[B-Greek] Aorist as Verbal Aspect

Ken Penner ken.penner at acadiau.ca
Tue May 13 15:54:04 EDT 2008

Note that in my previous message I was not making any statements specifically about Greek, but I was speaking of cross-linguistic categories that may or may not be encoded in the morphology of any given language. I am not suggesting that Greek aspect can be understood in terms of English, but rather that aspect in general can be illustrated from English (or any other language that encodes aspect; I could have used Portuguese), in order to so that the linguistic category as it applies to Greek.

When we get into Greek usage, we must use Greek examples, not English. We can't make an argument about Greek based on an English sentence that appears to be "non-sense." We have to use Greek examples.
(Note, even English we hear what might be called "non-sense" sentence: "So yesterday, John is reading this book, and the mailman shows up." )

I don't believe Porter would say, "All a Greek verb has is Aspect;" after all, verbs also have "Remoteness" and "Expectation," to use Porter's labels. Normally, an indicative statement regarding the past would be marked for remoteness. Events not in the present are by definition remote. 

In Porter's system, narrated past events are most naturally perfective (and remote), hence the Aorist is used. Present happenings are most naturally imperfective and not remote, hence the Greek Present tense is used. Future events are most naturally expected (and perfective), therefore they are marked for "Expectation" (i.e., the Greek Future tense is used).

If a system includes marking for Remoteness and for Expectation (as Porter's does), it will resemble a tense system.

One might object that it seems like special pleading to say that a system marks Remoteness and Expectation, yet does not mark tense.
It seems to me far simpler to say with respect to temporal relationships in the indicative, Greek encodes both tense and aspect (and also relative tense).

Ken M. Penner, Ph.D.
Acadia Divinity College
Hebrew and Greek vocabulary memorization software:

ML: Here is where I find it hard to follow
McKay/Porter. For them, there is no temporal element
to the "tenses." All a verb has is Aspect.

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."

ML: But, if I want to portray this event with minus
remoteness and in progress, I must use the Present
Tense form. "John is reading..." regardless of WHEN it
occurs. This is what I understand Aspect-only people
to be saying. But, for some reason, Greek writers
don't tend to portray events this way; they tend to
follow this "non existent" temporal concept. 

> 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).

ML: Okay. So, if I want to portray the Imperfective in
the first clause (rather than the Perfective, since
Aspect is subjective), and I want to portray the event
with less remoteness than the Imperfect Tense allows,
I will use the Present Tense (since, with McKay and
Porter, it ONLY portrays Aspect), I have:

"John IS reading that book yesterday..."

> 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.

ML: If I want to portray this same event, can I change
Aspects to:

Yesterday, you are reading this, I am writing this

Yesterday, you are reading this (I want to draw my
audience into this event, so I am using the Present
Tense Aspect of minus remoteness), I am writing this
message (I want to portray my writing as in progress,
and again I don't want to portray my writing in a
remote way).

The only thing that seems to prevent me from writing
this way is to contend that Aspect is not subjective.
But to do this, seems to necessitate the Greek Verb
denoting "temporalness." And I think my questions boil
down to why don't we see all kinds of "non-sense"
readings like these. Why does the Greek writer seem to
prefer to write in such a way as to "assume" past,
present, and future tenses with a system (according to
McKay) that does not encode time? I guess the only
option would be to argue that Aspect has some limits
based on time, but that brings us right back to the
Greek Verb encoding some temporalness. 

Mitch Larramore
Sugar Land, Texas


More information about the B-Greek mailing list