Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Wed May 14 1997 - 12:03:51 EDT

Dear Don,

It was interesting to hear about your work with NASB and your
struggels with "began". In several postings the last months I have
made an appeal for a slight redefinition of "imperfective" and "
perfective" applied to the Greek verbal system. But evideently I have
not been able to catch the interest. This was also the reason why I
brought up Matt 4:11. Michael made a very good distinction between
Aktionsart and aspect, and different kinds of imperfects and aorists
etc. have been discussed in a fine way. What I am after, and which I
think it is important for all to struggle with, are the very concepts
of " imperfectivity" and "perfectivity".

Fanning did an excellent job with his book. He was up to date with the
linguistic literature and used a modern definition of aspect.
Particularly his description of aspect as "subjective" is worth
noting (p 85, it appears that many has not done that). However, it
seems to me that his definition of imperfectivity as a view "from
within the action, without reference to the beginning or endpoint of
the action" and perfectivity as a viewpoint from "outside the action
with focus on the whole action from beginning to end" (p 85) is in
need of a SLIGHT revision.

On pp 191,192,253 Fanning discusses "inceptive imperfects" such as
Matt 4:11: "and angels came (aorist) and began to minister (imperfect)
to him". Regarding such examples he wrote (191,192): "This involves
the close collocation of two verbs denoting sequenced situations such
that the first indicates the beginning-point of the second." This
explanation is clear and logical, so when "angels began ministering to
him", when he "began to pray" Mrk 1:35, and when "he began to teach"
(Luk 5:3), the starting-point of the action IS INCLUDED in the
imperfective verb. My question then is: How can the definition quoted
above stand when we have events where the point of beginning is
included? We may also add conative events, where the action is just
attempted and hardly can be viewed "from within the action". These
questions are not just of theoretical interest, but they may have a
bearing both on translation and on whether Greek perfect is a third
aspect or not. So I hope to get comments from several geeks.

Regarding the words "began to minister" in Matt 4:11 you wrote:

<I take "began" as past, and following the usual distinctions in
<English I would agree that the action of beginning is completed...
<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).

I understand your problems because a translator always must think of
his target group. Regarding aspect it also illustrates that Greek
aspect is very different from anything in English. That we must use
"began" which is "completed" (thus having characteristics of
perfectivity) plus an implicature, based on the Aktionsart of the
verbs, illustrates this. An example with minimal pairs also
illustrates that English tend to use Aktionsart where Greek uses
aspect: The verb "teach" has durative Aktionsart, so the clause "he
began to teach" can only be interpreted as continuing with the end not
reached. However, the verb "speak" may be punctiliar or durative, so
the clause "he began to speak" may be interpreted in both ways ("He
began to speak and continued for ten minites" versus "He began to
speak but stopped after saying just one word.") If my examples are
good, the word "began" only implies durativity if the Aktionsart of
the following verb is durative. In Greek it is the imperfective form
of the verb that, not only implies durativity, but demands it. So I
will again stress what may be called "the translation fallacy": trying
to understand Greek aspects by the way they are translated into
English or any other language.


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

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