[B-Greek] Aubrey on remoteness as tense?

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Tue May 12 14:39:29 EDT 2009

Michael Aubrey made some interesting statements on remoteness as
a metaphor for tense and asked a question or two about it. It does
provide a nice pause for thought, and hopefully a brief response.
I'll bring in the relevant pieces below

>What we need to start seeing in the tense discussion is what Steve
Runge describe in an SBL session on word order in Hebrew:
“The hallmark that made the Buth/Holmstedt presentations work was
each of them understanding the other’s theoretical framework”
(his emphasis). The unfortunate irony here, is that Dr. Buth has been
one of the more vocal speakers (at least on B-Greek) against the
terminology of remoteness/proximity and has not seemed to have
recognized the difference in perspectives from which Dr. Decker or
Con Campbell have approached the issue. I would be curious as to
why that is. Personally, I lean toward the tense terminology, partially
because of the reasons delineated in point #1 above – with the caveat
that I would prefer to separate Tense terminology from Aspect
terminolgy instead of conflating them together>

First, on the term 'remoteness' being used for 'past tense', Aubrey
quoted a lengthy discussion from an English grammar dealing with
contrafactual constructions. Fortunately, Aubrey included a summary
comment by that author Huddleston:
[ Huddleston]
> my own view would be that we do need to recognise distinct senses of
the past tense, for it is not clear why remoteness as such should select
past time as opposed to future time when interpreted temporally (we do
not say He was here yesterday, is here now and was here tomorrow).>

I must agree with Huddleston, 'remoteness' doesn't explain why English
past refers to the past and not the future.  Ditto for Greek.

Secondly, I must ask if 'remoteness' helps explain an aorist infinititve from
a continuative infinitive (PARATATIKON), TO AKOYSAI from TO AKOYEIN?
It doesn't do it for me. A person could always take a label and define it
to fit, (farthfetched example: Hebrew has 'red' verbs and 'blue' verbs)
but the label 'remoteness' does not transparently line up with

Thirdly, I think I agree with Aubrey, keeping tense terminology as tense
and aspect terminology aspectual. I'm not sure what he meant, but I
surely agree that Greek has indicative time and tense terminology
should be used rather than redefine something else like 'remoteness'
and then add time to the definitions and restrictions, which Porter,
Decker, Campbell wouldn't want to do, anyway.

Fourthly, why should I care whether Greek students recognize time in
the Greek verb, or why would I object to people who reject time in the
Greek verb? Maybe, to quote the quote of me above, because I
understand the other side and have concluded that it's absolute time
rejection is WRONG. With Hebrew word order, I can generate other
positions out of any starting point. One simply adds some ADHOC
flipping rules at the appropriate place (which is what Holmstedt did).
The analogy with Porter fails, though, because Porter doesn't add
the appropriate time rules. Consequently, things get a bit inside-out:
"historic presents" with aspect-only-ism are alleged to be good,
expected examples of open-ended aspect when in fact they are the
opposite. They are pragmatic, purposefully surpising examples of
aspect against expectations and against the situation. Which is
pragmatically true about their time reference, too.  In discourse,
where everyone else talks about 'foregrounded' aorist verbs in
narrative with 'backgrounded ' imperfective verbs, the "Porter"
camp seems to talk about backgrounded aorists and
foregrounded presents. So I recommend that students neither
use nor learn the "aspect-only" framework. Let them learn tense,
let them learn aspect, and when they are ready to learn about the
scholarly world of Greek studies, let them learn all about secondary
literature discussions. And of course, I recommend that the student
start to learn by using a language, seeing it used and using
appropriate structures in appropriate contexts.

In fact, I think that an aspect-only person could cure themselves
if they would communicate only in Greek for a significant period of
time and either examine their output or examine their unspoken
constraints. They would experience the all pervasive nature of Greek
aspect AND they would learn of temporal constraints in the 'real world'
system {ie. indicative]. This is probably wishful, naive thinking, but I
actually believe it. (I've been telling bibilcal studies people for thirty
years that Greek is the true 'aspect'-prominent language, not Hebrew.
But that was a another debate, usually about Hebrew, and in far-away


Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easily - Progress Further - Remember for Life

More information about the B-Greek mailing list