LONG Re: Perfective, Imperfective, and Iterative

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Thu May 9 04:06:23 EDT 2002

Dear Carl,

See my comments below.

>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.

That is exactly what I mean.

>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.

An attempt to differentiate between semantic factors whose meaning 
never change and pragmatic factors that get their meaning from their 
context, will naturally try to deal with the smallest possible units, 
one at a time. In order to differentiate between Aktionsart, tense, 
and aspect, I will describe three different groups, each consisting 
of sub-groups.


I connect Aktionsart with lexical meaning, and see it as the 
intrinsic "kind of action" that is found in the lexical meaning. 
Those characteristics that can be described as "Aktionsart" are 
specific and restricted, and they can be placed in two groups, one 
whose members are semantic, and another whose single memeber is 

As Mari correctly has shown, there are three members of the 
Aktionsart group that are semantic, namely, durativity, dynamicity 
(=change), and telicity. Verbs that are marked for one or more of 
these characteristics can never cease to have that /those 
characteristic(s). The single member of the pragmatic Aktionsart 
group is punctiliarity. Verbs whose default interpretation is 
punctiliarity can also have a durative interpretation in some 
situations, thus punctiliarity is not an uncancellable 
characteristic. On the same plane as the two Aktionsart groups, do we 
find another group with one member, namely statitity. Action is the 
opposite of state, so stativity is no Aktionsart, but it exists on 
the same plane because it is connected with the lexical meaning of 
verbs. Stativity is pragmatic because a verb whose default 
interpretation is stativity can also have a fientic  (actional) 
interpretation. Other characteristics described as iterative, 
habitual, frequentative etc. do not represent Aktionsart because they 
are functions of lexical meaning + another factor and not of lexical 
meaning alone.

(I think more on the list will benefit from English examples than 
from Greek ones, so I will use such examples.)

The Actionsart that is semantic can never change, the Aktionsart that 
is pragmatic and stativity can change. The verb "sing", for instance, 
is marked for durativity and dynamicity, and regardless of whether it 
is expressed by the imperfective or perfective aspect, by past or 
future tense, or by an infinitive,and regardless of which mood is 
used, "sing" will always remain durative and dynamic. And similarly 
with the phrasal verbs "bow down", "crop up", and "run away", they 
can never cease to be telic.


When we combine verbs with other words in verb phrases and clauses, 
we get characteristics which resemble Aktionsart characteristics but 
which are a function of the members of the Aktionsart group (plus 
stativity) and different syntactic factors (e.g. 
singularity/plurality and definitenes/indefiniteness of subject 
and/or object, advebials etc.). These have been called the 
"Vendlerian characteristics", "lexical aspect", or, as I call them, 
in order to reserve "aspect" for just one group: "procedural traits".

Based on the three semantic Aktionsart characteristics, plus the 
pragmatic characteristic stativity we get the following groups of 
procedural traits.

State		(+durative)			"love", "sit"
Activity	(+durative)			"walk in the garden"
Accomplishment	(+durative)(+dynamic)(+telic)	"build a house"
Achievement	(+dynamic)(+telic)		"reach the peak"
Semelfactive	(+dynamic)			"knock atthe door"
Stage-level state (+durative)(+telic)		"be pregnant"

>(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"?


Both tense and aspect are concerned with time,thogh in different 
ways; tense is concerned with external time and aspect with internal 
time. In order to understand the difference between tense and aspect, 
we need to understand the nature of three different kinds of time,how 
these interact,  and the nature of what is called the "deictic 
point". Group three consists of two subgroups, the first having one 
member, "deictic time", which is real time, the second having two 
memebers, "event time", which is real time, and "reference time", 
which is conceptual time. Tense is a function of the relationship 
between reference time and the deictic point whereas aspect is a 
function of the relationship between event time and reference time.

The Greek verb DEIKNUMI  is the basis for the English term "deictic 
point". When we describe events by help of verbs, we choose a 
particular vantage point in relation to which we view actions and 
states. This is the "deictic point", which often is speech time, but 
not allways. Mari has demonstrated that this deictic point is 
pragmatic and not semantic.

Any event takes some time, and the time from its beginning is called 
"event time". As I have argued, and will strongly stress, 
communication is by the help of different linguistic means (and/or by 
gestures and other non-linguistic means) to make particular things 
visible for the listener/reader. When actions are decribed, the 
author tends to make only a particular part of the action visible, as 
seen in 1) and 2).

1) John was singing in the bathroom.

2) John has sung in the bathroom.

The Aktionsart of both verbs are dynamic and durative, but what is 
made visible in 1) is a small area of ongoing action in the middle, 
whereas a small point coinciding with the end is what is made visible 
in 2). Event time can be illustrated with a time-line with a marked 
begining and marked end, and reference time can be compared to a 
pointing finger that points to a small area or a point on the 
time-line. What is pointed to, is that which is made visible for the 
reader. Thus event time is real time whereas reference time is 
conceptual time. To use a linguistic language, we say that reference 
time intersects event time at a certain point. Aspect, therefore, is 
the relationship between event time and reference, and a function of 
the intersection of event time by reference time.

Tense on the other hand is the relationship between reference time 
and the deictic point. Mari has shown that this relationship i 
semantic: past tense: reference time comes before the deictic point, 
present tense: reference time coincides with the deictic point, and 
future tense: reference time comes after the deictic point. It could 
have been said that tense is the relationship between event time and 
the deictic point, but this could also be misleading because, whereas 
to point/area that is made visible must be before, contemporanaous 
with or after the deictim point, this is not necessarily the case 
with the whole event time.

I will warmly recommend Mari Broman Olsen's book (1997) "A Semantic 
and Pragmatic Model of Lexical and Grammatical Aspect". It is the 
best book on the subject I have ever read. Some of her conclusions 
can be challenged but her methodology in insight are superb. In 
connection with aspect (her "grammatical aspect"), however, do I 
think we need a much more detailed analysis.


When reference time intersects event time, exactly what is made 
visible? Or, in other words, what is the breadth  of the intersected 
area? In English there are two options as to breadth, together with a 
third one, which is a combination of the two. In 2) (the perfective 
aspect) the breadth is minimal, just a point, but in 1) (the 
imperfective aspect) a small part of ongoing action is made visible. 
In 3) where first the imperfective aspect is used and then the 
perfective aspect, the breadth is great, most of event time.

3) John has been singing in the bathroom for two hours.

The breadth can be thus described (--- time-line, B= beginning, E= 
end. Where there is a "x" instead of "E" pr "B", this indicates that 
the intersection is on "E"/"B" or includes "E"/"B"):

1) Imperfective            --B-----xx-----E--

2) Perfective 		   --B------------x--

3) Imperfective+perfective --B xxxxxxxxxxxx---

In Greek we never find i combination of both aspects, as in 3). The 
breadth of the imperfective aspect is similar to the breadth of the 
English aspect (as seen in 1), but the breadth pf the Greek 
perfective aspect has a much greater variation than in English (as 
seen in 2). it can be a point, it can intersect the whole event time, 
or it can intersect a great part of event time.


When we speak of "angle", I think of the angle between my "pointing 
finger" and the time-line. English has two options, either "90 
degress" (reference time intersects event time at the nucelus -the 
imperfective aspect) or "45 degrees" (reference time intersects event 
time at the coda -the perfective aspect). then we have the third 
option - the combination of both.

In Greek there are many more angles available for both aspects, and 
this means that English and Greek aspects are different in this 
important respect. This is the reason why English aspects 
unambiguously show whether an event is terminated or not at reference 
time, but this is not the case with Greek aspects.

The imperfective aspect

Conative	xx-B--------E--
Inceptive	---xxx------E--
Progressive     ---B--xxx---E--
Egressive       ---B------xxE--
Resultative     ---B-------xxx-
Gnomic		No special angle

The perfective aspect

Cngressive	--x---------E--
ConstativeI	--xxxxxxxxxxx--
ConstativeII	--xxxxxxx---E--
Perfect		--B---------x--
Gnomic		No special angle


What actually is seen in the area where event time is intersected by 
reference time? The basic difference between the aspects is that of 
detail, i.e. when the imperfective aspect is used, details of an 
ongoing action are clearly made visible (or a continuous state); when 
the perfective aspect is used, no details are made visible. This 
difference is important,for it is because of this difference that the 
imperfective aspect+punctiliar verb give an iterative, habitual, or 
frequentative interpretation, but the perfective aspect+punctiliar 
verb do not give this interpretation, etc. To use a metaphor, to 
which I am not opposed when it is anchored in a linguistic framework: 
When the imperfective aspect is used, it is as if  we go close by and 
the details of a small area of the action is made visible, and when 
we use the perfective aspect, it is as if we stand at some distance 
and a point, a great part, or the whole event is made visible, but no 


Both Aktionsart,tense and aspect can be described by fundamental 
characteristics (Aktionsart: durativity, dynamicity, telicity, 
punctiliarity, and complementary: stativity; tense: the relationship 
between the deictic point and reference time; aspect: the 
ralationship between event time and reference time).On the basis of 
these characteristics, parameters can be used for an inter-linual 

Aktionsart is concerned with uncancellable lexical characteristics 
and cancellable ones, tense is concerned with external time, and 
aspect is concerned with internal time.

The basic problem of the past is that the areas of concern of each 
entity have not been held apart, and characteristics of one entity 
has been used to define another entity. This has caused confusion 
(e.g. aspect defined in terms of durativity and punctiliarity).

The model for aspectal analysis based on "the breadth of 
intersection", "the angle of intersection", and "the quality of 
intersection" was invented by me for my Hebrew studies. After using 
it for along time with very good results, I must say that a similar 
model is necessary for a thorough understanding of Greek aspects as 
well. The besic weaknesses of Greek studies have been the reiteration 
of old definitions in new grammars and the lack of models for 
athorough analysis of the different parts of language, in order to 
differentiate between semantic and pragmatic factors. While modern 
grammars are excellent tools for learning Greek, there is a need for 
quite som revision as far as the verbal system is concerned.

>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 artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad at ioa.com
>WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/



Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo
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