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

Kimmo Huovila kimmo.huovila at kolumbus.fi
Tue Nov 18 06:22:48 EST 2008

On tiistai 18 marraskuu 2008, Rolf Furuli wrote:
> 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,

But we do know a whole lot since we have quite a bit of text written using 
these linguistic conventions! It is just applying corpus linguistics to the 
study of a dead language. It applies to dead languages just as well as living 
ones. And by the way, it is very interesting to compare results of corpus 
linguistic studies to intuitions of several natives (and your own)! That 
teaches something about both native intuition and corpus linguistics, and how 
to best use them.

> 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.

I don't think I have implied that we should study a dead language in the light 
of modern descendant languages. However, I do think that the methodology we 
use in studying a dead language must yield right results also when applied to 
a living language. If it does not, the methodology is suspect.

> 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.

If that is the case, then my sketch should be refined, rather than concluded 
that the present indicative is no tense.

Would you agree that a linguistic theory of Greek tense should also account 
for the non-use of historical presents, in other words, why in many cases a 
present is just no used in a past context? If not, I am afraid that you throw 
a whole lot of data out of analysis.

> Let us for example take a look at the  
> narrative part of Mark 11.

Ok. This is a methodologically sound start for the study of the historical 
present. However, as I have life also outside of b-greek, I only give a quick 
gut reaction, not a deep linguistic analysis, and I do not attempt to 
formulate and prove a theory of historical presents. I leave it up to other 
discourse linguists to do that and to fix some of my quick comments.

> 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,

These are used at the beginning of a section to draw attention to the 
following episode. Also in vese 2 there is a historical present to draw 
attention to Jesus' instruction which is important in the development of the 

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

"Went and found" happened just as they were instructed and you would not 
expect that to cause anything significant in itself. However, when they start 
untying, that can cause some unrest among bystanders! Attention grabber: what 
happens next?

> 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?

In 11:7 a new question is raised: what happens next? How is Jesus going to use 
them? (Not answered previously.) Remember that historical presents do not 
draw attention to themselves, but to what follows them.

> 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.

No attention grabbers here.

> 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,

Now watch what happens when Jesus enters Jerusalem!

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

The story of the fig tree is not highlighted.

> 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?

Mark wanted to highlight the explanation of the episode over the episode 
itself. The main point is didactic.

> 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.

Beginning of a highlighted section.

> 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 
> things."

Hightlighted exchange of words (content highlighted, not verbs of saying)

> 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 that conclusion is too hasty. Before drawing such a conclusion, it 
would be nice to find the same phenomenon outside of narrative or in places 
that don't make sense as a historical present.

How about a reformulation: The present does not always have tense? That much 
you can safely deduce. But then again, the impefect is not always a tense, 
either, as there is a secondary meaning of unreality.

Historical presents get their meaning only in the context of a narrative flow. 
Therefore, I predict, you will not find them for example in the conclusion of 
a narrative or episode (except perhaps with verbs of speaking when they 
highlight the content of what is said). I do admit that authors had liberty 
in the use of historical presents. Some don't even use them at all. We cannot 
make such tight rules that would predict each and every one of the uses and 
non-uses of the historical present (but neither can we do the same for the 
conditionals). The historical present has its own semantics, it is a species 
of its own, just like counterfactual conditionals. Finding historical 
presents in past contexts does not mean that other presents are freely used 
in past contexts.

If you try to find a meaning for the present that includes every single use, 
the risk is that the meaning is too general and the grammar overgenerates, 
unless you are careful to formulate the restrictions, too. Perhaps that is 
more significant than arguments over whether to call something a tense or 
something else, or even whether my characterization of historical presents is 

Kimmo Huovila

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