RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Tue Mar 18 1997 - 17:25:41 EST

Dear Mary and Dale,


For our discussion to benefit most members of the list, I
think we should take one topic at a time and try to be as
little technical as possible.

My statement was that aspect in the Greek and Hebrew sense
is not grammaticalized in English.

Dale M. Wheeler is somewhat uneasy with this:

<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 distinguishedfrom 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."

Mary Broman Olsen claims that grammaticalized aspect is
found in English:

<Imperfective is expressed in the BE V-ing forms and
<perfective in the HAVE V-ed forms. The reason the meanings
<(e.g. the conative) do not match across languages has more
<to do with the inventory of other forms available in a
<language, e.g. English also has unmarked forms (Carlota
<Smith's "neutral aspect"), viz. the simple past, present
<and the will V future. Also, I wouldn't say that
<Aktionsart (Smith's "situation aspect") is objective, but
<that it is inherently a property of the verb.

<One reason that grammatical aspect and Aktionsart have been
<confounded is that they appear to co-vary in Slavic
<languages, from which, as Rolf correctly points out, the
<study (indeed the word, translated from vid, 'see') of
<aspect in Greek stems. THat is, in slavic langauges
<one adds a prefix (called a perfective prefix) to an
<imperfective (I would call it unmarked, since, as Comrie
<and others, notably Forsyth 1970, point out, it can have
<perfective meaning in the proper context). In the prefixed
<form the interpretation is both perfective (that is,
<completed) and bounded (that is, telic Aktionsart). SO one
<never gets prefixed perfective verbs that mean 'I have
<run', but 'I have run a little bit', etc.

Below I will argue (1) that aspect in the G/H sense has no
counterpart in En, although all the aspectual nuances can be
expressed by different means, and (2) that the equation with
English present/ past continuous and G/H imperfective and
past/perfect with G/H perfective is an important obstacle to
understasnd G/H aspects. (Mary, I really look forward to
read your thesis which appers to have an opposite view.) Not
being a native speaker I have a severe handicap, so I have
to rely on others.

(1) The word `aspect` may be viewed differently. Comrie
defines aspect so broad that it includes distinctions which
belong to Aktionsart, although he acknowledges that others
differentiate between the two.
Carlota Smith uses `Viewpoint aspect` for the `subjective`
form and `Situation aspect` for `Aktionsart`.
Mary seems to use it in the Slavic sense, which is different
from my view of G/H aspect. This may be one reason why we
draw different conclusions.

(2) What seems to be clear is that whether or not aspect (in
the Slavic sense) is found in E in no way is self evident.
In his `Verbal aspect`. 1985 , Carl Backe, after mentioning
BE V-ing and HAVE V-ed ( and similar forms) says (p 153):
`Unfortunately, however, a consensus view on this issue
/whether the forms indicate aspect, my note/ has not been
reached. Nor has anyone offered anything like conclusive
evidence of the presence or absence of aspect in the system
of categories underlying the selection of these forms in
actual usage` (see also p 26). His own view (pp 257-258) is
that `the expanded form has a positive imperfective-like
quality both in the present tense and in the past tense. The
simple form is more or less aspectually neutral in the
present tense. In the past tense, however,, it often assumes
a clearly prefective-like quality.` In G/H aspect is clearly
seen because it is the very backbone of the verbal system,
in E. the situation is much more difficult.

(3) Let us then make some comparison. To illustrate: If you
work with a puzzle of 100 pieces, and you manage to make a
nice fit of 95 of them but you have 5 which do not fit, even
though you dont know what the result should be,you know that
you have done something wrong.
As I see it, this is the situation between G/H and E. There
is no doubt that present/past continuous in many situations
represent good translations of the G/H imperfective and
past/perfect of the perfective. But this does not prove that
the E forms are aspects in the G/H sense. G/H participles
may for instance be translated with E continous forms, but
this does not prove that G/H participles are aspects. If the
mentioned E forms are aspects, they must function in all
important respects similarly to the G/H aspects, but they

McKay XI writes: `One of the main pitfalls in the study of a
foreign language is the tendency to assimilate its framework
to that of one`s own language.`. The main problem for the E
mind is to imagine grammatical properties which are not
found in E, particularly abstract properties which has a
clear relation to durativity and punctiliarity, but which
are completely different.

(4) Analysis of Mark 12:41,44 to show the function of
In v 41 EBALLON (imperfect) POLLA may be translated `were
throwing many coins` In v 44 we take the phrase in a
distributive meaning, because subject/ object are plural and
because of the lexical meaning of the verb. If we had
substituted the imperfect with EIMI and a participle or even
an infinitive,the distributive sense would be the same (Cf
Luke 21:1-2 with two pres. part).

In v 44 the same event is described by EBALON (aorist) which
may be translated `threw coins`. Here the sense also is
distributive, many persons, one after the other threw coins
into the chest. The perfective verb, however, views the
situation as a whole, but for the same reasons as above, we
know that the situation is distributive. This shows there is
a definite difference between aspect and the objective
contents of the situation.

In v 42,44 we find the word EBALON with a singlar subject.
Because the object is `two coins`, we understand that the
aorist represents one act of throwing. But what if the
object was `one hundred coins`? An aorist would not have
told us whether there was one act of throwing or several,
but an imperfect would have pointed out the last
alternative. So aspect do not add new information but makes
visible information which already exists.

(5) Let us then compare G/H aspects with present/past
continuous and past/perfect. What Curtius did is good for us
to do, namely to compare Greek with another aspectual
language. Hebrew is a very good candidate because its
aspects are subjective viewpoints as the Greek ones. In
addition, there are no restrictions in the H system due to
time reference, as is the case in G where time plays an
important though secondary role.
If the mentioned E forms are aspects in the G/H sense, they
must also have all the functions of imperfect/perfect. If
they don`t have, they are not exact counterparts, just
partly so, or not at all. In the model illustrated by the
lense opening the aspects play a the role of making things
visible. Let us compare with E.

(a) G/H imperfective aspect may together with the Aktionsart
stress the beginning of an act (Luke 5:3) `He bagan to
teach`, or the continuation (Mrk 6:20 `he continued to
hear`). The translation `He was teaching/hearing` rules out
the beginning or continuation and is not fitting.
(b) Knowledge of a particular situation may show that G/H
aspect focusses upon a sequence before the act starts, and
we get the conative `try to`. This imperfective effect is
also ruled out by past continuous.
(c) An act resulting in a state is impossible to portray by
the use of past continuous ( cf Joshua 7:6 in my last post)
(d) G/H perfective are sometimes called `completed`. In H
there are several hundred examples of perfects with future
meaning (not future perfect).One example from LXX is Dan
7:27.E past/perfect cannot be used to translate these
without altering the meaning. States just continues, and
EBASILEUSEN in Rom 5:14 can hardly signify a completed
state, because death continued to rule.

The conclusion therefore is that particularly the G/H
imperfective aspect may focus on the action in a way to make
visible a host of different nyances.This is not possible
with E past/present continuous. Therefore E does not have
grammaticalized counterparts to G/H aspects.

Both are right in adding telicity, or "boundedness" as
important parts of Aktionsart. It was not necessary for my
argument in my previous post.


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

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