RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Fri Mar 14 1997 - 07:22:08 EST

Dear Greeks,

Do you shudder when I refer to the parsing of Greek verbs as
tensing? You ought to! I shudder when I see the word `tense`
used for Greek present, imperfect aorist and the others,
because this is a misnomer. `Tense` is defined as `a
grammaticalization of location in time` (-ed in English
`walked` codes for instance for past tense). True the
augment signalled past time, and probably does so also in
biblical Greek, though this is disputed, but present has no
such signal. Worse still is the fact that Greek has a
genuine tense (a few disputes also this), namely future, so
to call all of them `tenses`is really confusing. They are
aspects and not tenses!

Hebrew perfect and imperfect are called `conjugations` and
this solves a similar problem. The same is also possible in
Greek. And similarly in writing: if we say that a verb has
past tense, we imply that the grammatical form codes for
past tense; if we say that a verb has past meaning, we just
refer to its function in the context.

I do not expect to turn the tide. As long as the grammars
use `tense` it will prevail. My intention is not to suggest
a new terminology on B-Greek, but rather to stimulate the
minds to do some reflection. There are many self-taught
persons on the list (I admire such persons because this is
the harder way to learn, requiring much selfdiscipline), and
to reflect on the nature of the verbs is not the first step
to take. However, at some point it is important to come to
grips with the verbs. Let me quote one of my pet-maxims: `A
clear understanding of the parts gives a clear understanding
of the whole.`

The parts of the system are Tense, aspect, Mood and
Aktionsart. The first and most difficult step is to
differentiate between aspect and Aktionsart.


Rolf Furuli
Ph.D candidate in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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