RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sat Mar 15 1997 - 18:39:22 EST

Dear listmembers,

Ron Ross and Mari Broman Olsen have sent very informative
contributions on aspect/Aktionsart. It appears that we agree
as to the basic difference between Aktionsart and aspect. I
will cover some of the same meterial, but from a slightly
different angle.


My aspectual studies draw from the aspectological
achievements of modern lingusitics in the last 25 years.
Most of my work has been with the Hebrew verbal system. I
have done some work with LXX and the NT, but not enough to
be able to present a fullfledged theory of Greek aspect.


The following principal factors contribute to the
interpretation of a clause: (1) the lexical meaning of the
words, (2) the grammatical meaning of modificantions of the
words (prefix, suffix and others), (3) the subjective view
of the reporter ( for instance mood, subjunctive, optative,
imperative, and (4) the context and a knowledge of the


The German word Aktionsart means `kind of action` and refers
to the lexical meaning of the word. The most important sides
of Aktionsart are durativity and punctuality (an action
occurring in a moment without inner constituency). It is
important to note that Aktionsart is objective, in that it
cannot normally be altered. The verb `sing` is durative, and
regardless of what we do with it, using aorist, present,
infinitive or participle, its lexical contents is the same:
words and melody come out of someones mouth.

What then is aspect? Curtius who was the father of the Greek
aspectual theory used the Slavic languages as his pattern,
and in the middle of the last century noone made a
difference between Aktionsart and aspect. The result was
that aspect was defined with objective Aktionsart-terms
such as `durative` and `punctual`, and this is still done.
To illustrate, let us use the verb `run` TREXW. The action
expressed is movement along a road or field, so objectively
speaking it is durative. Suppose now that we use this verb
as a present or imperfect, will the action the be viewed as
more durative? Certainly not, because durativity is a
lexical characteristic. But what about aorist? The
durativity of the verb is the same also as aorist. We find
exactly the same situation with other verbs, and the
conclusion must be that aspect has absolutely nothing to do
either with durativity or punctuality . Aspect represents
the viewpoint of the reporter, the way he chooses to
describe the situation, thus being subjective rather than
objective (cf Mark 12:41 where EBALLON (imperfect) is used
and v 44 where EBALON (aorist) is used for the same event.)
(For many verbs the aspectual choices are restricted).

The above description puts aspect on the same plane as mood,
but while mood may express will or wish or something which
is doubtful, aspect is subjective in another way. I think
aspect is best described on the basis of what may be called
`the principle of visibility` By this I mean that every
event has objective contents, but the reporter wants to
focus either on the whole event or on a portion of it, and
for this he uses aspect.
Aspect may be compared to the lense opening of a camera. If
we take a picture from some distance, the opening is small
and the whole object is seen, but its details are not sharp.
This is the perfective (NB: not perfect) aspect ( aorist).
If we take a closeup picture the lense opening is bigger, we
focus on a small part of the object, and the details are
clearly visible. This is the imperfective aspect (present,
imperfect). The lense opening is neither durative nor
punctual but what it focuses upon may be either.

It is important to remember that English does not have
grammaticalized aspects, i.e. grammatical forms which
represent a viewpoint, so this Greek (and Hebrew) category
is something completely new! Any aspectual nuance can be
expressed in English, either by circumlocution or by adding
words such as `proceed to` or the like. English Present or
past continous may be used when translating the
imperfective aspect and simple past for the perfective one,
but they are not aspects in the Greek sense. We can for
instance never use the English participle to portray a
conative event (=try to) as we can with Greek imperfective
(see later).


The nature of the event is exclusively expressed by the
lexical contents of the verb, but the bare verb is like an
unpolished diamond. The author wants to present the event
from a certain angle, and stress a certain part of it. To
achieve that the verbal arguments (= subject and object) are
very important. Here we ought to differentiate between telic
and atelic events. The phrase `eat one sandwich` is telic,
the end of the action (TELOS) is implied, the phrase `stroll
in the garden` is atelic. Whether the arguments are singular
or plural, definite or indefinite, countable or mass-terms
has a profound influence on the important question whether
or not the end was reached.

Let us now look at the interplay of the different factors.
It is here Carls maxim "The whole is greater than the sum
of its parts." fits so well. Aspect is in reality `nothing`,
just a peephole, but just the same, particular aspectual
focus will make visible meaning which othervise would not
have been seen. This is particularly evident with the
conative example below.
We start with the imperfective aspect. A small part of the
action is viewed (Because an action is proceeding toward
something, what we see through the imperfective peephole is
either durative, an action leading into a state that
continues, or a frequency of single acts. This is the reason
why imperfectivity wrongly has been defined as durativity.)
By using the imperfective aspect, we know hat a small part
of the action is made visible, but we do not know which
part. This we can construe from the meaning of the word in
the particular context.

Let us illustrate some possibilities. We make a timeline
with B (beginning) and E (end)

  -----B------------------E-------- Focus is marked by xxx
(I take some examples from Fanning)

(1) -xxxB-----------------E---- When the aspect focuses
on the event before its beginning, the result is conative (=
tried to), Mark 15:23, imperfect used, and the context
points to conativity.
(2) ----Bxxx--------E----- Inceptive focus (=
began to), Luke 5:3, the meaning of the verb (teach)
suggests that the event is inceptive.
(3) ----B-----xxx---E---- Progressive (=continued to), Matt
26:58, meaning of verb suggests progressive event.
(4) ----B------------xExx Resultative (= the action results
in a state), Matt 6:2, meaning of verb (have reward)
suggests that the situation is resultative.

There are also other possibilities. The perfective aspect,
viewing the situation as a whole do not have so many
possible meanings. One nuance is however the ingressive (to
enter into a state) meaning with stative verbs, Rev 18:3
`became rich`.

One area where more research is needed is the nature of
punctual verbs. In Hebrew, verbs which in English are
punctual, may be viewed as durative, either as having an
inner constituency or as implying both an act and a
resulting state. Joshua 7:6 uses the aorist form of PIPTW
(and Joshua fell on the earth (..) until evening.) The verb
PIPTW must in this case have inner constituency because the
`fall` lasted several hours. What is meant is of course that
he fell to the earth and remained there (act leading into a
state). The aorist does not convey this, so it is wrongly
choosen, but an imperfect could have conveyed this meaning.


English future is by some viewed as a mood because it in a
way is a prediction. Because there are modal forms in Greek
that may refer to the future, I believe Greek future is a
real tense. Present, however, clearly is no tense.
Regarding imperfect and aorist I am not sure. Even if the
augment codes for past time, this is not the most important
characteristic. Thus, neither they are tenses. Porter gives
some counterexamples, but they are few. However, each
example must be carefully scrutinized. Imperfect consecutive
in Hebrew is believed to be past tense, the perfective
aspect or both. Going through the whole Bible I found 399
examples ( about 3%) which cannot have past meaning, and
these falsify the past tense-viewpoint. Being so few they
have not been given due weight before.


Ronald refers to the book `Aspect` by Bernard Comrie
(1976). The same author has also written the book `Tense`
(1985). Both are quite easy to understand. However, Comrie
does not differentiate between aspect and Aktionsart,
perhaps because he does not know real aspectual languages.
`The Parameter of Aspect` (1991) by Carlota Smith gives much
insight in the role of the verbal arguments (her: Situation
aspect). It is also rather easy to understand. However, her
treatment of aspect (her: Viewpoint aspect) is from our
Greek point of view confusing. `Verbal Aspect: A General
Theory and its Application to Present Day English`, by Carl
Backe, 1985, Odense, Denmark is important for a distinction
between aspect and Aktionsart. Fanning uses Backe`s
principles. The book is not easy to understand.


Three important differences
(1) Aspect is subjective and Aktionsart objective.
(2) Aspect is a peephole, Aktionsart is what is seen through
the hole.
(2) All verbal meaning is contained in its lexical form
(Aktionsart), aspect contributes no new meaning, but makes a
part of of the verbal meaning visible for


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

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