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

Don Wilkins (
Fri, 13 Dec 1996 21:36:38 -0500 (EST)

At 5:43 AM 12/12/96, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
. . .
>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.
. . . 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?

Carl, I suspect you are being a little sly here (like Socrates), knowing
full well that we don't have an objective meta-language and are trying to
get along with what we do have.

. . . >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.

This seems almost an impossible problem to solve. I have seen and sometimes
participated in a few discussions about the possible relationship between
the imperfect in Ex. 3:14 and Jesus' use of EGO EIMI. If you think in terms
of back-translation, another option also exists, though probably an
unlikely one, i.e. that of the EIMI translating a Hebrew participle (I
would opt for the imperfect's being the original). Then again, the meaning
of the imperfect (EHYEH) itself in Ex. 3:14 etc. has been debated in
Ioudaios and probably other forums.

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside