RE: Attention aspeect geeks

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sat Apr 12 1997 - 19:31:55 EDT

Dear Jonathan and Micheal,

Greeks are renowned for their philosophy, so let us do some
abstract thinking. Comrie in his book on aspect , which is
easy to understand, uses examples from different languages.
Allow me to use an example from Accadian
(Babylonian/Assyrian), which has a grammatical category
different from anything in English. There are three
conjugations where the persons are indicated by prefixes and
singularity/plurality by the endings. Then there is one
conjugation without prefixes, where a shortened form of the
personal pronouns are attached at the end of the verb stem.
What is strange, is that also to substantives these pronouns
may be attached, and therefore we have a grammatical
category consisting of both verbs and substantives which are
parsed in person and number. The common concept is that the
person represented by the ending is in the state designated
by either the verb or the substantive, and the conjugation
is termed `stative`. One grammatical category consisting of
both verbs and substantives is unnatural for the English
mind, but we have no problem to understand the meaning when
it is explained to us or to translate the stative.

The basic grammatical categories in Greek neither have
English counterparts. In one of the categories - the
imperfective one - we find actions which are conative (try
to), inceptive (begin to), progressive (continue to),
durative (are doing), customary (use to), frequentative
(`are doing`), futuristic (cf Fanning 221) and resultative
(Fanning`s `perfective`, 239) and states. In the other
category - the perfective one - we find actions which are
constative ( action seen as a whole), consummative (
endpoint stressed), epistolatory (letters) and with states,
ingressive (entrance into a state) or partial (makes visible
a part of the state). We could also have added others to
each category, but the point is that just as Accadian has a
grammatical category consisting of both verbs and
substantives, Greek has two categories with a host of
different events and states in each.The categories are
strange to the English mind, but what is subsumed into the
categories are familiar events/statees.

To understand the Accadian stative we should not look at
one part as substantives and the other as verbs, but should
treat them both in relation to their common concept,
stativity. In a similar way we should find what is common in
all the imperfective events and states, and treat them in
relation to this abstraction (or definition), and similarly
with the perfective events and states. In most instances we
may get a good understanding of a passage without an
accurate understanding of the two aspects, but without such
an understanding we may not be able to answer the question
`why`, and important nuances may escape our attention. And
sad to say, much of the aspectual terminology is misleading.

Jonathan wrote,

<I'll have to look at these examples when I get time.
<Actually, you could save me some time by telling me how the
<aorist is used in these examples,since you have probably
<already processed them.

Josh 6:25 says that Rahab `has lived (aorist, KATWiKISEN) in
Israel until this day`. She continued to live there.
Judg 1:21 says that the Jebusite `has lived (aorist,
KATWiKISEN) (..) in Jerusalem until this day`. They
continued to live there.
1 Sam 27:6 says that Siklag has been in the possession (
pass. aor, EGENHQH) of the king of Judea until this day.
This continued.
Deut 2:22 says that the children of Esau `has lived (pass
aor, KATWiKISQHSAN)` in Seir `until this day`. They
continued to live there.
2 Sam 4:3 says hat the Berothites `has been sojourners
(imperfect+ pres part, HSAN PAROIKOUNTES) there until this
day.` They continued to live there
Josh 4:9 says that the twelve stones `has been there
(present, EISIN) until this day.`They continued to be there.

These 6 sentences ( and about 90 others with about the same
wording) serve as `minimal pairs` (words and phrases where
all parameters are identical except one). Objectively the
state held at `this day` and continued, and the different
conjugations (`tenses`) used show that a part of a state may
be portrayed both by imperfective and perfective verbs. A
definition of the imperfective aspect as something` going
on, in process without reference to its completion`, while
fitting most imperfective situations, also fits some
perfective situations.

Michael had some interesting observations:

<I think a better reflection of some strands of aspect
<theory would require modifying Jonathan's definition
<slightly to eliminate any reference to time. This can be
<accomplished by using 'complete' rather than 'completed'
<or 'time of complition'. For example,

<The aorist views an action as complete (as a whole). In
<most cases, the action is in the past, but it can also
<depict a future action, a present action, or an action not
<fixed in time, always viewing it as a whole rather
<than as in progress.

<Fanning uses a distinction between 'from the inside'
<(imperfective aspect) and 'from the outside' (perfective
<aspect). I don't have his book with me, but I believe I
<remember his persepective (maybe even from personal
<conversation rather than the book), and I *think* he would
<reword Jonathan's definition something like this:

<The aorist views and action from the outside. In most
<cases, the action is in the past, but it can also depict a
<future action, a present action, or an action not fixed in
<time, always viewing it externally rather than as if
<in the middle of the action.

Fannings definitions are found in 2.1.5 and 2.2.4. and are
very good. It may however be that his contrast
`internal-external` should be modified somewhat. I cannot
find that these words are defined, but if `internal` means a
situation after the beginning and before the end, and
`external` means that beginning and end are included, they
don`t cover all situations. The above examples of aorists
covering a part of a state seems to be contrary to the
perfective definition of including the end. Conative events
occur `before the beginning` and resultative events includes
the end, and this seems to contradict the view that the
imperfective aspect is `internal` .

The definition of the imperfective aspect of a closeup view
of a part of an event or state with details visible, will
both cover all the situations which are between beginning
and end and the few which are before the beginning and
including the end. The definition of the perfective aspect
as a view from a distance with details not visible, but
either including both endpoints or making an arbitrary end
will also cover the situations where a part of a state is
focussed upon.
These definitions are general and may perhaps be modified
somwhat when a decision is reached as to the role of the

As I see it, the real test of our understanding of the Greek
aspect, is our reaction to Fannings words (2.2.4 and similar
words 2.1.5): "the aorist is a viewpoint aspect in that it
reflects the speaker`s or writer`s focus or PERSPECTIVE on
the occurrence and not the actional character of the
occurrence itself (duration-momentariness, process-event,
etc.)". Porter agrees with this but McKay is ambiguous (and


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

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