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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Nov 18 05:28:23 EST 2008

Dear Kimmo

We approach the dead Greek language from very different perspectives. 
I use all the fundamental principles for linguistic research, as I 
also suppose you do. But I refuse to study the language in the light 
of a particular linguistic theory, because in that case we inevitably 
will *disturb* the material we are studying. By this I mean that at 
the outset we do not know what the dead language was like; we do not 
know the linguistic conventions of the native speakers, and 
therefore, we cannot study the dead language in the light of living 
languages (i.e., Classical Greek in the light of modern Greek; 
Classical Hebrew in the light of modern Hebrew). My approach, 
therefore, is that of the observer; I study the language without any 
theory (based on modern languages) regarding what the language should 
be like.

>  >
>>  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.

As we both agree, Greek imperfect is a typical example of the 
category past tense, because the events it portrays occur before the 
deictic center, except in a few cases which linguistically can be 
shown to be special cases.

Your characteristics of historic present may be fitting in many 
instances, but not in all. Let us for example take a look at the 
narrative part of Mark 11. I use the text of NIV and show the use of 
aorist (A), present (P) and imperfect (I).  In this chapter we find 
many examples of present and aorist with past reference. Can you show 
that each use of present is a special case?  Can it be shown that 
each present is an attention grabber or signals some significant 
development, and that the aorists don't?

11:1 As they approached (P) Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and 
Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent (P) two of his disciples,

11:4  They went (A) and found (A) a colt outside in the street, tied 
at a doorway. As they untied (P) it,

Why is P used for "approached" and "sent" in 11:1, and A used for 
"went" and "found" in 11:4, and why is P used for the telic verb 

11:5 some people standing there asked (I), "What are you doing, 
untying that colt?"
11:6 They answered (A) as Jesus had told them to (A), and the people 
let them go (A).
11:7 When they brought (P) the colt to Jesus and threw (P) their 
cloaks over it, he sat (A) on it.
11:8 Many people spread (A) their cloaks on the road, while others 
spread (A) branches they had cut in the fields.
11:9 Those who went ahead (P) and those who followed (P) shouted (I), 
¶	"Hosanna!'"

RF: Why is P used for "brought" and "threw" in 11;7 and A used for 
"spread" and "spread" in 11:8? How are the Ps attention grabbers?

11:11  ¶	Jesus entered (A) Jerusalem and went to the temple. 
He looked around (A part) at everything, but since it was (P part) 
already late, he went (A) out to Bethany with the Twelve.
11:12  ¶	The next day as they were leaving (A part) Bethany, 
Jesus was hungry (A).  11:13 Seeing (A part) in the distance a fig 
tree in leaf, he went (A) to find out if it had any fruit. When he 
reached it (A part) , he found (A) nothing but leaves, because it was 
not the season for figs.
Mark 11:14 Then he said (A) to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit 
from you again." And his disciples heard (I) him say it.
Mark 11:15  ¶	On reaching (P) Jerusalem, Jesus entered (A part) the 
temple area and began (A) driving out those who were buying and 
selling there. He overturned (A) the tables of the money changers and 
the benches of those selling doves,

RF: In 11:13 "came" is A but in 11:15 and 27 "came" is P. Why?

11:17 And as he taught (I) them, he said (I), "Is it not written: ¶ 
	" 'My house will be called
		a house of prayer for all nations'?	But you have 
made (Perfect) it 'a den of robbers.''"
11:18  The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard (A) this 
and began (I) looking for a way to kill him, for they feared (I) him, 
because the whole crowd was amazed (I) at his teaching.
11:19  When evening came (A), they went (I) out of the city.
11:20  In the morning, as they went along(P part) , they saw (A) the 
fig tree withered from the roots.
11:21 Peter remembered (A p. part) and said (P) to Jesus, "Rabbi, 
look! The fig tree you cursed (A) has withered (P)!"
11:22  "Have faith in God," Jesus answered (P).

RF: In 11:21 and 22, two times we find "said" as  P, while we find 
"said" as A two times in v 6, and one time each in vv. 14 and 29. 
What is special with vv. 21 and 22?

11:27  They arrived (P) again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was 
walking (P part) in the temple courts, the chief priests, the 
teachers of the law and the elders came (P) to him.
11:28 "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked (I). 
"And who gave you authority to do this?"
11:29  ¶	Jesus replied (P), "I will ask you one question.

11:31  ¶	They discussed (I) it among themselves and said (P 
part), "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't (A) 
you believe him?'
11:32 But if we say, 'From men' . . . ." (They feared (I) the people, 
for everyone held (I) that John really was a prophet.)
11:33  ¶	So they answered ( P) Jesus, "We don't know." ¶	Jesus 
said P, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these 

RF:  I cannot find any special cases at all in connection with the 
use of presents in Mark 11. The presents are spread around in the 
chapter and are mingled with aorists and imperfects. I do not say 
that the writer did not have a purpose with his use of different 
verbs - he obviously had. But because of his widespread use of 
presents with past reference, I, the observer, can only draw the 
conclusion that present has no tense.

>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).

I will not use the language as verification of the theory, because I 
do not have any theory. I simply observe that Greek present is used 
with past reference, and on the basis of the definition of tense as 
"grammaticalization of location in time" I draw my conclusions.

>Kimmo Huovila

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli Ph.D
University of Oslo

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