[B-Greek] BMCR review of Rijksbaron's Verbal Syntax book - linguistic terminology

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Mon Feb 18 07:11:09 EST 2008

In a first-rate review (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2008/2008-02-24.html 
  = http://tinyurl.com/2mhqea) of an important book (Albert  
Rijksbaron, The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek:  
An Introduction. Third edition {American edition} - for details, see  
my BG message of June 24, 2007,
http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2007-June/043417.html = http://tinyurl.com/2agn8x) 
, Coulter George makes some useful comments that bear on my recurrent  
complaint about terminological gobbledygook in the writing of  
linguists. To reiterate yet once again ("ad nauseam") what I've said  
before, the linguists have much to tell us that is very useful about  
the way ancient Greek works, but they seem to have great difficulty in  
articulating it so that we can understand it.

For instance, what is it that a verb "describes" or "refers to" or  
"indicates"? It is an "action," an "act," an "event," a "happening"?  
Whatever it is, why can't we all use the same term when we talk about  
it? Here's Coulter George:

"Of course, any book that tries to cover as much ground as this in  
such a small amount of space will inevitably suffer from some  
shortcomings caused by compression of the material. In particular,  
unfamiliar grammatical terminology, often derived from FG, is not  
always explained in great enough detail for its use to be justified in  
a work presumably aimed at readers with relatively little Greek. One  
example is Rijksbaron's use of the term "'state of affairs', instead  
of 'action', as a cover term for 'that which is expressed by a  
predication'" (p. 3, n. 4), in contexts like "the [historic] present  
marks states of affairs that are of decisive importance for the  
story" (p. 22). On the one hand, Rijksbaron is absolutely right to  
note that "action" is a poor choice to express this concept, for, as  
he says, it is generally restricted to particular types of states of  
affairs. On the other hand, "state of affairs" is itself problematic  
in that it has "state" as its head noun, a term which should also be  
restricted to particular states of affairs, namely those in which no  
dynamic action takes place and which, in Greek, are associated with  
the perfect--and not, for example, the decisive turning-points marked  
by the historic present (see below). While there do not seem to be any  
terms for this that are completely free from criticism, I suspect that  
"event" (more accessible) or "eventuality" (more technically correct)  
would yield a much smoother reading than "state of affairs" in most  

Of particular interest to B-Greekers (I think) is the discussion of  
Rijksbaron's account of the so-called "historical present." Of this  
usage Rijksbaron distinguishes two categories: those in which it marks  
a decisive _state of affairs_ (i.e. event) and those in which it does  
not. Says George, " ... had Rijksbaron continued in the direction he  
was going in the introduction, a much clearer dichotomy would have  
presented itself: the historic present of the messenger speech, in  
which the historic presents are clustered closely together in a  
passage filled with the vivid description of a single event, could be  
called, say, an eyewitness present, whereas those of the other  
passages, all in history, and all, in contrast to Euripides, used at  
turning-points in the story to signal a new stage in the narrative,  
could be called a punctuating present or, for that matter, the  
historic present proper."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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