[B-Greek] Verbal aspect theory -- misgivings

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Sat Nov 15 10:18:59 EST 2008

I am somewhat hesitant to give voice to the misgivings I have about  
the doctrine(s) of verbal aspect. Ere now I have ranted about what  
often seems gobbledygook of Linguists who haven't formed a consensus  
about how some features of language work and how they sometimes seem  
to have arrived at some very useful and helpful ways of understanding  
how Greek works but don't seem to have set forth a very clear  
exposition of what they've found out. This may well be another of  
those rants to be ignored by those who are better informed. But I have  
to confess to puzzlement and concern that continues to trouble my  
senescent brain over this issue.

Am I alone in being uncomfortable about much of what we are being told  
about Biblical Greek verbal aspect? I have tried to read carefully  
through the new Con Campbell book, _Basics of Verbal Aspect in  
Biblical Greek_ as well as through the reviews that have been spread  
all over the web (more or less) this past week, and I have not been  
able to shake the suspicion that we're being sold a bill of goods.  
I've said before that I don't really think the dust has settled on  
aspect studies sufficiently to say there is much of a scientific or  
even a more-or-less clear and intelligible doctrine of Greek Verbal  
Aspect. That is not to say that I don't think some questions regarding  
verbal aspect have found some resolution and that some pedagogical  
errors of years gone by (e.g. the "once-for-all-time aorist") have  
been shown the door. What bothers me is the notion that there is a  
doctrine of aspect that may now be set before beginning or second-year  
Biblical Greek students with such clarity and precision that a set of  
exercises with an answer key may justifiably be placed in their hands.

My own thinking is that the distinction between Perfective Aspect  
(Aorist) and Imperfective Aspect (Present, Imperfect) is valid and  
useful, and I am comfortable with the clarification that "Perfective  
aspect" means a view of the verbal action or process as a whole and  
external, while "Imperfective aspect" means a view of the verbal  
action or process as internal or within the transpiring process. I  
think that the category termed "Aktionsart" is indeed useful to  
characterize particular verbs as "iterative" or "punctiliar" or  
"progressive"; indeed, I think the category is also useful toward  
understanding the way voice works in the Greek verb.

Perfect and Pluperfect "tenses" seem to be problematic for a doctrine  
of verbal aspect: I can see that calling them "Stative" makes sense to  
some extent, and I can see why some would like to assert that they are  
really Imperfective. I think, however, that the problem is complicated  
(1) by the number of instances of OIDA and hESTHKA and the pluperfects  
HiDEIN and hEISTHKEIN and their compounds, since they do in fact  
indicate "knowing" and "standing" as would present and imperfect forms  
and (2) by the fact that Biblical Greek is a language in flux and that  
the older perfect and aorist tenses are on their way to merging in the  
same fashion as they have merged in Latin: the Koine aorist often  
enough functions like a perfect or a pluperfect tense and there are  
instances where it would appear that a perfect tense form functions  
pretty much as does an aorist to indicate completed action. I don't  
think anything useful is accomplished by attempting to force the  
perfect-tense forms into the "Imperfective" pigeonhole.

As for the assertion that time is a metaphor and that the best way to  
understand temporal reference in Greek verbs is in terms of a  
metaphorical spatial proximity and remoteness, it seems to me an  
interesting theory, an interesting way of looking at it, but I am not  
convinced that ancient Greeks in the Biblical era as well as before  
and afterwards were thinking pretty much in terms of what we mean by  
time present, past, and future. What I would like to see explored,  
however, is some rationale for the fact that present and past  
counterfactual conditions are conveyed in ancient Greek by the  
INDICATIVE imperfect and aorist tense-forms respectively.

I am still inclined to think that the student learning important Greek  
verbs would do well to read carefully through the lexical entries for  
important verbs and note the range of forms in which they most  
commonly appear as well as the contexts in which their important  
senses occur. Reading voluminously helps too. The old Latin proverb is  
DISCIMUS AGERE AGENDO ("we learn to do by doing") which has  
corollaries for language-learning: DISCIMUS LOQUI LOQUENDO ("we learn  
to speak by speaking") and DISCIMUS LEGERE LEGENDO ("we learn to read  
by reading." I think that lots of (Greek) conversation in the  
classroom and lots of reading Greek in the library will do more for  
one learning the usage of Greek verbs than doctrines of Greek verbal  

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

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