RE: Attention aspect geeks

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Wed Apr 09 1997 - 09:03:51 EDT

Dear Jonathan,

I understand your struggle with Greek aspect from my own
struggle with Hebrew. I fully endorse your scientic approach
to the problem; you certainly are on the right track. Don`s
examples from medicine about the need to consult experts are
valid. However, I will apply them differently: We cannot
fully understand the subtleties of Greek aspect except by
applying the principles of modern linguistics. Different
languages classify phenomena differently, but there can be
no doubt that there are many similarities between aspectual
languages which we can profit much from by studying. (By
the way, what is the fastest way to get a copy of Mari`s

Hebrew is an aspectual language, and the study of it has
suffered from a lack of understanding of aspect. In the 12.
century a verbal model of 4 components solely based on tense
was assigned. Imperfect and perfect with waw= basically
future , (Waw is the conjunction `and`), perfect and
imperfect with waw= basically past. Around the time when
Curtius introduced his Greek verbal system of Aktionsart,
the view of the Hebrew system also changed along the same
lines. The four tense-forms were given Aktionsart-values,
but because there is no one-to-one agreement between tense
and Aktionsart, this was methodologically unsound. However,
the very model still stands, only some refinements have been

Having done much work on H verbs my claims are that there
are not four components but two: all imperfects with and
without waw are imperfective and all perfects with and
without waw are imperfective. The consequence of this is
that I have 14.500 imperfects with waw with past meaning to
account for. As far as I know, this situation, that an
imperfective verb is the principal narrative form, is quite
unprecedented, except for layers of Old Norse. However I
have between 400 and 700 examples of imperfect with waw
which are non-past and about 500 examples of imperfects
without waw which have past meaning. I mention this to
illustrate that the `exceptions` often should be given much
more weight than what is ordinary, because the mentioned
exceptions strongly speak against the view that imperfect
plus waw is preterite. Another example of exceptions showing
why they should be given more weight is the way to prove
imperfectivity. Because aspects are subjective, there is no
way to prove that a particular H verb is perfective, but if
a verb has past meaning and single subject and object (or is
intransitive), and the context definitely shows that the
action was not accomplished, it must be imperfective. It
stands to reason that situations meeting these requirements
are scarse, but they are extremely important, because they
prove that some imperfects with waw are imperfective.I
therefore disagree with Fanning as to the importance of

It is tempting to draw a parallel between the 14.500
imperfects with waw having past meaning but not being
preterits and the aorists which for the most part, but not
always, have past meaning, and use this against the notion
that the augment signals past time. I am ,however, reluctant
to do this beecause there are two augmented forms with
different aspect- aorist and imperfect. It seems to me that
this is a very good argument for the view that the augment
signals past time, but I am open for the opposite view.

<I'll have to go back and reread exactly what Mari means by
<the coda, but my current understanding, right or wrong, is
<that the aorist depicts the action at the time of
<completion, not after it has been completed. As a matter of
<fact, this distinction is pretty important to my
<understanding of ingressive aorist, gnomic aorist,
<etc. "Viewing it from the time of its completion" *is* a
<string that I hang things off of. Do you see any
<disadvantages to thinking of it this way? When you say that
<it "may illustrate the need for <abstractions", I'm afraid
I don't know what you mean.

I see the advantage and agree that this distinction is very
important. From the time of S.R. Driver around the turn of
the century and until recently the study of H aspect has
suffered from the view that the aspectual distinction was
completED/incomplete. Because `completed` is past related to
something, all kinds of ingenious explanations have been
given when the perfective aspect refers to the future. The
term `complete` removes many problems. However, even this
term does not account for all the examples. This may
illustrate my words `the need for `abstractions``. My
`abstraction` is quite similar to your `model` but somewhat
more specific, and my point is that we need a cearly
defined apprehension of aspect which we always have to stick
to. The two letters `ed`introduced by Driver has clouded the
aspectual issue in H completely, and they also have
significance for the understanding of Greek aspect. What
actually have been done, as I see it, because of lack of
such an `abstraction`, is to interprete the different
functions of aorists and presents somewhat haphazardly
without hanging them on such a common string.

The reason why translation of, and understanding of the
Bible have not suffered more because of the lack of
differentiation between aspect and Aktionsart, is that most
of the meaning that is important for translation is tied up
with Aktionsart, which all the time has been understood.
However, many subtle details have been lost on the way due
to the lack of appreciation of the nature of aspect.


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

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