Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Wed May 14 1997 - 16:28:46 EDT

At 8:03 AM 5/14/97, Rolf Furuli wrote:
>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.

Not having read Fanning myself, I will take the very presumptious position
of suggesting that you are misunderstanding him. If I understand your
citations of Fanning correctly, he is saying that in a passage like Matt
4:11 the first verb represents the beginning of the second action (i.e.
"came" is the beginning point of "were ministering"), and from this
viewpoint the inception of the second action is *not* included in the
imperfect--which would allow his definition to stand. I don't know whether
he would translate the imperfect in Matt 4:11 using "began", but by this
reasoning he should not. If it is unavoidable for sensible Eng., then I
gather he would say that the "began" is coming from the first verb, not
from the 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.

I would certainly agree that we should not try to understand Greek aspects
through their translation into a target language. However, I still think it
is exaggeration to say that *nothing* in Eng. is like Greek aspect. Your
argument about "began" is interesting. I would say that the use of this
word to indicate an inceptive imperfect is a curious example of lexical
meaning being used to express grammatical meaning. What you say about
"began" being perfective is true of course, but I think we ignore this
"aspect" of the word and use it simply to indicate--from a somewhat crude
lexical perspective--the grammatical inception which we are assigning to
the imperfect. I.e., the grammatical features of "began" itself are
insignificant; it is being used solely as a grammatical indicator, much as
we use "will" to indicate the Eng. future (probably because will = intent,
which is futuristic).

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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