RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Dale M. Wheeler (
Date: Sun Mar 16 1997 - 16:06:12 EST

In general, I find myself in agreement with you Rolf about how Greek
Aktionsart and aspect operate (and I'd say to all those Greek students on
the list, who think this discussion is over their heads, that they should
pay close attention to this discussion and read the books mentioned,
because this is the direction--a correct one, IMHO--that Greek grammar is
going); but I have a few quibbles that I'd be interested in seeing how you
deal with...

Rolf Furuli wrote:

>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.

Much of what you say here and later is applied to the NT in Fanning's
_Verbal Aspect_. However, I would suggest that your statement about
Aktionsart ("The most important sides of Aktionsart are durativity and
punctuality...") may be unintentionally misleading, making it seem that we
should return to the days when people talked about Greek as being either
durative, point action, or combined. It would seem to me to be much clearer
to just say that there are several possible Aktionsarten represented by
verbs which include: stative, unbounded durative, prefaced durative,
bounded durative, punctual, prefaced punctual, bounded punctual, etc. (or
whatever scheme you choose to use to describe the verbal nuance).

>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.

Such a description of English and a comparison to Greek and Hebrew makes me
a bit uneasy. The fact that English *in general* doesn't change the basic
form of the verb (grammaticalize) doesn't seem to me to be a sufficient
basis to say that English doesn't grammaticalize the forms at all, and that
what happens in Greek and Hebrew " something completely new!"
Certainly the present durative of "to go", ie., I am *going* is
grammaticalized--I realize that its a specific present gerund/participle
and thus linguists wouldn't call it grammaticalized; I'm just saying that I
think the "rule" is applied a bit too strictly in the sense that English
doesn't "do things" to its verbs to communicate aspect. It seems to me that
to limit "grammaticalization" just to the singular word form ignores the
fact that in Koine EIMI + Participle is most likely not to be distinguished
from the simple Present or Imperfect form of the verb (and in some
instances it looks like the compound form is taking over for the simple
form; I realize that some say that the compound forms are "extra durative",
but I just don't see/feel it.). Are we to say then that at those places
where the compound is used that Greek is no longer "grammaticalized"? Well,
if you want to be *very* rigid with the definition, I suppose so; but it
seem to me that "...a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

I appreciate your statement "Any aspectual nuance can be expressed in
English..."; the problem I've run into is that some current appliers of
linguistic theory have portrayed English and Greek as being so totally
different that they cannot possibly communicate the same things. That, it
seems to me, is the problem with excessive rigidity in describing languages

>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.

I think you should define "tense" here, since you've now reversed the
normal thinking in Greek grammars about the "tenses". Do you mean that the
grammaticalization of the verb form does/can or does/can not indicate "time
of action" ?

>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.

I would suggest that the problem in Josh 7:6 is that the Hebrew NPL has a
wider semantic range than the Greek verb PIPTW (or the common use of the
English verb "to fall") and that range includes "to prostrate oneself".
When I read the Hebrew text of Josh 7:6 I don't "think" it means in Hebrew
"to fall" (and the LXX EPI instead of EIS for the accusative -AH suffix on
ERETZ is in my mind a correct sense of what the suffix is doing there).
Thus NPL, depending upon its contextual meaning can either be a punctual
("fall") or prefaced-durative ("prostrate"), ie., there's no guarantee that
the semantic range of words is going to match from one language to the
next. I'd say that "fall" in all three languages is not necessarily
punctual by its Aktionsart, though normally it is by its aspectual usage;
it is, I'd suggest, bounded-durative or telic, ie., there is movement from
one place to another with a climax/stopping place. Thus to fall on the
ground does not involve a very long duration; but a "fall" from the Empire
State Building (or the Colossos of Rhodes) would involve a considerable
duration before the climax. Nevertheless, that one verbal form can have
different Aktionsarten based upon its contextual semantic meaning is not
all that unusual (eg., the English "to strike" can be punctual when
referring to baseball, but prefaced-durative when speaking of labor
unions). And when you're dealing with LXX "translation" Greek, as you know,
you run into all kinds of really strange things which are not particularly
"good" Greek, and in the case of Josh 7:6 it applies to both the "literal"
verb choice and the Aorist for the Waw-Consecutive Impf (or Preterite, if
that's your prefered terminology). I agree that more thought needs to go
into "punctuals", because the Aktionsart of most "punctuals" is not
punctual at all, its just that they are normally used (ie., their aspect)
is punctual; eg., "to hit" is not a punctual in my opinion, but a telic or
bounded-durative like "to fall"; "to die" is a tricky one !

>`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.

Which book are you referring to, Backe or Fanning; the latter I found to be
*very* easy to understand because it takes alot of linguistic terminology
and presents it in a very common sense way with lots of examples.


Dale M. Wheeler, Th.D.
Research Professor in Biblical Languages Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan Street Portland, OR 97220
Voice: 503-251-6416 FAX:503-254-1268 E-Mail:

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