Re: Aktionsart vs. Aspect

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu May 15 1997 - 11:32:52 EDT

Don Wilkins wrote:

<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

Dear Don,

Regarding Fanning I would like to stress that I respect him and that
he in a book of such high quality is contradicting himself is out of
the question. Perhaps I misunderstand him. What is clear, however, is
that he uses the definition of imperfectivity and perfectivity that is
standard in the linguistic literature, and applies this to the Greek
verbal system. This definition seems to fit most cases, but not all,
and I reasoned that Fanning used it rather "roughly", because his task
was to describe the empirical material in the NT rather than what was

Regardless of the view of Fanning, we have the empirical material:
several passages with an aorist followed by an imperfect. Your
explanation above is of course possible, and would save the
definition, but I think it is somewhat forced. It is difficult to see
how the act "he sat down" is the beginning of "he began to teach/he
was teaching" (Luke 5:3) and similarly in Matt 4:11.

Linguists sometimes speak of a third aspect - the neutral one (Cf
Carlota Smith,1991, The Parameter of Aspect 119-, this was also once
mentioned by Mari). While the perfective is thought to include both
endpoints and the imperfective neither, the neutral aspect includes
one endpoint, and may either be interpreted as open ("imperfective")
or closed ("perfective") Smith gives a French example: "Jean chantera
quand Marie entrera dans le bureau" It may either be interpreted as
"Jean will be singing when Marie will enter the office" (open), or
"Jean will begin to sing when Marie will enter the office." I cannot
see how this neutral aspect may be applied to Greek, which has two (or
three) grammaticalized aspects which are lacking in English and also
in French. So I think - and this is what I want to discuss with the
geeks - that Greek has only two aspects, one perfective and one
imperfective, and to account for all the empirical material these are
in need of a slight redefinition.

<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).

I agree, except that I dont find the Greek aspects in English, only
what is seen through them, to use the illustration of a lense. The
combination of closed and open readings to express imperfective events
in the past need not be strange. In Biblical Aramaic, which is
strictly aspectual, perfect (perfective aspect) is used together with
the participle to express ongoing action in the past, and the same is
true of Syriac, which evolved from Aramaic but lost the aspects. Even
Biblical Hebrew occationally use this construction, and it is very
productive in Mishna Hebrew where aspect is completely lost.


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

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