[B-Greek] Greek Verb: Both Time and Aspect

Bryant J. Williams III bjwvmw at com-pair.net
Thu Nov 20 01:59:42 EST 2008

Dear Listers,

Caragounis says about the Greek verb having both Aspect and Time. I quote the
first part of the section regarding Greek Grammarians who said Aspect and Time
were a part of the Greek Verb. I refer the list to the entire chapter since
Caragounis interacts with Porter since to reproduce the entire 18 pages would be
extremely large to transmit.

I would say that Dionysios Thrax had it right to begin with especially with the
use of XRONOS for TENSE!

En Xristwi,

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

[Dr. Chrys Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament, Grand
Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, pp. 316-336.]

IX. Time and Aspect in the Ancient and Modern Phases of the Greek Language

The question of time and aspect in the Greek verb has recently attracted
considerable attention. Within the New Testament area, the three major
participants have been my old Australian friend of happy memories in Cambridge,
Kenneth McKay, and the younger scholars, Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning.
McKay's interest and work goes back to the 1960's, though he produced his book
on Syntax in 1994. Porter and Fanning seem to have worked simultaneously, the
first publishing his dissertation in 1989 and the second in 1990. As the titles
of all three works indicate, there is a move from the earlier understanding that
the verb expresses time as well as aspect, to the view that the verb expresses
primarily or exclusively aspect. Of the above-mentioned three scholars, the one
who holds the most radical view is Porter.

These views are put forward as new insights, never before utilized in the
exegesis of the NT, to the extent of speaking of the "pre-verbal aspect" period.
Such ponderous
claims make it incumbent on me, both as a NT scholar with a keen historical and
linguistic interest in Greek and as a user of the Greek language as my mother
tongue, to critically examine the views advanced and the grounds on which they
have been founded. At the same time, this affords me an excellent opportunity to
exemplify the importance of taking account of the later Greek - in this case
Neohellenic - evidence in order to solve central problems of the language. To
this intent, I will concentrate on the work of Porter. This book shows clearly
how lack of Greek linguistic perspective (not linguistics) can lead to the
propagation of quite untenable positions. Inasmuch as my concentration on
Porter's work is made only with a view to showing the unsound results obtained
when trying to analyze a part of the Greek language without reference to the
whole, what is said of Porter's work applies also to the work of the other two
scholars, insofar as they assume a similar stance and arrive at similar

It is quite natural that speakers of English should be intrigued by a certain
'oddity' of the Greek language, whereby its verb expresses not only time, but
also aspect. It is also understandable that English-speaking scholars should
take a great interest in the question of aspect. It is per se a very interesting
linguistic phenomenon. For Greeks, on the other hand, it is commonplace; they
use it all the time without being self-conscious about it. Consequently, they do
not make a big issue of it. They know, of course, that it is there and that it
is a basic ingredient of their language.

Aspect is not something that Greeks learn first at school; they learn it from
their mother. From childhood they learn to distinguish, for example, the forms
of the imperfect
from those of the aorist, and small children do it quite clearly and correctly.
At school they learn the terminology, the grammatical categories, the theory,
etc., but the practice of aspect has been learned already from the very
beginning, at the time when they began constructing their first sentences.
Aspect is extremely important for Greeks, because it plays such a crucial role
in their communication, in expressing the shades of meaning that they intend.

However, while a Greek would never deny or minimize the importance of Aspect, he
would, at the same time, insist that the verb signals not only aspect, but also
time, and that the two are equally pronounced. This has I been recognized from
the very first attempts that Greeks made in ancient times to reduce their
language to grammatical analysis all the way to the present day. The evidence
for this claim is overwhelming, but here I will content myself with mentioning a
few grammarians from ancient and modern times.

1. The great Alexandrian grammarian, Dionysios Thrax (170-90 B.C.),
distinguished three tenses (χρόνος, -οι): present (ἐνεστώς), past (παρεληλυθώς),
and future
(μέλλων). The past was subdivided into imperfect (παρατατικός < παρατείνω
['stretch', 'lengthen']), perfect (παρακείμενος < παράκειμαι ['to be at hand',
'to be
present']), pluperfect (ὑπερσυντέλικος < ὑπέρ + συντελῶ ['an action completed in
past time before another action which was also completed in past time']), and
aorist (ἀόριστος < α + ὁριζω ['not define']). Dionysios also relates the present
with the imperfect, the perfect with the pluperfect, and the aorist with the
future. Unfortunately the extant fragments of Dionysios' Grammar (c.11, 5 pages
in TLG) tell us nothing more about tense and aspect.

Nevertheless, from what he does say, it becomes quite clear that Dionysios
isolated two important categories: time and aspect. He did this, first, by
calling the various tenses χρόνος, i.e. 'time', secondly, by dividing time into
present, past, and future, and thirdly, by bringing together the imperfect,
perfect, pluperfect, and aorist under the umbrella of past, as denoting past
action. His isolation and distinctions of aspect can be gathered from the fact
that he calls one of the tenses παρατατικός, a designation that expresses the
main characteristic of this tense, i.e. one of duration. Moreover, Dionysios
connects the imperfect with the present, again underlying the durative nature of
these tenses, and the aorist with future, whose chief characteristic is its
punctilear aspect.

It must be said of this description that if "brevity is the soul of wit",
Dionysios has succeeded in giving an essentially sound - though admittedly
laconic - analysis of the
main characteristics of the verb. This analysis is not satisfactory to some
modern students, but it proved satisfactory (in its Dionysios about the supposed
lack of aspect
is unjustified. In his attempt to prove Dionysios wrong and to establish the
correctness of his own analysis, PORTER has not original form) to the Greek
grammarians who followed Dionysios. Hence, there are no dissenting voices. The
Romans adopted Dionysios' analysis, applying it to Latin, and through it
Dionysios' grammatical
terminology and understanding became the analytical tool for the various
languages of Europe, and has been in force till this day.

That the Greek verb expresses both time and aspect has been the consistent
understanding of the verb throughout the history of the Greek language, as is
proved by
the following modern grammarians:

2. In his impressive work, An Historical Greek Grammar, §§ 667-99 and §§
1829-99, in which he traces morphological and syntactical developments, Jannaris
makes it quite clear that the Greek verb throughout its history signals both
aspect and time. The examples he quotes to illustrate this are drawn from all
periods of Greek literature.

3. The great Hatzidakis, who, like Jannaris, has treated the entire history of
the Greek language, although aware that the verb in its primitive stage did not
express time,
recognizes that once the tenses were formed, they expressed both time and
aspect, and that these are essential to the Greek verb.

4. In his "Historical Grammar of Ancient Greek", Stamatakos, who thinks that the
Indo-European mother tongue originally expressed aspect, rather than time,
that in historical times the Greek verb expressed both time and aspect.

5. In his rightly acclaimed "Modern Greek Syntax", Tzartzanos explains
exemplarily the temporal and aspectual properties of the verb in Neohellenic,
illustrating the various uses with an amplitude of examples. It should be noted
that Tzartzanos has written also a "Syntax" of ancient Greek. The two works
evidence the continuity from classical Greek to Neohellenic in the understanding
of time and aspect.

6. The most recent grammar of Neohellenic has been written by a member of the
Academy of Athens, A. Tsopanakis286. In the introductory remarks of his
treatment of the verb (pp. 318-502), he shows its two basic categories of time
and aspect (see 318-63, esp. 360-63).

7. Finally, the current professor of Linguistics at the University of Athens,
George Babiniotis, in his recent Λεξικὸ τῆς Νέας ̔Ελληνικῆς Γλῶσσας, (1998),
which is abreast
of modern linguistic theory, explains the verb system as expressing both time
and aspect.

The above is only a brief list of significant Greek grammarians, all of whom are
agreed that the Greek verb expresses time as well as aspect, both with regard to
the ancient and to the modern phases of the Greek language.

[page 9]
Now it is an indisputable fact that the continuity between ancient Greek and
Neohellenic is such, that the two constitute, not two different languages, but
two phases
of one and the same language314. As amply documented in the present volume, the
basic language system is still intact. In particular, the understanding of the
verb as expressing both time and aspect is the same ever since the time of
Homeros. Greeks of all periods - and that goes for the educated and the
uneducated315 - have made a clear distinction with regard to aspect between the
imperfect and the aorist indicative, with regard to time between the present
indicative and the imperfect and aorist indicative, and with regard to time and
aspect between the present indicative and the aorist indicative.

The construct that Porter, and less drastically Fanning and McKay, have created
runs counter to the Gefühl of the Greek people and their use of the Greek
language throughout its history. We may, therefore, conclude, when a non-Greek
scholar claims to find things in the Greek verb that have never been 'meant' by
natural speakers of Greek, these things are no part of the Greek language, and
we must therefore, bid him χαιρέτω!

[pages 17-18]
To conclude, the above discussion has hopefully demonstrated once more the
importance of Neohellenic in solving problems relating to the ancient phase of
the Greek
language. Sometimes Neohellenic casts light on developments, on changes that
took place between the classical times and our own day, changes that help us
locate the NT more accurately in this long process of evolution. This has been
demonstrated repeatedly in Chapters Three, Four, and Five. But sometimes the
significance of Neohellenic lies in its continuity with the ancient phase. The
fact that it has kept intact ancient usages, constructions or other basic
grammatical meanings - as in the present case - is of extreme importance in
guiding us to sound judgments and keeping us from error.

In the present discussion I concentrated on Porter's work - which, admittedly
involved an immense labor on his part - but this was not personal to point him
out, but only because it offered an excellent example illustrating what kind of
problems we face when we do not take a holistic approach to the study of Greek.
My intention, therefore, was to illustrate what kind of mistaken conclusions we
may arrive at, if we do not take the unity of the Greek language seriously, and
if we fail to interpret its phenomena within its own historical evolution. The
discussion has demonstrated signally the first half of the dictum of Hatzidakis,
that "Ancient Greek is in many ways supplemented and better understood by Modern
Greek (and Modern Greek is clarified and understood by means of Ancient Greek)".

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