Re: Aorist revisited [was Mari Broman Olsen (nee Mari Broman)]

Paul Zellmer (
Wed, 11 Dec 1996 14:40:37 -0800

Philip L. Graber wrote:
> It seems Paul, that you have just strengthened Mari's case? What is genre
> if not the representation of culturally defined activities (giving
> directions, telling stories, etc.)? You have shown that it is not the
> "tense" form, but the genre (i.e., the cultural context) that indicates
> time--if you use the same form in different genres, it does not indicate
> the same "time value" everywhere. That sounds like an argument for saying
> that the "tense" forms are not what indicates time after all. In
> addition, you say that aorists refer to past time in narrative; but so do
> present tense indicative verbs. It would seem to be the genre (i.e., the
> context of culture), rather than the "tense" form, that forces the "past
> time" understanding. It just happens that Greek uses aorists as the
> default (unmarked) verb to carry narrative genre discourse backbone, as
> Longacre would call it (I think).

No, Philip, I would instead say that there are some genre that the time
value is of greater import than in others. In narratives, with its
emphasis on temporal context and temporal order, the "time value" of
verbs would be more emphasized. Since most narratives seem to relate
events in the past, we should expect mainline events to be marked (or
"unmarked", as the case may be) with verbs that indicate past activity.
Hence we see aorists and imperfects, both of which carry the linguistic
perfective characteristic (to be distinguished from the Greek perfect).
But in other genre (e.g., didactic, as is found in the epistles), the
"time value" is not as important, so the punctiliar aspect of the aorist
takes emphasis. This is not to say that time value is absent; it merely
acknowledges that a "secondary characteristic" is driving its use.
Since there is no form that emphasizes punctiliar aspect in present or
future time per se, and because time is not really important in these
cases, the aorist might well be used.

Let's examine a similar situation that occurs in definitions of words.
We are taught that words have primary definitions and secondary
definitions. Normally, these are related in some way. The secondary
definitions merely emphasis some aspect of the meaning of the word that
is not in focus in the primary definition. An example: in Mark 2:3, the
participle AIROMEVOV is in accord with the primary meaning of AIRW -- to
take up. However, in Mark 2:21, AIREI demonstrates a secondary meaning
-- to pull away. Yet we can still see the characteristics of the
primary meaning in the secondary; they are merely subdued by the
context. In this way, I find the characteristics of aorist in genre
which do not emphasize time. Some of these characteristics are merely

As far as the use of the present indicative to relate events in past
time, I cannot think of a case that does not start the narrative with an
aorist or imperfect to set the time frame. If I recall correctly, Carl
was discussing this type of time switch just a couple weeks ago. At
that time, I was reminded of how common this characteristic is among
languages. For example, in the minority language in which I work in the
Philippines, the speaker can either use the past tense for all the verbs
in a narrative or he can start with a past and switch to a present. The
difference, according to answers to my questions, is the degree to which
the person identifies his thoughts and emotions with the situation. If
the person is placing himself back into the situation or strongly
identifying with the situation, he relates the story as if it were
unfolding before him. BUT he always starts the tale by indicating that
it actually took place in past time. I do not see how this use of the
present negates the "time value" of the aorist. I rather see it
emphasizing the "past time" aspect of an initial aorist, because it uses
this characteristic to allow the hearer to correctly place the story in
temporal context.

I guess I am just not convinced yet that we can remove the time
characteristic from the indicatives. We can override the implied time
by adverbs and other means in order to pick up on the punctiliar nature
of the form, but *unmodified* aorist indicative still seems to be past
time in my examinations.

Paul Zellmer
Southern Methodist Missions