Re: 'default' aorist

From: Mari Broman Olsen (
Date: Mon Oct 28 1996 - 14:02:07 EST

I said:
> >***
> >I agree that it is sometimes difficult to figure out how the category
> >of aspect fits into interpretation. It helps if you recognize
> >"default" as a linguistic term of art (going back to the Prague
> >School, at least, in the early part of this centurey) for "unmarked".
> >THat is, the aorist, Porter argues, is the form used when one doesn't
> >want to say anything "marked", i.e. special.
> >
> >*******
You said:

> My concern here is if we are able to say that the aorist tense is NOT saying
> anything special. By attributing the name, "default" or "unmarked," could
> we possibly be downplaying a possible exegetical significance to the aorist
> tense. I understand that in the past there was probably too much emphasis
> placed on the sematic significance of the aoritst. Yet, as a reaction to
> it, could this "fresh" way of denoting the aorist actually be eliminating
> its exegetical contribution to the task of interpretation? This is more of
> what I am concerned about.
> Somi.

The contribution must just be differently construed, in the context of
what the 'marked' forms contribute. If an unmarked form is used, one
can safely assume that a marked form could NOT be used to communicate
truthfully and completely. The principle goes back to H. Paul Grice
and his maxims of communication (if you want a reference, I'll get it
at the 'home office').

Loose, Non-Greek example:

Me: Is Hanne ready for bed now?
Husband: She went upstairs a few minutes/hours ago.

Point: I infer that husband doesn't know whether Hanne (daughter) is
ready or not from the fact that he did not say 'yes' or 'no'. That
isn't to say that the 'unmarked for yes/no' form has no meaning. In
fact, it is characteristic of 'default' or 'unmarked' forms that they
vary in meaning more widely than 'marked' forms (cf. 'yes' and 'no'
above). Specifically, default forms can sometimes be used (in
context) to mean what marked forms do. So, 'She went upstairs hours
ago' could certainly be used to mean 'Yes, she's ready: you and I
know she never dawdles'. As it happens, Hanne (real, live daughter,
age 9) could take all day to dress... So the moral is, for the
'default' forms, context is quite important: both the context of the
sentence/clause under consideration and the context provided by the
marked grammatical forms. If a language has marked imperfective
aspect, for example, and no perfective, the default interpretation is
perfective (of course, being unmarked, it is always cancellable/defeasible).

As for your other post, regarding contacting me by e-mail: here I am :-D

All the best,


Mari Broman Olsen
Research Associate

University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies
3141 A.V. Williams Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

(301) 405-6754 FAX: (301) 314-9658


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