[B-Greek] Aorist as Verbal Aspect

Ken Penner ken.penner at acadiau.ca
Tue May 13 10:30:32 EDT 2008

Hi Mitch,

I'm not sure I speak for Campbell, Porter or McKay in the following.

When we say aspect is "subjective" we mean there is nothing about an event itself that demands that a certain aspect be used.
To use the classic English example (Comrie, Aspect, 4), "John read that book yesterday; while he was reading it, the postman came." The same act of reading can be expressed using the perfective ("read") and imperfective ("was reading").

By way of contrast, I cannot change tenses as easily. I can't choose to say "John is reading that book" if the reading has already taken place. This is because tense depends on the time the statement is made. Aspect depends not on this fixed, objective "Speech time" but on a moveable "Reference time." That "Reference time" can be chosen by the speaker; in this sense it is subjective. In "John read that book yesterday", the Reference time is "yesterday"; in "while he was reading it, the postman came", the Reference time for "was reading" is time of the postman's arrival. 

Perfective is used in the first clause because the reference time (yesterday) is external to the event (reading the book). Imperfective is used in the second clause because the reference time (the postman's arrival) is internal to the same event (reading the book).

Now to your question: why is the Aorist not used for present situations? Why is a current event rarely portrayed from an external viewpoint?
Let's try to imagine such a case: the time of the event and the speech coincide, but the reference point is external to the time of the event. In English, "By the time you read this, I will have written this message." That has a reference point (your reading) outside the event (my writing), and the speech at the same time as the event.
Or another: "I was going to answer this message after I got to work." Reference=getting to work; event=answer; speech time=event time.

How often do we make such statements? Not often. Most commonly, when we speak of the present, we do not shift the reference time to a point external to the event.

Now, with that said, sometimes we break the rules for effect, or even by mistake, or there is more than one acceptable way of expressing the same thing. 
I am writing this hoping it clarifies things / I have written this hoping it will clarify things.

Ken M. Penner, Ph.D. (on Tense, Aspect, and Modality in Hebrew)
Acadia Divinity College
Hebrew and Greek vocabulary memorization software:

-----Original Message-----
From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org [mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Mitch Larramore
Sent: Sunday, May 11, 2008 1:16 AM
To: B Greek
Subject: [B-Greek] Aorist as Verbal Aspect

I am reading a book by Dr. Campbell (Verbal Aspect,
the Indicative Mood, and Narrative). It seems to me
that I'm just not able to follow a certain line of
reason. I've read it before in McKay (and Porter who
expands on McKay's ideas). 

How can it be argued that Aspect is a subjective (how
the writer chooses to portray the event) portrayal of
an event, not how an event ACTUALLY occurs/occurred,
and then not expect to see a much higher number of
Aorists being used in Present and Future situations?

In other words, why doesn't a Greek writer hardly ever
want to portray a current event from an external
viewpoint? If it is indeed a subjective means of
portraying an event by a writer, who surely portrays
events for literary effect at times, why do we not see
far more Aorists used in present circumstances? 

The more I think about it, it would seem to me that we
ought to see the Aorist as often as we see any other
tense for present events. Why do writers almost always
want to present Present events from an internal
perspective? It almost sounds as if it is not a
subjective choice based on the percent of Aorists used
for present events. 

Mitch Larramore
Sugar Land, Texas

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