Re: Metalanguage and Metaphysics (was: aspect of present tense)

Carl W. Conrad (
Thu, 12 Dec 1996 05:43:19 -0600

At 5:53 PM -0600 12/12/96, KULIKOVSKY, Andrew wrote:
>Fellow Greeks,
>Just had a sudden thought about verbal aspect and the present indicative.
>The present tense indicative mood can also have past time reference and
>future time reference. Remember that time is a complete dimension and
>can't be simply pinned down. Let me demonstrate:

I may quickly get into waters over my head, but I think caution needs to be
exercised here when it comes to making statements about the present tense
as if the English (of whatever continental or insular persuasion) and the
Greek tenses might necessarily or even probably function in the same
manner: they may and they may not, but I don't think it should be assumed.
I think caution should perhaps also be exercised regarding a cosmological
or metaphysical conception o objective time (if there be such a thing; like
the lord of Delphi I neither affirm nor deny, but only point) and time as
it may be conceived and represented in any particular language's verbal
system. In fact, one of the aspects of language study and description that
has bothered me increasingly (perhaps the linguists have a perspective on
this that is less naive than mine; it would be comforting to know that they
did/do--I scarcely know which mood of the verb to use here): do we really
have an objective "meta-language" for describing the tense systems of
English and Greek (or whatever other languages one may choose) that is
independent of the perspective of one or both of the languages compared?
This may indeed be a question only tangentially related to this question of
tense and aspect over which the present discussion wages itself (if I may
describe it so),but I worry increasingly that our descriptive categories
for Greek and Latin and English grammar (these are the ones I'm most
concerned about, but I think the same might apply to other languages) are
derived from each other and tend to misrepresent, at least sometimes, the
distinctive nature of the language being described. I'm thinking here of my
pet bugaboo, the terms "deponent" and "middle" to refer to the voice of
Greek and Latin verbs. What philosophic assumptions underly the
metalanguage of Linguistics?

>"I am a software engineer" uses a present tense indicative verb but
>this statement not only refers to my current state, it also refers
>to my past state - I was a software engineer yesterday as well -
>and my future state - I will be a software engineer tommorrow (Lord
>willing) - although I'd like to be a Greek Prof one day!
>This statement is also true when I started saying it and when I
>finished saying it.
>Taking a Biblical example, when Jesus said "I am" it means "I am" and
>"I was" and "I will be".
>Remember Einstein - time is relative.
>Some food for thought....

Aye, verily! You've set me off to thinking early in the morning! Do we
think Einstein when we think about Greek and English ways of representing
temporal relationships? Or do we think of linear sequential time,
essentially of past, present and future. Your sentence about yourself
above may well be present tense in English, but would it be best conveyed
by a Greek present tense? Perhaps so, but it already begs the question of
the commonly-distinguished "existential" and "copulative" functions of the
verb "be"--and when you refer to the Biblical example of Jesus' EIMI, you
open a big can of worms regarding whether Greek EINAI, which only exists in
the present system--which fact led Parmenides to deny any temporal or
spatial limitations to it--, can adequately convey the imperfective form of
Hebrew HAWAH/HAYAH, and then whether English can adequately represent that.

I may be changing the subject that Andrew wants to discuss, so I'll change
the subject header for anyone who wants to respond to my concerns rather
than more directly to his.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR