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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Nov 19 05:38:26 EST 2008

Dear Kimmo,

See my comments below.

>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.


When I approach a dead language in order to find the meaning of the 
properties of its verbal system, I need no special theories, and 
corpus linguistics and the intuitions of modern informants will only 
be disturbing and may lead me astray. I have to study the dead 
language in its own right. The only baggage I have, that could 
resemble a small part of a theory, is that I know that the basic 
parts of the verbal systems of many modern languages, are tense, 
mood, and aspect. I do not assume that these must be found in the 
dead language, but that is my question. The research has two sides:

THE QUANTITATIVE TEST: The temporal  reference of ALL the finite 
verbs are mapped on the basis of the deictic center and reference 
time of each verb.

THE QUALITATIVE TEST: To find whether particular time references are 
cause by the context or by the verb form itself (a distinction 
between semantics and pragmatics).

>>  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.


The term "right results" is problematic, because it could imply a 
pre-judgement (prejudice). We simply do no know what a dead language 
should look like. So I would not say more than that our results must 
be linguistically functional. For example, in the Ugatiric saga of 
Kirta we find a long account with future reference with a detailed 
descriptions of what Kirta will do; then we have the same account 
with past reference, almost verbatim, describing that Kirta did this. 
And interestingly, the same forms of the same verbs (in most cases) 
are used both with past and present reference. The same is true in 
other Ugaritic literature. this is hardly what modern intuition would 

>>  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.


To *account for* the non-use of a form is rather problematic- we 
cannot account for something that do not exist. But I suppose you 
mean that we should consider why a particular form (here present) is 
used in some places and not in others. But in this connection we need 
to be cautious. For example, more than 50% of past-referring present 
forms are verbs of speaking, and the percentage varies in different 
books (Mark 48%, Matthew 73%, Luke 73%, and Acts 85%). This is a 
matter of style and choice of subject, and there is no linguistic 
reason why we should *account* for the differences. But of course, 
the distribution of a form should be carefully considered.

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



>  >
>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.


Your suggestion regarding a reformulation shows explicitly that we 
use the word "tense" in very different ways, because "The present 
does not always have tense." is a contradiction of terms in my 
linguistic system. We are allowed to use different linguistic systems 
and different definitions, but it is extremely important that we 
define our terms. It seems to me that "tense," "time", and 
"timelssness" have been used on the list in a rather loose and 
unspecific way, so I think that those who are interested in this 
subject will profit when I now give a precise definition of what I 
mean by "tense".

In this connection I agree completely with Mari Broman Olsen, and I 
use her description- interested persons can find it in her book.


The basic point here is that some meanings connected with words, word 
forms, and clauses cannot be canceled, because they are an intrinsic 
part - these represent semantic meaning. Other meanings do change 
according to the context-these represent conversational pragmatic 

In Olsen's words (p. 17): "Semantic meaning may not be canceled 
without contradiction or reinforced without redundancy."

Olsen (p. 17) uses the following examples in connection with the 
meaning of "plod":

Elsie plodded along,#but not slowly.
Elsie plodded along,#slowly.

Margaret plodded along, although she wasn't tired.
Margaret plodded along, she was very tired.

We see that "tiredness" is associated with plod by conversational 
pragmatic implicature, but "slowly" is a part of the semantic meaning 
of "plod."

Examples of semantic meaning are words that are marked for 
durativity, telicity, or dynamicity; these properties cannot be 
canceled. But stativity and punctiliarity are changeable.


The word "time" is linguistically speaking rather vague, and can be 
used in different senses, but that is not true with "tense". Comrie 
defines it as "grammaticalized location in time," and this indicates 
that its time reference is uncancelable. A diachronic study of a 
language can reveal grammaticalization processes: a linguistic entity 
gradually looses its multiple meanings, and is used more and more 
uniformly until it is fully grammaticalized and has one uncancelable 
semantic meaning. Thus, a verb form that represent past tense, always 
signals past tense; this tense cannot be canceled by the context. A 
verb form that is not a tense may have different time references. (I 
have already shown that special cases, such as hypothetical 
conditional clauses, do exist. But the English word "went", for 
example, which has an uncancelable past tense, does not loose this 
property even in the special cases.)

The advantage of the distinction described above and a scrupulous 
distinction between semantics and pragmatics, is that clear-cut 
definitions can be given, so we all can know what we are discussing. 
Without clear-cut definitions -then panta rei! For me, therefore, it 
is completely unacceptable (and a contradiction of terms) to say that 
a verb form some times is a tense and sometimes not.

>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.

Your explanations to my examples from Mark 11 may or may not be 
correct. But they are all tied to one thing, namely, to discourse 
factors. And there is a very big difference between hypothetical 
conditional clauses and theme, rheme, and stylistic factors. These 
are discourse factors which hardly can be "special cases" from a 
grammatical point of view. I would rather say that such a claim is 
special pleading. Let me illustrate the case. No person would use 
English futures in a narrative account for discourse reasons; that 
would be confusing. And no person would use English simple past in 
future descriptions. And similarly, when Greek present is used with 
past reference, this is good grammatical language, and a supposed 
non-past meaning is thereby canceled, and it is shown that present 
does not have any tense "grammaticalized location in time".

>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

Greek aspects are often viewed differently by different people, but 
the terms are still in use, and they give us much insight. So why 
should we not be satisfied with the definition of Greek present as 
"the imperfective aspect" and nothing else? This meaning may be 
viewed as too general, but it is better to have one general meaning 
that covers all the examples, than to use a specific meaning that 
contradicts some examples. Inside the imperfective definition we can 
describe all the different uses of Greek present.

And lastly, for the record: Saying that Greek present does not have 
tense, is not the same as to say that it is timeless. It is not! But 
the point is that the past, present and future references is caused 
by the context (being pragmatic) and not by the verb form itself 
(being semantic).

>Kimmo Huovila

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli Ph.D
University of Oslo

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