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

Kimmo Huovila kimmo.huovila at kolumbus.fi
Tue Nov 18 01:29:26 EST 2008

On maanantai 17 marraskuu 2008, Rolf Furuli wrote:
> 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").

OK. Then both cases are similar in this respect.

> 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.

Historic presents are 1) not used in every register, that is, they are 
stylistically limited, 2) not used outside of narrative, 3) are used as 
attention grabbers to signal some significant development that follows the 
use of the historical present.

It is the rather limited range of use for the historical present that makes it 
a special case. It the present indicative were no tense, you would expect it 
to be used freely with past events. However, there are severe limitations as 
far as register, text type, and text flow are concerned. Any good theory of 
the Greek tense should be able to adequately explain this.

I think Randall Buth has a point in the use of the language as verification of 
the theory. If using the theory generatively produces historical presents in 
non-narrative texts, or in contexts that do not involve any highlighting of 
the following material, then the theory overgenerates and is in need of 
revision (unless, of course, my brief characterization of the use of the 
historical present is shown to be in error).

Kimmo Huovila

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