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

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Tue Apr 08 1997 - 18:47:24 EDT

At 05:54 PM 4/8/97 -0400, Don Wilkins wrote:

>Smyth understood the concept of "aspect" as we now define it is clear
>from his discussions of the tenses, etc. I found, for example, the term
>"stage of action" used to describe the aspect of the infinitive. Indeed,
>Smyth would have made a novice blunder had he not described the concept of

Certainly, Smyth describes in detail many of the things that modern
linguists are describing, but without the theoretical framework. In
particular, although he seems to have a feeling for both lexical aspect (the
aspect inherent to the word, sometimes known as Aktionsart) and syntactic
aspect (the aspect grammaticalized in tense forms), he doesn't clearly
distinguish the two or explain how they interact.

>Moreover, I personally think "aspect" is just as mistaken as the
>old "kind of action" or German _Aktionsart_, at least if you analyze either
>term. "Aspect," as a Latin term, signifies the way one "looks at" an
>action, which on the writer's end is impossible to determine; i.e. I can't
>mind-read the writer and determine whether s/he actually views the action a
>certain way. All I know is how the writer chooses to describe the action to
>the reader.

The aspect is the viewpoint from which the writer portrays the action.
That's all we can know. In the phrases "John wrote a letter ", "John was
writing a letter", "John has written a letter", and "John had written a
letter", all four phrases describe an action which occurred in the past, but
the action of writing is viewed from four different times.

>On the other hand, it makes no sense to me to limit aspect to
>the reader's view of the action, since the writer is the one determining
>its description. In fact, "description" of the action would be a more
>accurate term than "aspect", and less confusing. "Aspect" is meaningless to
>most students, and has to be defined and clarified before it has any value,
>which is soon lost from memory and has to be reinforced repeatedly. Even
>Webster's definition is misleading at best, in that "aspect" is said to
>indicate the *nature* of an action.

I'm not sure who you have been reading. If aspect is expressed
syntactically, then it is present in the writer's portrayal, and does not
depend on the reader's view of the action. Incidentally, I agree that there
might be a better word than "aspect", especially since most modern students
don't know that an "aspect" is a viewpoint or a way of looking at something.
That's why I have been using the word "viewpoint".

>>I currently think that Fanning and Olsen's interpretation of passages is not
>>much different from what Smyth would suggest.
>I haven't read Fanning, but Mari's papers indicate that she sees the aorist
>indicative as "tenseless" along with other moods of the aorists

This is true. She says that the aorist "looks back" on the action from the
time of completion, but does not express absolute time as reckoned from the
time of the speaker or writer. For Mari, a tense always expresses absolute
time; that is precisely her definition of a tense. Now Mari agrees with
Smyth that the aorist may sometimes express present or future time. Smyth's
explanation is that the aorist is sometimes a primary tense and sometimes a
secondary tense. Of course, this is somewhat inconsistent with the view that
the augment expresses past time, and that the secondary endings are used for
the past time, and I'm not really sure what exactly he means when he says
this. Mari's explanation is that the aorist never expresses absolute time -
after all, if a form expresses absolute time, why is this absolute time
sometimes in the future, sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the
past? Of course, the vast majority of uses of the aorist are past referring,
and Mari explains that this is only to be expected since most things we
"look back" on actually are in the past.

Both writers say that (1) the vast majority of aorists have past reference,
(2) the aorist may also have present, timeless, or future reference, and (3)
when the aorist does have present, timeless, or future reference, it still
"looks back" on the action from the time of completion. Their theoretical
explanations differ. I find Mari's more consistent, mainly because I'm a
little baffled by the idea of a tense sometimes being a primary tense and
sometimes being a secondary tense.

>and in past conversations she has argued that the augment became meaningless by
>the time of the NT (if I am mistaken, Mari, please let us know).

Does this bother you more than Smyth's statement that the same morphological
forms used in the aorist sometimes make it a primary tense and sometimes
make it a secondary tense? Mari isn't really arguing from morphology, and
especially not from historical morphology; her thesis focuses on which time
indicators in sentences can overrule other time indicaters. My favorite
example continues to be this one:


The NUN tries to indicate the present, but it is overruled by the imperfect
EZHTOUN, forcing it into the (recent) past: "just now". This is a hint that
the imperfect, unlike the aorist, *does* indicate absolute time in
independent clauses in the indicative. In other posts I've argued that
NUN+aorist has an effect similar to the perfect, and focuses on the present
state resulting from a past action, but the past referent is not always
clearly present.

>Mari probably has produced the best literature on the subject from a linguist's
>viewpoint, but I disagree with her in this area and I think you'll find
>that Smyth does too. What you probably infer is the sense that Smyth's idea
>of the contextual meaning seems similar to Fanning and Olsen. This is
>different from talking about what the aorist means by nature.

I find that Smyth's description of the possible range of meanings for the
aorist matches Mari's predictions and that he also foresees many of the
contextual interactions which Fanning and Mari spell out in detail. His
theoretical framework is different, but if you look at the way he explains a
passage, then ask how Mari would explain the same passage, I find resounding

In fact, that is the one thing that has helped me understand aspect more
than anything else: reading Smyth's descriptions, and reconstructing them
with Mari's theory.



Jonathan Robie
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Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
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