Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Mon May 12 1997 - 15:45:56 EDT

At 1:07 AM 5/10/97, Rolf Furuli wrote:
(Incidentally, I believe that regardless of the problems of translation
>and the difference of presupposition pools between us and the
>Jews/first Christians it is possible to convey the message of the
>Bible "undiluted" to modern men.)

I would second this sentiment, but I do think something is usually lost or
added in the translation.

>One example, Matt 4:11: "and angels came (aorist) and began to
>minister (imperfect) to him" We dont loose anything by translating
>the aorist by English imperfect.

I assume you mean "English past," unless you are parsing "came" in a way
with which I am unfamiliar.

>But what about the Greek imperfect? The form "began" is imperfect and
>the action is by definition completed. However, the intention is to
>describe an imperfective event. It seems to me that this is achieved
>only by implication, because the lexical meaning of `begin` implies
>continuation, and because of the infinitive. And an additional
>question: Does the expression "began to minister" include the
>beginning or is a part after the beginning focussed upon? In English?
>In Greeek? I ask this question because usually imperfective events are
>viewed as not including beginning or end, and I think this view is too

Here again there may be some miscommunication regarding parsing. I take
"began" as past, and following the usual distinctions in English I would
agree that the action of beginning is completed. You have of course hit
upon a very difficult and troubling problem for translation. When I was
working on the NASB '95 Update, one of my personal goals was to reduce the
use of "began" to translate Greek imperfects. The original NASB
translators--as far as I could tell--tended to use this construction as a
default alternative to the simple Eng. imperfect. In the passage you cite
the construction makes sense, because we would assume that the angels can
not already be ministering before they arrive on the scene, as might be
inferred from the simple imperfect. I am not sure, however, that this is
what the author intends by his use of the imperfect; it may simply be that
he wants to describe (to use my own terminology) "ministering" here as
continuous event in the past. Unfortunately the problem becomes more
complex as a translation issue. While I might prefer "were ministering" to
using "began," this will be nonsensical to most readers, and my only
choices may be to use the "began" construction or to translate the
imperfect as a simple Eng. past (this is also problematic because the NASB
traditionally has indicators of the Greek tense, and in this case the
choice may be between using a construction that does not fit the context,
and using one that does not clearly distinguish aorist from imperfect). We
did change some of the original NASB "began"'s of this type to simple past
tenses, as I recall (naturally we kept "began" when the Greek ARXOMAI was
in the text). In any case, the use of "began" is in effect a way to bring
out a grammatical distinction by using both lexical and grammatical

> We should not forget that the excellent differentiations between
>Aktionsart and aspect given recently by Michael and others relates to
>`quantity` and not to `quality`, i.e. differentiations does not define
>the contents of what is differentiated. I believe it is very important
>also to understand the range and nature of the two aspects,
>particularly their relation to the beginning and/or end of an event.

Though I often find myself in disagreement with scholars in linguistics
when they try to dictate standards for Greek, this is an area where they
have contributed significantly by reminding us of the close connections
between lexical meaning and grammar. I take it that by "two aspects" you
are referring to the aorist and imperfect, and I agree with you. This also
has relevance to the problem of categorizing uses of a given grammatical
distinction (e.g. "kinds" of imperfects, etc. as "identified" by AT
Robertson, Dana & Mantey et al.). While such categories *seem* useful and
accurate, we may run the risk of misunderstanding the distinctions if we
too easily resort to such categories/labels.

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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