Perfective, Imperfective, and Iterative

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Wed May 8 10:22:18 EDT 2002

At 8:16 AM +0200 5/8/02, Rolf Furuli wrote:
>Dear Alan,
>It is true as Mark has said that iterativity is not an aspectual
>characteristic, but it is a function of two or more factors. However,
>There is a clear assymetry, and by looking at this you can find the
>linguistic reason why imperfective verbs seem more conductive to an
>interative function. The assymetry can be illustrated by the three
>English examples below.

Dear Rolf,

I find this message very assuring, the more so after your message of
yesterday (Tue, 7 May 2002 10:03:35 +0200) with the same subject-header,
from which I had the impression that you were in agreement with Mark that
iterative verbal assertions are more-or-less equally distributed among the
different Greek tenses. Now you seem (to me, at least) to be reiterating
the standard and traditional understanding of why iteratives are more
likely to be found in the imperfective tenses--albeit clearly from your own
perspective and explanatory framework. This I see in your assertion that in

>3) Jill has knocked at the door for five minutes.

it is only the phrase "for five minutes" that makes explicit that the
speaker/writer envisions this action "knocked at the door" as iterative.

I do have at least one question or set of questions and one comment arising
from your message.

>When a sentence is used by an author to communicate a message, it may
>be interpreted in different ways, i.e. a combination of words has a
>*potential* for different meanings. What then is communication? It is
>first and foremost *to make things visible*! The author's task is, by
>a combination of lexicon, Aktionsart, aspect, mood, grammar,and
>syntax, to help the reader to *see* the one meaning the author has in
>mind among the potential of meanings that the group of words can

(1) Would you please offer as clear and succinct a definition as possible
of (a) Aktionsart, and (b) Aspect? I'd (perhaps naively) thought of
"Aktionsart" as a sub-category of aspect, whereas you seem to be using it
more as the German word itself seems to be saying, "KIND of action." And
you seem to be using "semelfactive" and "iterative" as "Aktionsarten": is
that right? And yet you speak of "the punctiliar Aktionsart" as combining
with the adverbial in your example #3 above as signalling iteration. So
perhaps you need to define for me also (c) punctiliar.

(2) My comment: You say

>                                                     ... we need to
>get rid of imprecise methaphors used in aspectual definitions, such
>as "the imperfective aspect sees something from the inside and the
>perfective aspect from the outside". What actually does that mean?
>How is 1) seen from the inside and 2) and 3) seen from the outside?
>If aspect is a function of reference time and event time, i.e. the
>intersection of event time by reference time, aspect allways looks at
>something (makes visible) from the outside.

It seems to me that we really cannot escape metaphors when talking about
aspect and/or Aktionsart; the best we may hope for, I think, is arriving at
metaphors that are less misleading. I think that "aspect" is itself a
metaphor derived ultimately from Latin roots meaning "look at," and that
"linear" and "punctiliar" are geometrical metaphors. You continue to use
"looks at" and "makes visible"--but these too are metaphors, inasmuch as (I
think) all this "envisioning" of what a verb-form does takes place in the
mind rather than somewhere in the external world.

>To understand the nature of iteration (and other factors) in Greek,
>we need, 1) an accurate definition of the Greek aspects, and 2) and
>ability to sort out which factors of language are semantic
>(uncancellable) and which are pragmatic, and by this know the
>combination of which factors that are causing which effects.

This seems fair enough. Why is it that I have the very distinct impression
that we haven't yet succeeded in arriving at " 1) an accurate definition of
the Greek aspects"?

I should note also that another thing I found reassuring in your message
was this remark:

>                                             ... This use of the
>aspects is known by native speakers of English even though most
>persons will not be able to give a definition of the aspects - the[y]
>just "know" their uses.

I think this bears upon the question in the thread initiated by Glenn Blank
("How we know what we know--about Koine?"): to the extent that learners of
Greek have been successful and can read (perhaps even write) ANCIENT Greek
with some competence and fluency, they, like Rolf's native
English-speakers, "know" these usages of what we call "tenses" and
"imperfective" and "perfective" even if they cannot give a definition of
the aspects. Is that fair to say, given that "little" qualification: "to
the extent that ... have been successful and can read ... with some
competence and fluency ..."?

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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