Aspect and nesting (was: Perfective, Imperfective, and Iterative)

Kimmo Huovila kimmo.huovila at
Wed May 29 08:36:44 EDT 2002

Some terminological and theoretical points from a very different
theoretical framework. This is not so much to enter into a deep dialogue
over the theory of aspect, but to represent another way to analyze
aspect in contrast to Rolf's and to comment on terminology. (I may enter
into a deeper conversation, but it depends on my schedule otherwise.)

I do not attempt at a formal definition of nesting and aspects here,
though. For those who are interested, it is available at

Just a non-technical illustration of nesting using English:

State, achievement, activity, and accomplishment are terms used in
Vendler's famous paper 'Verbs and Times'. These are illustrated below:

State: I know. (Like Rolf defined, energy is not needed to maintain the
state. Imperfective)
Activity: I run. (No point that needs to be reached for the action to
take place)
Accomplishment: I read a book. (A terminus needs to be achieved for the
action to have taken place)
Achievement: The cable snapped. (Does not take linguistic time,
punctual, perfective. In English the progressive form describes multiple
actions ('the cable was snapping' implies several instances of 'the
cable snapped').)

snap (achievement, telic, perfective)
build (activity, atelic, imperfective)
build a house (accomplishment, telic, perfective)
be building a house (activity, telic, imperfective)

The aspect is changed above by adding an adverbial or changing the
verbal form or lexeme.

Rolf Furuli wrote:

 > 1) It is confusing to apply "aspect" to two completely different
 > phenomena, one which is based on Aktionsart, and one which is based on
 > what by many writers is called just "aspect". To avoid confusion, the
 > term "aspect" should be reserved for just one thing.

The two phenomena only appear to be different, and only appear to be
two. Rather, IMHO, it is better to call both aspect not to lose sight of
what they have in common. Once you analyze their interaction, it can be
seen that you do not have only two layers (Aktionsart and aspect), but a
clause can have any number of such layers which still interact with each
other following the same rules. (BTW, Fanning did a great work in
analyzing the interaction between lexical aspect and grammatical aspect 
(in the Greek verb), but failed to emphasize the role of adverbials and 
actants, which would probably have lead him to the direction of seeing 
nesting as a more general phenomenon. And nesting is a more general 
linguistic phenomenon, not limited only to aspect.) This relates to 
Rolf's second complaint below:

 > 2) The so-called "lexical aspect" is normally not applied to single
 > verbs but to verb phrases.

This is true as far as typical Vendlerian classification is concerned. I
mean examples of accomplishments like 'build a house', which is a verb
phrase. But 'build' is an activity. And 'I am building a house' is also
an activity. It may be hard for a theory with only two layers of aspect
to give an insightful analysis to this.

The nature of the aspect (semantically) does not change whether is is
coded lexically or morphologically. In English 'treat' is an activity
(imperfective) and 'cure' is an accomplishment (perfective). But in
Russian the same distinction is expressed by morphological aspect
(lechit (imperfective, 'treat'), vylechit (perfective, 'cure'). This
illustrates the essential unity between Aktionsart and aspect. BTW,
Russian morphology sometimes allows for more layers: vylechivat =
imperfective 'cure' (many times).

(The distinction between Aktionsart and aspect is differently drawn by
different linguists. One way is to look at whether it is coded lexically
or grammatically. This is not to say that all linguists making the
distinction make it this way.)

Arguments against separating aspect from Aktionsart:
1) Aspect regularly changes Aktionsart, which argues for them not being
semantically distinct.
2) Aktionsart also codes perfectivity and imperfectivity (as telicity).

If this is so, where is the basis for the distinction?

This is not to deny some insights provided by this separation in
aspectological literature. But these insights can be handled as part of
a more general paradigm with nesting.

Maintaining different, unrelated terms for lexical and grammatical
aspect is not very helpful, because it leads easily to think that
aspectual phenomena can be adequately dealt with without nesting. Of
course it is possible to say that Aktionsart is not nested but aspect
is, but the drawback is that this misses the generalization that the
same rules apply for both. Once the aspectual theory handles nesting, a
separate Aktionsart becomes superfluous.

 > _*Durativity*_: A characteristic of events or states: simply duration in
 > time; the contrast being punctiliarity which is instantaneous. Verbs
 > marked for durativity  never cease to be durative, verbs whose default
 > inperpretation is punctiliarity can have a durative interpretation as 

Though punctiliar is often used in Greek linguistics, it often is
ill-defined (does it mean punctual or perfective? depends somewhat on
author). I prefer punctual (widely used in general linguistics) and
perfective just for the sake of clarity, though this is a break from NT
Greek grammatical tradition. So many grammars characterize the aorist as
punctiliar and describe it along the lines of the perfective that why
not just call the aorist perfective and forget about punctiliarity, as
it is easily confused with punctuality. Or like you used it here for
punctuality, it could be mistaken for perfectivity. To my knowledge,
punctiliar is not a very common term in general linguistics.

 > _*Telicity*_: Denotes events with an inherent end or goal.
 > _*Dynamicity*_ : Denotes change; thus actions are dynamic but states
 > lack this characteristic.
 > _*Stativity*_: Situations which continues without any input of energy;
 > any part of the situation is similar to any other part or to the
 > situation as a whole.
 > *IMPORTANT*: Any application or definition of *aspect* including any of
 > these four will be misleading; they can only define the Aktionsart or
 > state and have absolutely nothing to do with aspect!

These can be considered as aspect with no serious drawbacks, if the
theory allows for nesting. If you want to make the difference, I would
suggest it along the lines that perfectivity and imperfectivity are the
aspects that are layered outside stativity etc. But perfectivity and
telicity can be conveniently analyzed as the same thing (though
sometimes you have to notice different layers, like 'I am building a
house', which is imperfective (as to the outer layer, the finishing
point is out of view on this layer) and telic (as to the inner layer,
the finishing point is there, but it is left outside the scope. We do
not know if the building will ever be finished.).

I understand that different terminologies may be confusing. But there
are real theoretical differencies behind them. General linguists are not
always agreed on the best way to analyze aspect, and the same Greek data
can be analyzed from different theoretical perspectives. I do not think
that all the theoretical perspectives are equally good. That's why I
would not call for a too hasty standarization of terminology, if it
obfuscates the real differences between different approaches. But once
you understand some approach very well, it is relatively easy to see the
differences between a new approach and the one you now. Lots of the
terms are fairly standard, though some differ.

Kimmo Huovila

More information about the B-Greek mailing list