Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu May 08 1997 - 06:41:48 EDT

Michael Palmer wrote an excellent piece which really clears up the
difference between Aktionsart and aspect. It deserves to be printed
out, nailed to the wall, and every time we use the terms we should
read it and ask ourself if we use them as (1), (2) or (3). (The book
Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation,1989, by P Cotterell & M Turner
may be of further help).

<>Robertson's Aktionsart encompasses grammatical aspect as well as
<>lexical aspect.

<Exactly. This is part of the problem. The older grammars use the term
<'Aktionsart' in a way which is not synonymous with its use in modern
<linguistics. As Mari stated in her recent note, many linguists use
<the term as a synonym for 'lexical aspect.' Others (especially in the
<study of Slavic languages) use it to mean 'aspect which is expressed
<explicitly through derivational morphology (See R.L. Trask's _A
<Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics for examples.)

<Robertson and company use the term in neither of these senses. They
<use it in a very broad sense covering both lexical and grammatical
<aspect as well as both the writer's *perception* of an action and the
<writer's *portrayal* of that action. In my earlier note I made a
<distinction between Aktionsart as the term for type of action and
<Aspect as the term for how an action is presented, envisioned, etc.
<Let me now refine this a bit.

<In order to clear the muddy water a little (or perhaps stir it up
<even more), we can distinguish between (1) the way an action really
<is (out there in the real world, independent of the way we talk about
<that action), (2) the way that action is perceived by a language
<user, and (3) the way that same language user decides to portray that

<In the traditional grammars the term 'Aktionsart' is used for
<bewildering mixture of these three.

<In modern linguistics, those linguists who use the term at all [It is
<interesting that the term did not even appear in David Crystal's
<_Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics_, Blackwell, 1991.], tend
<not to ever use it to represent (1). Many use it to cover both (2)
<and (3) when they are tied to *lexical aspect* (as Mari stated).

<We might also distinguish between 'Aktionsart' and 'lexical aspect'
<taking 'Aktionsart' to refer to (2) while 'lexical aspect' represents
<only (3). On this view, however, we may want to reject Aktionsart,
<seeing it as beyond the scope of what we can legitimately know. In
<biblical studies, for example, I might argue that all we can know is
<how Paul chose to portray an action (3), and that we can never know
<for sure how he perceived that action (2). If I take Aktionsart to
<refer only to (2), I would then reject the term, and say that
<linguistics is legitimately concerned only with aspect--not
<aktionsart. Much of the discussion in the traditional grammars
<does take 'Aktionsart' as referring to (2).

<Linguists who see 'Aktionsart' as Mari does, clearly have no reason
<to reject the term. Since in our context (biblical Greek studies),
<however, the term 'Aktionsart' carries the baggage of the confused
<discussion in the traditional grammars where it often covers (2) and
<even sometimes (1), I do not use the term 'Aktionsart' as Mari does
<when talking about biblical Greek. I prefer the term 'lexical aspect'
<for what she means by 'Aktionsart.' When I do use the term
<'Aktionsart' I try to stick as closely as possible to what the Greek
<grammars mean by the term--where it is usually identified as 'type of
<action' ((1) and possibly (2)), not 'type of presentation' (3),
<though I doubt the authors of those grammars seriously considered the
<distinction between type of action and type of presentation).

I would like to point out one additional point which also may cause
confusion, namely that which may be termed `the translation fallacy`.
No translation into another language is perfect; usually something is
added or lost. We cannot therefore understand Greek aspects by the way
Greek verbs are translated into English, but this is often done. When
we for instance translate a Greek imperfect with past continuous in
English, it is tempting to think hat past continuous is durative, so
the imperfective aspect in Greek is durative. But this is fallacious
because the English past continuous represents only the closest
natural equivalent in English to the particular imperfect (in its
context) in Greek, and is not an English equivalent to the Greek
imperfective aspect.


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

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