Re: Perfect tense and aspect

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Sep 05 1996 - 07:30:36 EDT

At 6:28 PM -0500 9/4/96, wrote:
>Jonathan, I think I understand Young's point, but the analogy may have gone
>beyond the point of being helpful. The basic idea of the perfect is to look
>at the present results of a past action, with little or no regard for the
>action itself. The finer nuances are again a case of allowing contextual
>details to become part of the definition of the tense itself. That may be
>fine for exegetical purposes because it allows us a good deal of shorthand in
>communicating our ideas. No doubt every Greek prof has his/her favorite ex-
>amples. I have several, one of which is homework. If my child were to say "I
>did my homework," would be a statement of historical fact (though not
>ily the reality of it!--also typo above, I meant "that would"). On the other
>hand, if the child said "I have done my homework," what s/he is really saying
>is that s/he is free of that burden and entitled to watch tv, etc. In every-
>day life the effects of either statement might be the same, but the perfect
>tense "I have done" states very clearly the present status quo as a presumed
>state of freedom.

I like the homework example, and it raises another question about possible
influence of Latin on Koine Greek and prompts me to ask a second time: does
anybody know of any study of possible influence of Latin grammar on Greek?
The particular point I have in mind is the fact that the IE Aorist and
Perfect tense have fused into a single tense in Latin so that one has to
read from context whether the particular form is aoristic, as in Caesar's
VENI, VIDI, VICI ("I came, saw, and conquered"), or perfective, as in
Cicero's VIXERUNT ("Their life is over"). I have suspected that their are
times--not that often, to be sure--when the perfect tense in Koine really
has nothing more than an aoristic sense. Then I think of the "strange" fact
that French forms its Aorist ("Passe' inde'fini") with avoir + ptc. which
is structurally like the English perfect tense but has to be taught very
careully to English-speaking students to avoid confusion. There's also the
not uncommon Greek periphrastic juxtaposition of EXEIN with an aorist
participle such that the combination has a durative perfective force, e.g.
EXW AUTON THRHSAS: "I have kept him under observation."
Then there's the act that older Greek--Homeric Greek, especially, has
numerous forms in the aorist with the same reduplication as the perfect
(think too of the -KA aorists of those standard -MI verbs!). It appears
that the distinction between aorist and perfect is clear enough in its
logic, but somewhat blurred in actual usage. This is not a very gratifying
truth, but I can recall teaching French in a junior college long ago and
confronting again and again the complaints about rules with long lists of
exceptions. Koine Greek--and Attic and Homeric as well--is not nearly so
clearly nuanced as we grammarians might like to think. This makes one
wonder about the perils of writing grammars!

My apologies to the list for sending a note last night on aorist
infinitives with so much personal stuff in it.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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