Re: Aspects of Gnomic Fog

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Apr 04 1997 - 11:33:29 EST

At 9:39 AM -0600 4/4/97, S. M. Baugh wrote:
>Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>>From one Greek gnome to others, my special thanks to Wes Williams
>>and Prof Kenneth McKay for a most illuminating comment on and
>>illustration of the "timeless aorist" particularly as it appears
>>to general conditions. Frankly, I feel that I'm beginning to emerge
>>from out of the fog that I entered as a result of some of the recent
>>discussion of aspect, the most confusing part of which to me has
>>been a kind of inconsistent terminology and comparisons between
>>other languages and Greek which have seemed to me to cloud the picture
>>of Greek usage more than to clarify it.
>Dear Carl,
>I'm glad to hear that you are rising from out the mist, because your
>experience with Greek prior to Koine would give the rest of us most
>helpful balance. It is, at present, very easy to research the NT corpus
>for verbal aspect because of GRAMCORD's capabilities. However, there has
>been some early work along these lines in classical Greek, especially by
>Albert Rijsbaron (*The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical
>Greek,* 2d ed. [Amsterdam, 1994]; and an earlier one showing that
>Aristotle recognized the atelic/telic distinction: *Aristotle, Verb
>Meaning and Functional Grammar,* [Amsterdam, 1989]). I am currently
>reading an earlier work by Peter Stork (*The Aspective Usage of the
>Dynamic Infinitive in Herodotus* [Bouma Boekhuis, 1982]) which is--dare
>I risk sounding "geeky"?--pretty exciting stuff.
>My own opinion is that the interrelations of tense, aspect, verb
>meanings, and the various contexts are very complex, such that the
>overarching theories (e.g., Fanning or Porter) have not yet fully or
>decisively described the Greek verb system. I also have a suspicion that
>the aspectual system underwent changes over time, but to confirm that
>requires much more expertise than I (or perhaps any one researcher)
>My only point is that I think the research into Greek aspect has only
>begun--hence the confusion of terms and even conceptual muddle [to which
>I admit, though some things are finally clearing up after about six
>years of occasional research into it]. I for one welcome your input and
>that of all others into this important area.

I started to send this note back off-line, but I've rethought it hastily
enough (favorite line of Euripides: hAI DEUTERAI PWS FRONTIDES SOFWTERAI!)
that I won't do that. I very much appreciate your note and I want to say to
others who have discussed aspect that I probably made the comment cited
above rather haphazardly and offensively, which was not really my intent--I
wanted to express my own frustration at the discussion of aspect, the
causes of which are quite as have hereabove been described. I thank all who
have contributed something to the discussion of aspect; my problem is
primarily one of (in)digestion as people continue to toss out morsels and
loaves of enlightening information on aspect each in a somewhat different
dialect of English.

I appreciate these bibliographical pointers and shall try to follow them
up. I've often thought that what Aristotle has to say about the way verb
tenses express his concept of entelechy is a very helpful way to talk about
the Greek perfect and present "tenses," and I'm not surprised to see that
someone has endeavored to analyze what's implicit in that. I want to add
also that I've become increasingly aware from careful reading of Sihler's
_Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin_ that much of the confusion that a
student cannot avoid in learning to cope with the Greek verb derives from
the intermingling of original Proto-Indo-European stative verbs with PIE
eventive verbs and the development in Greek and Latin of functional
rapprochement between the aorist and the perfect, so that the two tenses
became one in Latin while the perfect tends to evanesce in Greek and the
perfective force comes to be concentrated more in the aorist. Moreover,
even in Homer, the distinction between imperfects and thematic aorists is
often enough unclear. Perhaps I should wait 100 years or so until the dust
settles on all this investigation of aspect until some Gnomic Einstein
comes along and sets forth a "Unified Aspect Theory" wherein all the terms
are used m;onovalently and all of them are unambiguously interrelated in an
easily diagrammable scheme. For the time being, at any rate, I am grateful
for any and every bright light (even if it is no Star of Bethlehem) that
pierces the fog and permits even a slightly improved orientation for one
roaming through the wilderness of aspect.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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