Re: Inceptive aorist: when is it really inceptive?

Jonathan Robie (
Tue, 31 Dec 1996 09:05:09 -0500

At 09:37 PM 12/30/96 -0600, Carl W. Conrad wrote:

>Imperfect it is--and the imperfect, like the present, is often employed in
>an inceptive sense: conative ('try to'), inceptive ('begin to,' 'proceed
>to'), durative ('continue to'); the difference made by the imperfect is to
>set the point of departure in the past. Context has to be the guide in
>these instances.

This last sentence is part of what I'm struggling with. If context is the
guide, I would like to know what aspects of context should be the guide.

Many grammars seem to think that the meaning of the verb is sufficient
without further context. Robertson's Great Big Grammar says that the
Ingressive aorist "is not a tense-notion at all. It is purely a matter with
the individual verb." Mari Olsen says that the aspect of the "tense"
(grammatical aspect) interacts with the aspect of the verb "lexical aspect"
to produce the aspect of the phrase, and lists Fanning's categorization of
the aspect of verbs in an appendix. Wallace quotes Fanning, saying that the
meaning of the verb is crucial, and that inceptive aorist generally involves
(1) verbs whose meaning involves entrance into a state or (2) verbs which
denote an activity, especially in contexts where the action is introduced as
a new item in the discourse.

I think that I understand how to interpret case (1) - in phrases like
"Christ arose" or "the king became angry", I can see that the verb looks to
the beginning of the activity.

Case (2) is harder for me to start. In phrases translated with "began to
do", "began doing", I don't know when this is justified. For instance, look
at this example from Wallace:

two blind men began to follow him

I assume that the reason this is inceptive is that the aorist is perfective,
and the word "follow" can take the meaning of standing up and going after
someone. The act of following someone day to day, on the other hand, would
be imperfective. So I'm guessing that some activity verbs have both
imperfective and perfective senses, and the point of case (2) is that the
perfective sense is used when the verb is aorist.

This might also be useful in explaining the apparant contradiction between 1
John 2:1 and 1 John 3:9. In 2:1, John says GRAFW hUMIN hINA MH AMARTHTE.
Aorist, hence with perfective sense: "I write to you so that you will not
commit sin". In 3:9, John says that someone born of God OU DUNATAI
hAMARTANEIN. Present, hence with the imperfective sense: "can not habitually
sin". He also says that someone born of God hAMARTIAN OU POIEI. Present,
imperfective: "does not habitually sin".

Does this make sense? Is there any truth to these guesses? I'm trying to
force a more precise formulation out of the grammars than they are giving
me, and I'm way over my head here, but this is the only sense I can make out
of what I read in my grammars.

One translation question:

Wouldn't the translation "two blind men followed him" be equally valid?
Clearly, in English or in Greek, you have to start doing something in order
to do it if you weren't doing it in the first place, so is there a reason to
insert "began to" into this translation? And the "began" doesn't really
select between the perfective and imperfective senses. In English, "began to
follow him" could mean either that they stood up to follow him, or that they
became his disciples and followed him from then on ("began to be his
disciples", "began to habitually follow him"). If I'm understanding this
correctly, inserting "began to" doesn't really help convey the meaning of
the inceptive aorist.

Zerwick points out (section 250) that the aorist, when combined with verbs
that indicate a state to indicate inception of that state, may demand a
difference in translation. I think this is the same as case (1). However, in
case (2), the textbook examples don't make it clear to me that anything
demands a difference in translation, since the aspect can still be inferred
from the contextual clues in English without inserting "began to".


Jonathan Robie
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