Re: Attention aspect geeks: John 15:6 EBLHQH, EXHRANQH

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Mon Apr 07 1997 - 18:55:07 EDT

At 03:34 PM 4/7/97 -0800, Don Wilkins wrote:

>The aorist is timeless outside the indicative; apparently this is still a
>matter of confusion. My differences with Mari have to do with the aorist

Actually, everything I said in the previous message applies only to the
indicative; the sections I cite from Smyth and Robertson are from their
discussions of the indicative, though the Smyth quotation does have one
sentence which discusses other moods. Mari's thesis, incidentally, is also
limited to the indicative.

In fact, I'd be pretty disappointed with myself if this *were* still a
matter of confusion. I think I sorted this out fairly quickly in the aspect
debates last November. In fact, today I would want to limit my remarks to
indicative moods and independent clauses, since, as Smyth points out, tenses
in dependent clauses express relative time, and are reckoned from the time
of some verb in the same sentence.

>In fact, if anyone wants to argue that the *grammar* and
>morphology of the aor. ind. is past-referring but that the contextual
>interpretation may refer to the future (in Smyth's sense of a sure thing),
>I'll happily join the club.

Both Smyth and Mari say that a futuristic aorist "looks back on" an
anticipated completed action. So there are two times: the time relative to
the speaker, and the time from which the action is viewed. Smyth says (1850)
that indicative tenses in independent clauses denote absolute time, which is
reckened from the time of the speaker or writer. That is precisely Mari's
definition of a true tense. Mari (following Comrie, I think) talks about a
second time: the time from which an action is viewed. So when Smyth says
that the gnomic aorist "simply states a past occurrence and leaves the
reader to draw the inference from a concrete case that what has occurred
once is typical of what often occurs" or that "the aorist may be substituted
for the future when a future event is vividly represented as having actually
occurred", he seems to be agreeing with Mari that the action is being viewed
from a time after the action has occurred, even though this may be in the
future or timeless.

Of course, there is one significant difference: Mari says that this means
that aorist is not a true tense, and grammaticalizes only aspect; Smyth is
too early to use the term aspect, so he says that the aorist is sometimes a
primary tense and sometimes a secondary tense. This explanation isn't very
helpful, especially since it would mean that the augment is used for both
primary and secondary cases!

However, Smyth also provides another explanation which is remarkably close
to Mari's explanation of aspect as the time from which an action is viewed:
"(1850 c) Even in the indicative the actual time may be different from that
which would seem to be denoted by the tense employed. Thus the speaker or
writer may imagine the past as present, and use the present in setting forth
an event that happened before his time (1883); or may use the aorist or
perfect of an event that has not yet occurred (1934, 1950)." The action is
depicted from a viewpoint which is different from the time of the speaker or

Robertson, on the other hand, treats gnomic and futuristic aorists pretty
much as idioms, without trying to provide a theory to explain how these
exceptions can occur without totally violating the sense of the aorist.


Jonathan Robie
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Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
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