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

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Wed Apr 09 1997 - 20:44:55 EDT

At 05:23 PM 4/9/97 -0800, Don Wilkins wrote:
>At 6:47 PM 4/8/97, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>>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.
>No, you are slipping into the mind-reading mode apparently without
>realizing it. "All we can know" is how the writer is *describing* the

For me, "portray" and "describe" are synonomous here; "portray" fits the
visual metaphor of aspect better, but you can substitute "describe" in my
above sentence without loss of meaning. We agree: we can only see what is in
the sentence. And Mari would also agree, I'm quite sure.

>I believe you are missing my point again, for what it's worth. "Aspect" can
>be defined at least three different ways, if you count my idea: (1) the
>viewpoint of the writer (which I call "mind reading"), (2) the kind of
>action (wrong, since description of the action does not change its reality
>in any way), and (3) the way the writer chooses to describe the action (my
>way, which I would rather call "description" for want of a better term).

I think we are in total agreement here, we are just using different words.
My phrase "the viewpoint from which the writer portrays the action" is the
same as your "the way the writer chooses to describe the action", except
that it stresses the visual metaphor of aspect, and also stresses that
the action can be viewed from within the process, viewed from the time
of completion, etc.

>>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
>You are misunderstanding Smyth, and in fact your original citation from
>Smyth on the matter is not inconsistent with the past-time reference which
>is the nature of the aor. ind.

Here is the Smyth citation I have in mind here:

1858. Primary and Secondary Tenses -- The primary tenses refer to present
and future time (present, future, perfect, and future perfect), the
secondary or historical tenses refer to past time (imperfect, aorist,
pluperfect). a. The gnomic aorist (1931b) is regarded as a primary tense, as
is he aorist when used for the perfect (1940) and the imperfect indicative
referring to present time (1788); the historical present (1883) as a
secondary tense. The subjunctive, optative, and imperative moods in their
independent uses point to the future, and all their tenses therefore count
as primary.

My claim is that Smyth is saying that real aorists, augment and all, can be
primary tenses, which means that they can refer to present and future time.
How am I misinterpreting him?

>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.
>The key to Mari's position seems to be "cancellability," meaning that the
>context can "cancel" the past-time reference. I would agree that this may
>be the "point" of the statement, but not that the we need to throw out the
>augment as a past-time indicator. Mari's justification is a historical
>argument that the augment lost its meaning at some point (other linguists
>have apparently argued that the meaning was lost even by the classical
>period), and that a great number of languages behave in the same way. I
>have argued repeatedly that the augment did not lose its meaning during the
>koine period (nor evidently for a long time afterwards), and that the
>comparative argument has little or no probative value because it runs the
>risk of jumping from the general to the particular.

"Cancellability" in Mari's thesis refers to Grice cancellability, which is a
way she searches for examples to see which semantic features are really
inherent to a tense form and which are generally true, but not inherent.
Mari says that the aorist always looks back on the action from the coda
(which I interpret as the time of completion). In the indicative, this means
that the aorist usually functions as a past tense, but other factors can
change this; in all cases, however, it looks back from the time of
completion. Again, Mari seems to be in agreement with Smyth, who clearly
says that the aorist does not always refer to the past as reckened from the
time of the speaker or writer.

>>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?
>...Yes; as I say, you are misunderstanding Smyth and others (like myself)
>of the same or similar persuasion.

I don't think that I'm misunderstanding Smyth. I'm not sure if I'm
understanding you. If I *am* misunderstanding Smyth, please tell me how you
construe the above quote.



Jonathan Robie
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Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
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