RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu Mar 20 1997 - 10:29:04 EST

Dear Dale,

I would like to comment on three of your points which I did
not mention in my posting to you and Mary.

(1) Let me elucidate my claim making you wonder, that Greek
aspect is `something completely new`. First, there is
nothing esoteric requiring a higher gnosis. What is new in
G, as I see it, is not the different events or situations
that can be expressed by help of the aspect, we have them
all in English, the new thing is that ONE grammatical
category (either imperfective or perfective aspect)
expresses them all! Therefore this category must be
completely lacking in English, and it is of utmost
importance not to confuse the category with some of the
events it makes visible (expresses), such as for instance
progression. (I see no problem in a teacher using
durative/punctual as a definition for first-grade
students,because the level of precision need not be high
here, but later the definition ought to become more precise)
So the difference between English and Greek is one of
`quantity` rather than `quality`.

You mention the word `die`, and the use of it may illustrate
that while both Greeks and Hebrews spoke about the same
situations and events as we do, they could sometimes stress
the situations differently, particularly the Hebrews.
Example: Job 3:11. LXX has two verbs which means `to die, to
perish` in the aorist (perfective), but the Hebrew text has
two verbs with the same meaning in the imperfect
(imperfective) (not consecutive imperfect) This has long
been a crux, driving some commentators to the ad
hoc-explanation that some imperfects may be `perfective`.
I think the solution is simple, namely that the Hebrews
stressed the state following the event (this does not mean
that they believed that the soul survived death, they did
not). If consecutive imperfects are viewed as imperfectve,
we find scores of similar expressions. In English we may
say: `Please sit down.` stressing the state, but the use of
expressions with such stress are much more restricted.

<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" ?

I think `grammaticalization of location in time` is a good
definition of tense. I suggest `conjugation` rather than
`tense` because:
(1) Past time in aorist/imperfect has a secondary function,
while aspect is of primary importance. To use the word
`tense` gives a wrong impression.
(2) Past time is not necessarily expressed by all
occurrences of imperfect/aorist. If we use `tense` we take a
stand for the past tense- view against those viewing it
(3) Present is no tense but future is probably a true tense.
(4) A system with one member repsresnting tense, another
being tenseless, and two others where time plays a secondary
role does not in my mind fit the description of a
tense-system. It also has the practical side that such a
designation may mislead someone, at least as to where to put
the stress.
If we know the name of a thing is not fitting, why not use
another? As far as I can see the word `conjugation`has no

<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.
Fanning is easy, Backe heavier.


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

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