[B-Greek] Verbal aspect theory -- misgivings

Steve Runge srunge at logos.com
Sat Nov 15 10:33:23 EST 2008


Thanks for the comments. I think I share some of your concerns, but have
yet to read Campbell's book. My immediate concern is the apparent
attempt to treat the historical present as normative usage of the verb

Based on your study, how to the ancient grammarians treat the historical
present? Is there discussion to indicate that the Greeks themselves
considered this usage as distinct from the more normative usage, as
Robertson and others conceived of it? I would appreciate any help you or
others could offer.

Steve Runge 

-----Original Message-----
From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
[mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Carl W. Conrad
Sent: Saturday, November 15, 2008 7:19 AM
To: B-Greek B-Greek
Subject: [B-Greek] Verbal aspect theory -- misgivings

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

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 aspect.

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

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