer to the question of how we know 
that we know Greek aspects, I suggest that we take Mari's approach as 
a point of departure with her strict differentiation between 
pragmatic and semantic factors. But we should not stop here. I have 
found Mari's work to be very helpful, and her analysis of the English 
verbal system is much better than those of Reichenbach and Comrie. 
However, she makes the same assumption that we find in most 
text-books,that the properties of the aspects are universal, so the 
English aspectual system serves well as a pattern for the  Greek 
aspectual system. But this definitely leads astray.

To avoid this fallacy we need is a model for a language-specific 
analysis of aspect. I have worked with this for many years and have 
developed such a model, whose basic parameters are the same as those 
used by Mari. So the analysis is based on the relationship between 
reference time and event time and the deictic point.If we only use 
these parameters we would just get the crude aspectual definitions of 
the text-books. By the use of three more parameters we can get a more 
sophisticated definition, and not least, we can compare the nature of 
the aspects of different languages, such as Hebrew, Greek, and 
English. The three extra  parameters are, 1) the quality of focus 
(detail visibility,distance), 2) the angle of focus (indicating what 
is conative, ingressive, continuative, egressive, resultative, and 
factitive), and 3) breadth of focus (how much of the event that  is 
made visible). Because there are three parameters and two aspects, 
the aspects of different languages can be compared in six different 
areas. By looking at which pattern are characteristic of each Greek 
"tense", after such an anlysis, we get clues as to whether we know 
the nature of this particular "tense" or not.

In order the get a thorough knowledge of Greek aspects, *all* the 
verbs of the NT should be analysed, as I have done with all the verbs 
of my Hebrew corpus. To illustrate the feasibility for 
inter-linguistic comparison bassed on my model, I list my results for 
Hebrew compared with English below:




The aspects are similar in three respects and different in three 
respects. However, in the most important area, the angle of focus, 
both are different. This means that while the English imperfective 
aspect unambiguously shows that the event was in progression at 
reference time and the perfective aspect unambiguously shows that the 
event was terminated at reference time, such conclusions cannot be 
drawn as far as Hebrew is concerned. So, the use of Hebrew aspects 
can tell us nothing about whether the event was terminated or not at 
reference time. Therefore, oppositions such as completed/incomplete 
or complete/ incomplte cannot be used to define Hebrew aspects.

I have found the same differences and similarities in my comparison 
between English and Greek aspects as in the Hebrew/English table 
above. However, Greek aspects are more complicated, because the 
verbal system has more members, and not only is the relationship 
between reference time and event time (aspect)  grammaticalized, but 
also the relationship between the deictic point and reference time 
(tense, e.g. Greek imperfect which is a combination of past tense and 
the imperfective aspect).

For the person who wants to pursue his or her study of Greek aspects, 
there are new approaches which are more promising than those used by 
Fanning and Porter.

BTW, Mark, I think there are sides of my approach that are falsifyable.



Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>Just to clarify myself and to invite further input. I am by
>no means set in my hypothesis. I would like feed back on some
>of my summary points below. I thought it important to define
>Imperfective or Perfective ONLY deals with morphology. The Present
>and Imperfect Tenses are Imperfective FORMS. All Aorists are
>Perfective FORMS. Iteration is NOT related to FORM; rather, iteration,
>as I am using it, describes the repeated occurrence of the
>verbal event/action, whether portrayed as IN PROGRESS or IN SUMMARY.
>Iteration emerges only after all three components are examined:
>1. Lexeme (Lexical aspect),
>2. Inflection (Grammatical aspect), and
>3. Context
>The ( . ) represents the verbal action as simple occurrence, and is
>by definition Punctiliar/Summary/Viewed from the outside. The
>( ___ ) represents the verbal action as IN PROGRESS, and is by
>defintion durative/On going/Viewed from within.
>Here is what I am exploring:
>When a Greek wants to PORTRAY the verbal event/action as in
>progress (__), an Imperfective FORM is summoned. If the writer wants
>to portray the event/action in summary ( . ), a Perfective
>FORM is employed. There is NO relationship between the FORM,
>whether Imperfective or Perfective, and interation.
>Also, there is no relationship between the FORM of a verb
>and the ACTUAL verbal action/event. That is, an actual durative event
>can be PROTRAYED with a Perfective FORM or an Imperfective FORM,
>and since the objective of the writer is how to portray the action,
>neither of these two choices (Perfective or Imperfective) should
>have preference over the other. We see this by comparing the SAME
>event described in the synoptics, where one author uses an
>Imperfective FORM, while another author chooses a Perfective FORM,
>both using the SAME lexeme.
>The writer's objective is how to PORTRAY the event, not to
>define how it ACTUALLY unfolded or occurred, whether in progress
>(Imperfective), or simple occurrence (Perfective).
>Finally, I can see no justification for Wallace representing
>a Present Tense FORM by ( . ), rather than ( __ ). I read every
>Present Tense example in GGBB, and could argue, without statistical
>exception, that all Present Tense verbs should be viewed
>as ( __ ), not ( . )  The opposite can be said of the Aorist. I
>think the problem comes when we attempt to merge the ACTUAL
>way events DO occur with how a writer wants to PORTRAY that event.
>Both the view I am exploring and the traditional view are,
>logically speaking, unfalsifiable. This is clearly a subjective
>I am still very much in the process of learning Greek and Linguistics,
>so I am more than open to correction. The above terms are basically
>how I understand Dr. Mari Olsen to define them, and I find her
>definitions easy to visualize.
>Thank you
>Mark Wilson
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