The Proleptic Aorist revisited

Iver Larsen iver_larsen at
Fri May 31 15:18:39 EDT 2002

Dear Rolf,

We are moving into linguistics, and I won't say much, since as Carl has
correctly said: There are many schools of linguistics, and there is far from
agreement among various schools and authors.

Just a couple of comments to your comments.
> I agree that the examples given by Mark's have future reference, and
> are good examples of such. But I wonder if you take "past time" and
> "past tense" to mean the same thing. It is generally agreed that
> "tense" is a "grammaticalization of location in time", but "past
> time" needs not be the same as "past tense". Aorist cannot be half a
> tense and half an aspect.

You are correct. I take past tense as a linguistic term for a past time
reference. And I cannot see why an aorist cannot be used as the unmarked
past tense most of the time - what is sometimes called narrative past or
narrative tense - and used to signal perfective aspect at other times. I
think there is always a certain element of perfective aspect in the aorist,
but since aspect does not carry simply across from one language to another,
we may be thinking in tense rather than aspect. Some languages have changed
from an aspect based system to a tense based system. Some - like Greek - are
in between and use a mixture of tense and aspect.

  If it signals past tense this will
> *always* be so, except for possible special examples that can be
> explained. Because a reasonable number of aorist verbs have future
> reference, it is excluded that it can signal past tense, although in
> most cases an aorist has past reference.

You seem to say that X is always B, except when it is not. And since Aorist
sometimes signals future reference, it cannot signal past tense, even though
it has past reference.
I am confused.
> I take issue with the view that the perfective aspect indicates
> completedness. This is the case in English but not in Greek.

Well, I wasn't thinking about English, but other languages which have
perfective aspect.

> consider (1) and (2) below
> (1) John 11:35 "Jesus wept (AORIST)" or "Jesus burst into tears" or
> "Jesus gave way to tears".

Simply an unmarked past tense reference, the narrative past. It is
completed, because the event is past from the perspective of the story
teller. The first translation is adequate.

> But what does the aorist of (1) really signal? A compleTED event?
> Hardly! While we cannot explain the meaning of Greek verbs by our
> English translations of them, we can learn how we ourselves take the
> Greek verbs by looking at our English translation. The perfective
> aspect in English is expressed by perfect. The aspect can be
> expressed by present perfect, by pluperfect (past tense+perfect), and
> by future perfect (future tense+perfect). Simple past is not an
> aspect but only a tense, and this is very important to keep in mind.
> If we had taken EDAKRUSEN hO IHSOUS  as Greek perfective in the
> English sense of the word perfective, that is, as a compleTED  event
> (as the English perfective aspect always signal), we had three
> translation possibilities:
> (a) Jesus had wept.
> (b) Jesus has wept.
> (c) Jesus will have wept.
You seem to argue from English verb forms, and I don't think that is
particularly helpful. I did not have those in mind, but if you understand
"completed" on the basis of English grammar, I can begin to see the problem.

I would translate it as "Jesus wept" and still say that in Greek this is a
narrative past tense with a perfective aspect included, but not in focus.
For the aorists with future time reference, the perfective aspect is in

A particular verb from in Greek and most languages can have more than one
grammatical function.

Iver Larsen

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