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

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Mon Nov 17 13:11:24 EST 2008

On Nov 17, 2008, at 11:59 AM, Rolf Furuli wrote:

> 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?

I really hesitate to become embroiled further in this tangled morass.  
What ticked me off in my original "Verbal Aspect Theory -- misgivings"  
post was the thought of a textbook being set before intermediate  
Biblical Greek students, a textbook that seems to me longer on theory  
than upon agreed-upon perspectives, that sets forth either too much or  
not enough in the way of an account of how the verb-forms in the  
different Greek tense-systems work, and that seems to me pedagogically  
less valuable than directing students to study the BDAG entries on  
particular verbs to explore the range of recognized usage of a verb in  
the various tense/aspect systems.

As for the above, I would hesitate to affirm the validity of either of  
Rolf's two propositions.

#2 seems to me to be questionable with regard to the fact that the  
imperfect indicative in Greek is used in present counterfactual  
RWMAIOI ("If I were in Rome, I would be doing as the Romans do").

#1 seems to me to be very possibly valid, but almost certainly not a  
very useful statement.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we (they? I'm not sure how deeply  
involved in this I am personally!) that we/they are trying to  
formulate a simple and almost certainly oversimplified description of  
the usage of the Greek present and imperfect. And this, it seems to  
me, means that our description will either encompass too much or not  

I returned this morning to a prefatory statement concerning the Proto- 
Indo-European verb system in Sihler's New Comparative Grammar of Greek  
and Latin (OUP, 1995), pp. 442-3. I'm going to cite it because it  
seems to me to illustrate the immensity -- incommensurability? -- of  
our problem:

      "The verb systems of most languages is a complicated affair.  
This has nothing to do with elaborate paradigms, but with functional  
categories however they are marked. The formal categories of a  
language in fact cannot be depended upon to mark functional categories  
straightforwardly. First, functional categories are commonly combined  
in various ways: in PIE you could not specify a subject's person  
without also specifying number, and vice-versa. Second, fnctional  
categories are often expressed  by formally inconsistent means.
      "A few examples from English will make these points clearly,  
since English is usually regarded as elementary in these regards  
compared to the luxuriance of G[reek], L[atin], and S[ans]k[ri]t. But  
the relationships between form and function in English are anything  
but elementary as we shall see, and have little congruence with the  
terminology of the school grammars.
      "In English the _present tense_ is usually regarded as self- 
explanatory; in the words of a dictionary, s.v. _present_: '_Gramm._  
Denoting, or pertaining to, time that now is, as the _present tense_'.  
To the contrary: the 'present tense' of English turns out to have very  
little in the way of reference to 'time that now is'. The four  
principal functions of the N[eo]E[nglish] 'present tense' are: (1) i  
tis used of future events; (2) it is used of reiterated or habitual  
events; (3) it is used of a state, which has no tense; (4) it is used  
with a special class of verbs known as performatives, such as _say_,  
_declare_, _promise_.
      "Examples of (1) are: Alice LEAVES in a week, When Megan CALLS  
tell her I'm on my way, Unless someone TELLS him he will never find  
out. This future force is a relic, albeit a robust one, of an earlier  
period in the history of all Germanic languages, when there were  
formally only two tense categories: 'past' (officially known as  
_preterite_) and 'non-past' (the so-called _present_, which included  
the future and some unreal events). For most future events English now  
uses overtly marked verb forms (_might_, _must_, _will_, _may_, and so  
on) -- at leasat in independent clauses: the invariable use of  
'present tense' verbs in future temporal clauses introduced by _when_,  
_unless_, and _if_ is an instance of the general truth that the  
morphosyntax of subordinate clauses tends to be more conservative than  
that of independent clauses.
      "Type (2) is exemplified by _Bruce DRINKS at least six cups of  
coffee a day_, _Wayne IS always the last to leave_. Such sentences  
explicitly state that something both has taken place and will take  
place; they are silent about what Bruce and Wayne are doing hic-et-nunc.
      "Examples of Type (3) are: _It COMES with a set of blades_;  
_Lucy IS unreasonable_; _Elliott OWNS an antique Rolls-Royce._ These  
predications all refer to (tenseless) states, which are admittedly  
valid at present ut that is incidental to their real meaning.
      "Type (4) would include such remarks as _Bruce SAYS that he  
drinks too much coffee_, or _I THINK he's right_. Note that if the  
first sentence refers to any actual event it was something that  
happened (possibly more than once) in the past. And note that _Bruce  
said that he drinks too much coffee_ is an aorist of an ordinary  
eventive verb, not the past tense of the first (performative) example.
      "So much, then for the notion of a 'simple present' in English;  
it turns out to be a formal category only, whose nomenclature conceals  
more than ti reveals about the English verb CATEGORIES."

I could extend this citation further, but I don't think I need to. I  
think that the four principal functions of the NE present tense cited  
above correspond well enough to the four listed by Rolf in a previous  
post in this thread. But although it concerns English rather than  
Biblical Greek, I think it nicely characterizes the problem of  
adequate description of Biblical Greek "tense" usage: the  
generalizations assert either too much or not enough. And, when all is  
said and done, I honestly believe that Randall is right, you need to  
have a more-or-less intimate familiarity with the language (Biblical  
Greek -- or English) to be able to discern what is meant in each  
concrete instance. I doubt that a textbook on aspect such as the one  
just published -- the one that has unleashed (LUW!) the present thread  
of discourse on B-Greek -- is likely to prepare students for exegesis  
better than will an admonition to go to BDAG and study up on the range  
of usage of a verb in question. There are actually riches to be mined  
in the pages of BDAG if one is willing to take the effort.

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

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