[B-Greek] Questions about verbal aspect.

Ken Penner ken.penner at acadiau.ca
Fri Jul 6 10:35:31 EDT 2007

My focus for my first Master's degree comprehensive exams was on Greek verbal aspect. At the time, based on my reading of Porter and Fanning, I considered aspect a subjective choice of the author, thinking this meant the author could choose any aspect for any event, based on whether he wanted to view it from inside, from outside, or from a distance. Since then, for my doctoral dissertation, I examined the indicators of tense, aspect, and modality in Hebrew. I came to realize that the "the author’s reasoned subjective choice of  conception of a process" is not the way standard linguistic works on aspect would describe (grammatical) aspect. I adapt B. Comrie's work on Aspect below:

Aspect needn't be so hard to understand; it is not a totally foreign concept since most modern languages have a way to grammaticalize aspect. Even English does. The simplest way is to illustrate:
Perfective aspect: John read the book.
Imperfective aspect: John was reading the book.

It IS true that the same objective event can be described using different (grammatical) aspects, just as the same objective event can be described using different tenses.

John read the book yesterday. After he had read the book, he ate breakfast, because he had promised, "I will read the book before breakfast."
This tense shift is not a totally subjective choice of the author; the tense shifted because the time of speaking (="speech time") changed. 

Similarly, the aspect shifts when the "reference point" changes. The reference point is the time about which an assertion is made. To illustrate "reference point":

The reference point of "John read the book yesterday" is "yesterday," the day before the speech time.
The reference point of "he ate breakfast" is after he had read the book.
The reference point of "I will read the book" is "before breakfast."

Now, what happens when the reference point is within the event being described, e.g., it is while John is reading the book? We see a change of aspect.

While John was reading the book yesterday, the postman came.
Or, John was reading the book when the postman came.

The event (reading) extends beyond the reference point (the postman's arrival).

Just as tense is determined by the order of the speech time and the event time (or more precisely by the order of the speech time and the reference time), before speech =past; after speech=future, so also (grammatical) aspect is determined by the inclusion of the reference time in the event time (simply put, reference outside event = perfective; reference inside event = imperfective).

I think this is where we get statements to the effect that imperfective is "looking at" the event from inside, and perfective is looking at the event from outside. The phrase "looking at" refers to the relation of the reference time to the event time. Once we begin speaking of "looking at" an event, it is a short step to calling this act of looking the author's "viewpoint." But we are not really thinking psycholinguistically, or at least, if some scholars are thinking of aspect in terms of psycholinguistics, they are not using standard linguistic understandings of "aspect."

Aspect does get a lot more complicated than this, but these basics should not be hard to grasp.

In Greek, the difference between the aorist indicative and the imperfect indicative is basically a difference of (grammatical) aspect, i.e., whether or not the reference time is included in the event time. I do not believe the Greek Perfect signals a difference in aspect, but a difference in relative tense (the ORDER of reference time and event time).

I hope this helps,


Ken M. Penner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies,
Acadia Divinity College,
Wolfville, Nova Scotia,
Canada B4P 2R6.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org 
> [mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of 
> LuisCReyes at aol.com
> Sent: July 5, 2007 5:09 PM
> To: B-Greek at lists.ibiblio.org
> Subject: [B-Greek] Questions about verbal aspect.
> There is a notion that I have often encountered  when reading 
> literature on NT verbal aspect. This notion has bothered me 
> because  I think that it is misleading. However, I want to 
> make sure that I understand  what some writers are saying 
> pertaining to verbal aspect. The idea (as I  understand it) 
> has to do with the general notion that a “speaker’s 
> viewpoint” can be decoded from  the linguistic form of verbal 
> morphology. 
> For instance, Porter writes, “In Greek,  verbal aspect is 
> defined as a semantic (meaning) category by which a speaker 
> or  writer gramaticalizes (i.e. 
> represents a meaning by a choice of a word-form) a 
> perspective on an action by the selection of a particular 
> tense-form in the verbal system” (Porter, Idioms, 20-21, 
> emphasis mine).  Elsewhere Porter elaborates about this 
> “perspective of an action” to mean “the author’s reasoned 
> subjective choice of  conception of a process” (Porter,  
> Verbal Aspect, p. 88, emphasis mine. I leave out for now the 
> issue of  “reasoned subjective choice”). Fanning also 
> understands NT Greek verbal aspect  in a similar manner. He 
> writes that verbal aspect, “. . . is that category in  the 
> grammar of the verb which reflects the focus or viewpoint of 
> the speaker in  regard to the action or condition which the 
> verb describes. . .To be more  specific, aspect is concerned 
> with the  speaker’s viewpoint concerning the action . . .” 
> (Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, p.  84-85, 
> emphasis mine). According to McKay, aspect in NT Greek, “is 
> that category  of the verb system by means of which an  
> author (or speaker) shows how he views each event or activity 
> he mentions in  relation to its context” 
> (McKay, Greek Grammar, p. 44). This is a notion  that seems 
> to be accepted by other NT scholars. 
> The problem that I see is that such ideologies  apparently 
> presuppose and assume that there is a necessary connection  
> between perceived aspectual nuances decoded from linguistic 
> verbal  morphology, and the speaker’s actual mental 
> conceptualization of a viewpoint or  event. Is anyone aware 
> of any psycholinguistic studies or experimental  research 
> that can support such a view? Is this in fact what these 
> writers  believe about verbal aspect, or have I misunderstood them? 
> It appears to me that people are under the  impression that 
> one can extract the “speaker’s viewpoint” from verbal  
> morphology. I think that instead of referring to notions that 
> speak about  decoding “a speaker’s viewpoint” from linguistic 
> verbal morphology (which  should actually be categorized in 
> the realm of pragmatics), perhaps it is more  appropriate to 
> say that linguistic verbal aspect conveys a semantic 
> viewpoint (not necessarily the speaker’s viewpoint)  that may 
> be recovered from the language that the speaker used. From my 
> understanding, it is one thing to distinguish between what 
> the speaker’s linguistic morphology says (semantics), and 
> quite another thing to attempt to  obtain a resemblance with 
> what the speaker actually means, or conceptually  thinks 
> pertaining to a particular viewpoint (pragmatics). As it 
> stands, it  appears to me that people are under the 
> impression that the speaker's conceptual viewpoint is 
> necessarily decoded from linguistic verbal morphology in  
> situations where a perceived aspectual nuance is 
> linguistically detected. Can anyone lead me to any recent  
> discussions or studies on this issue? 
> Thank You,
> Luis Reyes
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