[B-Greek] Is Greek Present a tense? Was Verbal Aspect theory -- misgivings

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Mon Nov 17 11:59:44 EST 2008

Dear List-members?

The reason for this post is my recent discussion with Randall Buth, 
He argues against  "the 'all aspect' 'no time' people saying that 
they are afraid of using 'their system' in a particular way, but he 
refuses to disclose what he means when he uses the word "time". Any 
intelligent discussion under such circumstances is impossible. But 
still it is important to discuss tense and time in relation to the 
Greek verbal system, so I will make a proposition regarding Greek 
present and imperfect.

I realize the difficulties when discussing "tense" versus "time" (see 
the entry "tense" in D. Crystal "A Dictionary of Linguistics  and 
Phonetics"). But  such difficulties do not make it impossible to tell 
what we ourselves mean by using a certain term.  The concept tense is 
seen in relation to a deictic center (C), which usually is the 
present moment. Events occurring before C are past and events 
occurring after C are future; events including C (they may start 
before and continue after C) are present.

For the moment I will leave future alone and ask if we in English 
have a verb form that only codes for the past, thus, being a preterit 
(grammaticalized location in the past)? My answer is that English 
simple past is such a form; it is not an aspect. Comrie (1985:20) 
discusses a possible counterexample, such as "If you did this, I 
would be very happy," and concludes that this is a special case, 
because it is an expression of politeness.  An important point here 
is that a verb form deserving the label "past tense" would always 
portray events occurring before the deictic center, except possibly 
in special cases that linguistically can be explained as such. And 
contrariwise, if a reasonable number of a verb form portrays events 
occurring before, after, and contemporaneously with the deictic 
center, that form is not a tense.

In contrast with English simple past, English simple present portrays 
events occurring before, after, and contemporaneously with the 
deictic center, and therefore it cannot be a tense. My example  "So 
Paul works all yesterday to finish." is not a special case, but 
ordinary English. And Crystal says: "Nor is there a simple one-to-one 
relationship between tense forms and time: the present in English may 
help to refer to future and past time, depending on CONTEXT (e.g. I'm 
going home tomorrow, Last week I'm walking down this street...)"  By 
bringing in the context, Crystal indicates that past, present, and 
future time can be expressed pragmatically - by verb forms that are 
not tenses.

For the sake of discussion, I make the following proposition:

1) Greek present portrays events occurring before, after and 
contemporaneously with the deictic center; therefore present has no 
tense and represents only the imperfective aspect.

2) Greek imperfect only portrays events that occur before the deictic 
center; therefore, imperfect represents past tense combined with the 
imperfective aspect.

What are your comments?

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli Ph.D
University of Oslo

>On Nov 15, 2008, at 3:51 PM, Michael Aubrey wrote:
>I'm sorry, Mike. I fear that the blog entry didn't do much for me -- 
>as I indicated in my comment -- because I never could understand what 
>the circle marked "tense" was supposed to represent.
>Kimmo Huovila wrote me offlist and called my attention to his 
>dissertation; I found his brief summation regarding tense and aspect 
>which I like very much:
>"The present codes the imperfective aspect with a secondary meaning of 
>non-past temporal reference. In past contexts it alternates with the 
>imperfect in some styles. This alternation serves a textual function. 
>The imperfect codes the imperfective aspect and past temporal 
>reference, with a secondary meaning of unreality. The future shares 
>features of both tense and mood, and is probably aspectually neutral. 
>The perfect prototypically combines the perfective and stative 
>aspects, but either can fade out. Temporally it is usually either non-
>past (stative) or past (perfective). The relationship of the
>pluperfect to the perfect parallels the relationship of the imperfect 
>to the present. The aorist codes the perfective aspect, with a 
>secondary meaning of pastness."
>And the formulation, "The imperfect codes the imperfective aspect and 
>past temporal reference, with a secondary meaning of unreality.", goes 
>nicely toward my question regarding the role of the imperfect 
>indicative in Greek counterfactual conditions.
>Carl W. Conrad
>Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
>B-Greek home page: http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek
>B-Greek mailing list
>B-Greek at lists.ibiblio.org

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