[B-Greek] Aorist as Verbal Aspect

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Wed May 14 06:18:12 EDT 2008

my comments **

mitch egrapse:
>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.

>> [KP]
>> 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).

**but both aspects are OK with EXQES 'yesterday'.
Reference time is irrelevant to the aspect.
Both Greek and English can say both
"he was coming yesterday, but he got carjacked."
and "he came yesterday."

**'Externality' would also predict *tomorrow he came.
What I see 'aspect-only' approaches doing is
substituting a slippery spatial metaphor "remoteness"
in order to explain away time, hoping that people
will not realize that 'remoteness' is not a real
parameter but a metaphor, and a metaphor that
carries within itself temporal constraints.

>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..."

**Good observation, Mitch. You have generated a
sentence according to the "grammar of Porter", yet
it is a sentence whose Greek does not appear to
be Greek.
*John is reading the book yesterday
[sic, *,  apparently not well-formed Greek.]
The NT never uses the present tense verb for an
imperfective event in the past marked with EXQES.
(but NT only 3xx of EXQES)
The same is true of Josephus 6xx, and the LXX 34xx
(the LXX and Josephus do allow ellipsis with EXQES
"like [he was] yesterday". The closest the LXX gets
is the participle 'hating him yesterday or formerly'.
Philo does have
and yesterday not just now I know [perfect=present]
a certain man who  ... (+past tenses).
And Plutarch's 30 examples do not have a present
indicative except in conjunction with PRWHN
just now 'yesterday and just now you are ...'

I said "grammar of Porter" above because McKay
actually hedges his bets. He wants to portray the
'aspectuality' of Greek as maximally as possible,
excessively at points, but he knows that there is
a little 'time' kicking around in the verb, (We moved
a few months ago and my McKay is not yet
apparent, so I can't quote his reservations on

>>[KP] ...   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.

**NAI. You are correctly using an inductive approach
to proof: taking the theory, seeing what it generates,
and noticing that it 'overgenerates'. It generates some
of what we find but it also generates nonsense and
stuff that we don't find attested in Greek. It is part
of the reason that Greek speakers (especially
modern mother-tongue, who also include some avid
readers of the ancient) are not impressed with
'aspect-only'. Caragounis will approve, too.

>Mitch Larramore

**As I mentioned a couple of days ago, even the
'historic present' is not used in contexts of
imperfective aspect [while they *are eating,
the messenger arrived.] The historic present is a
literary device in narratives that is used for events
that are in a perfective sequence.

I personally think that the 'aspect-only' people, a
small minority within NT Greek studies, much
smaller within classics, get off on the wrong path by
a well-intentioned correction. They know that the
"present" subjunctive/optative/infinitive/imperative
is not present in time and they may have seen
students continually mis-construing contexts
because of the association of 'present' with time
and 'aorist' with past. I am speculating here,
of course.
To me, the natural solution is to get rid of the
name "present" for the 'open, extending' aspect.
Getting rid of "time" is not true to Greek
and timelessness is probably falsified by
the existence of the AKSHSIS,
and the false predictions of "timeless grammar".

The Greeks were not bothered by their name
ENESTWS for perhaps two reasons.
1. When you know a language you
correctly use the forms no matter how they are
named. "I run" can be called a 'present' (not
precisely) and be said truly while sitting. this
doesn't confuse an English speaker though
English learners may say things like
*'why go you to the post office now?' and
*'what do you?' or 'what you do?'
for 'what are you doing?''
2. ENESTWS literally means the 'standing in
the middle' time. 'Standing in the middle' is
not a bad name for imperfective aspect. But
they have another name for the past
imperfective: PARATATIKOS 'extending along'.
So in order to make things clear to our students
We call the so-called 'present subjunctive, ktl.'
PARATATIKH (feminine to fit OPSIS 'aspect')
DIDOY 'be giving' is PARATATIKH
POIEIN 'to be doing' is PARATATIKH.
INA POIHS 'so that you would be doing'
If Greek pedagogy would drop the term
'present' for forms that are
subjunctive, imperative, infinitive, optative,
(yea, participle, too), people could go
about their Greek business with less
friction and students would be able to
enter the system more transparently.
Beginning students are not distracted by
such things when learning German or
English, even though linguists can debate if
the English/German future is/was modal, or
whether German word order is basically
VSO or SVO or SOV. (It's V2,SO with
subordinate SOV.)  The problem is that
all of this is highly analytical and does not
instill the means for thinking in the language
but actually promotes non-fluency and true
(outside of the thought).


Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easier - Progress Further - Remember for Life

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