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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Mon Nov 17 15:45:22 EST 2008

Dear Kimmo,

Thank you for answering my post.

>On maanantai 17 marraskuu 2008, Rolf Furuli wrote:
>>  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.
>It escapes me why "Paul works all yesterday to finish" is ordinary English
>and "If you did this, I would be happy" is a special case.

I always am on thin ice when I speak of "ordinary 
English," because I am not a native speaker 
(perhaps I should have said "good grammatical 
English" in contrast with "ungrammatical 
English"). Regarding these examples I build on 
Olsen, Crystal and Wolfson. Comrie's point, in 
which I agree, is that if we claim that 
particular clauses are special cases, we must 
point to some linguistic characteristic that make 
them special cases; just to say they are special 
cases is an ad hoc proposition. In connection 
with Greek imperfects, there is no doubt that 
counterfactual conditionals are special cases. 
And similarly,  Comrie's example is a 
hypothetical condition, which linguists would 
accept as a special case.

But what about the clauses that you call 
"historical present"? This is a term that 
includes many different kinds of clauses. One 
common denominator of these is that reference 
time in each verb occurs before the deictic 
center; more broadly speaking: the actions occur 
before the deictic center. From a linguistic 
point of view,  these clauses can only be 
accepted as special cases if we can show a 
linguistic characteristic in which they differ 
from other similar clauses expressed by Greek 
present. if we cannot do that, the claim is 
tautological, such as: "Greek present has an 
intrinsic non-past reference, and therefore, 
present clauses with past reference are special 
cases." So please, show with linguistic arguments 
how the socalled historic present clauses differ 
from similar non-past clauses. If this is not 
possible, my suggestion that Greek present is 
tenseless (but not timeless) stands.

In Hebrew we have a similar situation that I view 
as tautological. The form YIQTOL (imperfect) is 
viewed as non-past. However, of the 13,619 cases 
in the Hebrew Bible I have analyzed, I have found 
1.027  (7.5%) examples with past reference. How 
can these "anomalous" examples be explained? They 
represent "durative past," is the explanation. 
But what is "durative past"? First of all, the 
expression is a misnomer, because durativity is 
an Aktionsart term. Verbs such as "sing" and 
"run" are marked for durativity, and they will 
always be durative, regardless of aspect or 
temporal reference. The term is actually an ad 
hoc term used to explain examples that should not 
be there (YIQTOLs with past reference).  And 
interestingly, some of these "durative past" 
verbs has an instantaneous force, as shown in the 
grammar of Joüon/Muraoka.

>>  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.
>I would say that there are only special cases when the present tense refers to
>the past, and therefore it is a tense. The special cases are 1) historical
>present, 2) expression of a past event continuing to the present, 3) general
>(timeless) sentences can include the past.
>>  2) Greek imperfect only portrays events that occur before the deictic
>>  center; therefore, imperfect represents past tense combined with the
>>  imperfective aspect.
>Agreed, except for the special cases (counterfactual conditionals). They exist
>here just as well as with the present. So, where is the difference between
>the imperfect and the present as far as tense is concerned?
>Kimmo Huovila

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli Ph.D
University of Oslo

More information about the B-Greek mailing list