semantics, pragmatics, and the teaching of greek

From: Mari Olsen (
Date: Tue Oct 24 1995 - 12:11:37 EDT

I don't want to take up all the (nevertheless interesting) threads
that have surfaced in this discussion on tense and aspect. However, since I
am passionately interested in linguistic theory that is useful as well
as elegant, I would like to bridge the theoretical-applied gap that
Bruce Terry and Timothy Janz have been alluding to. I do think it is
helpful to keep the traditional terminology to some extent, especially
when one is dealing with people who know the literature. SO, for
example, one could distinguish (as I do in my thesis) between tense
(grammaticalizing time, or some such--not exactly how Vincent puts it
in his thesis) and tense FORMS (or verb forms, or whatever). This is
a minor point.

A more important point is the value of any theory of the verb forms
for the teaching of Greek. I would argue that the goal, as in any
science is PREDICTION: what can one teach students that would enable
them to understand the very next, say, aorist form. To that end
Vincent and I agree completely that one must make a proper distinction
between semantics and pragmatics. Semantics is that uncancellable
meaning that is present in every use of a form. Pragmatics
contributes implicatures to the interpretation, implicatures that may
be cancelled in certain contexts. THus, if we see that a form (say
the aorist) is NOT always past, its "pastness" is cancellable and
therefore pragmatic rather than semantic. THis does NOT, however,
mean that its temporal reference is evenly distributed among the
possibilities (past, present, future, gnomic, omnitemporal): rather,
the reference must be understood in the context of the system as a
whole. From this perspective (and I don't feel like fussing with the
tabs to line up a chart) one can argue that the temporal reference of
the aorist as overwhelmingly past (85% according to Carson (1993, in
Porter and Carson) stems from the fact that it fills a gap in the
paradigm for a past perfective, to replace the rapidly disappearing
(and morphologically weighty) pluperfect.

I'll end with a favorite quote from Roman Jakobson, best known for his
phonological features, but also for work on semantic features:

"The meaning [in the case of unmarked features, such as past for the
aorist] is here conditioned by the situation, and even if this meaning
is the most common function of this category, the investigator
nevertheless must not equate the statistically predominant meaning of
the category with its general meaning.... By regarding as an
essential relationship something which within the system of the
language merely has the status of a possible relationship, grammarians
end up by making rules with a great number of exceptions."

In my experience it is the exceptions that frustrate students: better
to leave such rules out and send them elsewhere for the temporal
reference (or whatever).

Mari Broman Olsen
Northwestern University
Department of Linguistics
2016 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208

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