Rosetta Stone of Verb Aspect

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sun Aug 03 1997 - 17:04:03 EDT

On Sun, 03 Aug 1997 11:45 Clayton Bartholomew wrote:

<Thanks to Jonathan for the Rosetta Stone. Looking it over, one thing
<jumps out at me. Most of the recent models seem to have relegated the
<*future* to a kind of orphan status. This gives me reason to doubt the
<general validity of these models. If you have to send a major component
<of the verb system into permanent exile to make your model work then it
<is time to go back to the drawing table and start over. This is where I
<think we are headed. I think we are going to discover that Porter and
<Fanning are simply wrong, not about details but their basic approach is

Dear Clayton,

It is always fine to test old and new theories as you suggest.
Morphologically speaking there are 4 different verbal conjugations in Greek
but only two aspects. I will not in this posting make any diachronic
observations but rather make some camparative observations (with the
Semitic family) suggesting that the position of future in Greek is not so
bad after all.

In biblical Hebrew there are two aspects, the imperfective prefix aspect
and the perfective suffix aspect (I count imperfect consecutive as normal
imperfect and perfect consecutive as normal perfect). These two aspects
were used for past, present and future. In the Christian era the element of
time became more important, and the two aspects evolved into a tense system
(Mishnaic Hebrew) where the perfective aspect changed to past tense, the
imperfective aspect to future tense and the participle served as present
tense. The aspectual force was completely lost. The same tense system is
also found in modern Hebrew.

Biblical Aramaic belong to the same Semitic branch as Hebrew. It is also
completely aspectual and both aspects are used for past, present and
future. It is, however, different from Hebrew because the participle is
used to a greater extent, not as a present tense, but alone and in
compounds with finite verbs, often giving a durative flavour to the aspects
(NB: aspects are not durative/punctiliar but viewpoints). Aramaic evolved
into different Syriac dialects, and basically they have a system similar to
Mischnaic Hebrew, the difference being that the participle in addition to
present tense also could signify the near future, and the imperfect more
often would have a modal force rather than only future meaning. The perfect
for the most part had past meaning, but could also have present meaning.
The aspectual force of the Aramaic system was not completely lost.

Accadian constitute a branch of its own. It has a suffix conjugation which
is called Stative (substantives and adjectives may also be parsed in
Stative by adding pronominal suffixes). It has three prefix conjugations,
one of them with an infix is called Perfect, and the two others are called
Present and Preterite.
In this aspectual language there are four different conjugations. In my
judgement Present and Preterite are both imperfective, the difference being
basically modal, the relation of the Stative to the perfective aspect is
difficult, ond so is also the relation between the Perfect and the
imperfective aspect.Past time is often expressed by the Preterite or
Perfect but Present may also be used, present time is often expressed by
Present but the Preterite or Perfect may also be used. Future time is most
often expressed by the Present

GeĢez (Classical Ethiopic) has some similarity with Arabic and South
Arabic. In GeĢez there are two prefix conjugations called Present and
Subjunctive and one suffix conjugation called Perfect. The language is
aspectual, the Perfect being perfective and Present and Subjunctive being
imperfective, the latter also modal. There are many modern Ethiopic
languages, the most important being Amharic, and these have evolved tense
systems in principle similar to Mischnaic Hebrew. Thus we see that
aspectual systems tend to be changed into tense systems, and even old
related aspectual systems may be different, as with Hebrew and Aramaic
which have two conjugations and Accadian which has four.

In the first centuries CE we find side by side Mischnaic Hebrew, which had
evolved into a strict and simple tense system, Syriac which had evolved
into a more complicated tense system without loosing all aspectuality, and
GeĢez which had a strict aspectual system. This tells me that there need
not be any problems with a Greek model having four conjugations, on being a
tense, one a state and two being aspects. Aspectual languages may evolve in
many different directions.
I believe that the model of Fanning and Porter is the best we can make at
present. A diachronic discussion of the verbal system would, however be
very interesting. I am not so much worried by the role ascribed to future
as I am of the proposed origin of Perfect, which to me seems to have
affinities both with the imperfective and the perfective aspect and not
only with the perfective, as Fanning suggests.

What are the best diachronic discussions of the Greek verbal systems?


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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