Porter on the present

From: Mari Olsen (molsen@astrid.ling.nwu.edu)
Date: Wed Oct 18 1995 - 11:30:46 EDT

Ken Litwak questioned the value of Porter's seminal investigations
into Greek aspect, especially of the "historical present" form, when
the resulting translations appeared not to differ. In my opinion as a
theoretical linguist, Porter's contribution is to recognize that the
present form does not, in fact, encode present "tense". According to
this view, the "historical present" is expected: if a form is not
marked for tense, it may be used equally felicitously to refer to a
past situation. Under a tense analysis of this form, a careful
account would need to explain why the apparent meaning of the account
fails to apply in certain contexts. This has certainly been done
anecdotally, in labelling the term the "historical present", but a
label does not an account make.

As for the equivalent translations, they may be explained by the fact
that the English present is not a tense either, and so may also be
used in a past narrative setting. The equivalences hold (in many
contexts, not all), irrespective of the label given the Greek forms.

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


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