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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Thu Nov 20 11:48:27 EST 2008

Dear Kimmo,

>I realize I go perhaps off-topic to linguistic methodology, but that is
>crucial to building any theory of the Greek tense.
>Perhaps our exchange is an illustration of Carl's frustration about
>terminology among linguists... But I would say that for the most part
>linguistic terminology is not very confusing, in my opinion. More confusing
>is some (not all) theories of the Greek verbal system and their formulation.
>But perhaps that's just me and shows how I get confused. :-)
>Kimmo Huovila

You have asked a lot of good and interesting questions. To answer 
them would require several long posts with arguments that would be 
beside the purpose of b-greek. But because tense and aspect have been 
discussed over and over again in the more than ten years that I have 
been a member of the list, I will give some comments that can be 
informative for those interested. I believe that I have given a basic 
description of semantics versus pragmatics, and also of the nature of 
tense as an uncancelable entity. Now I will outline my approach to 
aspect, but I do not intend to continue this discussion, although I 
of course will answer questions.


The descriptions of aspect in grammars or textbooks for the most part 
are inadequate. It is described in Aktionsart terms 
(durative-punctiliar/momentaneous,), with metaphors (seen from the 
inside-seen from the outside), with different more or less vague 
terms ( cursive-linear; progressive-effective; linear-finitive, 
bounded-unbounded; complete(d)-incomplete) etc. I have searched for 
more "objective" linguistic terms that can be used 
cross-linguistically, and I believe I have found the solution by the 
help of the terms introduced by  H. Reichenbach "The elements of 
symbolic logic" in 1947. These terms are "deictic center (C); event 
time (ET); reference time (RT)," and they are treated in the 
linguistic literature during the past sixty years as elementary 
linguistic terms. The deictic center (C) is the vantage point from 
which the event is viewed, and normally it is the present moment. 
However, it can be in the future  or in the past as well.

(1) When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, Peter had already arrived.

(2) When Peter arrives tomorrow, Liza will already have arrived.

In (1) C is the arrival in Jerusalem in the past, and in (2) C is 
Peter's arrival tomorrow.

Any action that is not instantaneous takes some time, and the time of 
an action from its beginning to its end is event time (ET). While it 
is very difficult for the English mind to view ET as independent of a 
deictic center, this is easier in other languages. ET, therefore, 
represents non-deictic time (a time that exists independently without 
being seen in relation to some vantage point). It is important to 
note that ET is real  time that can be measured in hours, minutes, 
and seconds.

Then we come to reference time (RT), which is conceptual time. This 
means that when we communicate, in a way we point to a small part of 
ET and makes this part visible for the reader or the listener. 
Everything else is made invisible. Thus, we may say that RT 
intersects ET. Please look at (3) and (4).

(3) Rita was singing in the bathroom.

(4) Rita has sung in the bathroom.

In (3) the imperfective aspect (the participle) is used, and what is 
made visible is a small part of the singing event after its 
beginning and before its end. This small part made visible is RT, or 
better, RTs intersection. In (4) the perfective aspect (perfect) is 
used, and what is made visible is the coda, the singing event has 
ended, and that is what is made visible. To state this in linguistic 
terms, we can say that the aspects are expressed by the relationship 
between RT and ET. When the imperfective aspect is usedin English, 
RT intersects ET at the nucleus, and when the perfective aspect is 
used, RT intersects ET at the coda.

 From these two examples we see that RT has to do with the focus; what 
is made visible, what is focused upon. In English there are  two 
basic options: the imperfective aspect focuses upon the nucleus and 
the perfective aspect focuses upon the coda; imperfective actions are 
not brought to their end at RT, and perfective actions are brought to 
their end at RT. Therefore, the use of the aspects in English is 
restricted, and there are only two alternatives: either the action is 
in progress  at RT, or it is completed at RT.

In Greek, however, there are more options. Please look at (5) and (6).

(5) "we saw a man expelling demons in your name and we tried to 
prevent (imperfect) him, because he is not one of us." (Luke 9:49)

(6) and, leaping up, he stood, and began to walk (imperfect) (Acts 3:8)

(7) Teacher, du you not care that we are about to perish (present)? (Mark 4:38)

Example (5) is conative, and RT intersects the action before  the 
beginning of ET. Example (6) is ingressive; RT intersects ET at the 
beginning, and the beginning and a small part of ET is made visible. 
Example (7) is egressive; RT intersects ET immediately before the 
end. Example (7) can be expressed  by the use of the imperfective 
aspect and a telic verb also in English, e.g., "she was reaching the 
peak". But examples (5) and (6) cannot be expressed in English by 
aspect and verb alone. The examples from English and Greek show that 
the aspects behave differently in the two languages regarding the 
intersection of ET by RT.

The principal property of RT is focus, what is focused upon, what is 
made visible to the reader or listener. If we work with  Classical 
Hebrew and New Testament Greek, as I have done, we can be more 
specific regarding the term "focus." There are three sides of the 
focus that can be distinguished, 1) THE ANGLE OF FOCUS (related to a 
vantage point in the middle of ET), 2) THE BREADTH OF FOCUS  (how 
large a portion of ET is made visible), and 3) THE QUALITY OF FOCUS 
(are details made visible or not). Because there are two aspects and 
three parameters, the aspects of two languages can be compared in six 
different ways. This is a completely new approach to aspect studies.


You ask how I can know when a particular trait is caused by the verb 
form and when it is caused by the context. I have to use Hebrew 
examples where I have worked extensively, but I think these examples 
also will be illustrative for Greek.

In the Hebrew Bible we find 14.536 WAYYIQTOLS , which formally are 
YIQTOLs (imperfects) with a prefixed WAY- (the conjunction "and"). 
YIQTOLs are viewed as having present /future reference, but when the 
WAY- element is prefixed, it is believed that the meaning is changed 
to the very opposite, namely, that the WAYYIQTOL form represents past 
tense or being perfective. When I look at the WAYYIQTOLs I find that 
93.1% have past reference and that 6.9% have non-past reference. How 
should we approach these numbers from the viewpoint of semantics 
versus pragmatics?

Most of these WAYYIQTOLs occur in narrative contexts, and the view 
of grammars and textbooks is that each WAYYIQTOL represents one 
action completed in the past, and then follows the next WAYYIQTOL 
representing a new completed action. So the form is viewed by almost 
all scholars as either a preterit or the perfective aspect, or both. 
The conclusion seems to be undisputable with 93.1% corroborating it. 
But those who think along the lines of semantics versus pragmatics 
see some glaring problems. Contrary to the popular saying that the 
best place to find the true meaning of WAYYIQTOL is the narrative 
texts, I would say (and Comrie agrees) that this is the worst place. 
Why? Because narrative by definition have past reference, and one 
action follows the other in consecution. Regardless of the semantic 
meaning of the verbs forms used in narrative, they will always have 
past reference and be consecutive.

Only under very special linguistic circumstances is it possible for 
us to see the real nature of a verb form in a dead language; in most 
instances we only see the surface. I would assess that of the14.536 
examples, only 200 to 300 clauses have the special linguistic 
circumstances that can help us to identify the true nature of 
WAYYIQTOL. We see such an example in (8)

(8) In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had 
come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, 
in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build (WAYYIQTOL) 
the temple of YHWH.

The construction of this verse together with our knowledge of the 
world (we know it took more than one year to build the temple) help 
us see that RT intersects the beginning and a small part of ET, 
something that is typical for an imperfective verb. If an unknown 
house was mentioned instead of the temple, the WAYYIQTOL would be 
just as impregnable as in most other cases. Among the evidence  for 
the view that WAYYIQTOL is a YIQTOL (imperfect) with prefixed "and" 
(WAY), and that the form is imperfective, are:

1) Examples like (6) and (8) where the beginning and a small part of 
ET is made visible.
2) Conative events like (5)
3) Examples where ET is intersected in the middle, like "When David 
was eating (WAYYIQTOL), Jonathan entered the room.
4) Examples where one WAYYIQTOL is modified by another WAYYIQTOL.
5) Examples where we definitely can see that the WAY-element is the 
conjunction "and" and nothing else.

The mentioned examples illustrate that to apply modern intuitions on 
a dead language can lead us astray. When we look at narratives in 
modern languages, the verb form that almost always is used is either 
preterit (if it is a tense) or perfective (if it is an aspect). But 
my conclusion is that in Classical Hebrew the narrative form is 
imperfective. However, other Semitic languages  give some support. In 
Phoenician the narrative form is infinitive absolute, that neither 
has an intrinsic past tense nor an aspectual value, and in Ugaritic 
the narative form is the prefix-form just as in Hebrew, and I will 
argue that this form is imperfective. In Aramaic and Ethiopic both 
prefix-forms and suffix-forms are narrative forms.

I have written at length regarding Hebrew with examples from that 
language. But I believe that this is just as relevant for b-greekers 
as examples from Old Indo-European languages. The sketch above 
presents a completely new way for the study of tense and aspects 
aspects, with parameters that are fully applicable for any aspect 
language, including Greek. If any one should be interested in going 
deeper into the matter, please write to me off-list, and I will send 
you a pdf copy of the methodology chapter of my dissertation where we 
also find many examples regarding how the parameters can be applied.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli Ph.D

University of Oslo

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