Re: Porter on the present

From: Mari Olsen (
Date: Wed Oct 18 1995 - 17:30:51 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
> Actually, maybe I did not express myself clearly enough. I'm not
> challenging Porter. I'm having trouble understanding his point when he comes
> out with the same translation that a "historical present" would, i.e.,
> given the translation both use the English past, how would I explain to
> someone else the difference in _meaning_, as opposed to wording, in such a
> case? Thanks.

I guess that's my point--also, apparently, not too clear--there IS no
difference in meaning that may be reflected in an English translation,
since the two forms (in the case you mentioned) are equivalent. THe
theory is just cleaned up, so that what we THOUGHT was English and
Greek 'tense' is not. The longer answer is that the Greek present is
marked for imperfective aspect (not tense), and the English present is
unmarked for both tense and aspect. The English form may therefore,
by pragmatic implicature (e.g. in the context you mentioned) take on
the imperfective meaning, namely focus on a situation as it is
unfolding in time (rather than the perfective focus on a complete(d)
situation). In other words, to understand what the Greek present means, you
need to look at what imperfective aspect is, rather than what the
English translation is in a particular case.

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

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