Re: Aspect defs. (long)

From: Rod Decker (
Date: Mon Aug 04 1997 - 07:07:24 EDT

I'm going to squeeze two responses in here, one to Rolf and one to Clayton.

First, Rolf said that:
>A definition of
>the imperfective aspect should be compatible with all the uses of this
>aspect (or be the common denominator), but this is hardly the case with the
>above definition.
>The most important objection is that the beginning often is included in the
>imperfective aspect.

I would suggest that this confuses semantics and pragmatics. All my def.
requires is that any emph. on the "beginning" is _not grammaticalized_, but
comes from the context. Thus the def. of imperfective gives the semantics
of the form while the use of that form in a particular may implicate
specific pragmatic features (such as inceptive, connative, etc.). Otherwise
there is no basis for defining when an imperfective form is one or the
other of these. ("Without regard for" does not mean that the beginning
cannot be included, but that it is not mandated by the form.)

This is similiar to how I would respond to Clayton's objection:

>Why should we invent new semantic rules for verb forms?
>The genitive noun has a wide range of semantic values and
>communication is still possible. The definite article has
>a range of semantic values and communication is still
>possible. Why should we think that a verb form has only
>one semantic value? Are verbs special? Do they have a
>whole different set of semantic rules from the rest of

I've addressed that issue as follows. (As before, I may not have time for a
long interchange, but I'm reading--and appreciating--any and all comments,

[Again, first draft status; notes at end:]

One of the more significant arguments raised against an aspectual approach
(and by implication against a timeless view of the verb<1>) is Silva's
protest against the root fallacy. He suggests that the biblical theology
movement's illegitimate infatuation with root meanings of words and the
historical approach to the cases, both popular earlier in this century,
ought to caution against a similar methodological error in regard to the
verb.<2> "If we recognize that semantic information conveyed by the cases
can be strikingly diverse, can we expect to come up with a definition of
verbal aspect that is invariant or unexceptionable?"<3>

This is a significant caution. There is, however, a solution to the
problem. Louw has discussed the matter carefully in relation to the cases
and the parallel situation of the verb forms may be handled in the same
fashion. Louw begins by observing that traditional discussions of the cases
endeavored to find either the Grundbedeutung der Kausformen (basic meaning
of the case form) or the Gebrauchsumfang (range of use). This was done
diachronically by examining the various contextual uses and assuming that
the most common use of the case was the basic meaning of that case. The
disagreements regarding this basic meaning arose due to this attempt to use
diachronic data to explain synchronic facts. By contrast, structural
linguistics, although employing the terminology "fundamental meaning" in
relation to the cases, seeks something quite different. The goal here is to
define the ~potential~ of the case: "defining the essence of a case in
terms of a principle or a conception within the range of which the various
usages can be explained. This 'essence of a case' is not a meaning of
the case, but its ~semantic function in the sentence~." The goal is to
define the semantics of the case, not its syntactic or contextual function
(i.e., pragmatics). Most grammars, however, offer syntactic descriptions
when defining each case; that is, they make pragmatic statements where a
semantic one is needed.<4>

In grammar, the root fallacy is a matter of pragmatic not semantic
definition. As the cases may legitimately have a semantic value despite
diverse pragmatic functions, so the verb forms may be defined in similar
fashion.<5> The semantic value of the aorist form is that of perfective
aspect; of present and imperfect forms, imperfective; and of perfect and
pluperfect, stative. This aspect value is the semantic potential which the
verb form contributes to the statement. The pragmatic function of these
forms adds temporal implicatures and Aktionsart values based on lexis and
context. These additional factors explain why no "root meaning" is possible
at this syntactic level. This accounts for the "exceptions" which are
necessary in traditional approaches to the verb. Since the verb forms were
often defined in terms of temporal and syntactic function, no consistency
of meaning was possible. Values were assigned on the basis of the most
common use, necessitating exceptions to explain those that did not conform
to the definition. A semantic definition based on verbal aspect avoids this


<1> Wallace lists this as one of his objections to a nontemporal view of
the verb. His argument is that the temporal reference is necessary to
explain instances such as the historical present in which the verb's aspect
is "entirely suppressed" (Grammar, 510, see also 508-11). It is not clear,
however, that the semantic potential of aspect is ever "suppressed." A
variety of uses at the level of pragmatics often results in instances in
which the force of the aspectual component combines with many other
factors, but the semantic element must remain or there is nothing with
which to combine these other factors.

<2> Regarding the lexical root fallacy, see the classic volume by J. Barr,
The Semantics of Biblical Language, as well as D. A. Carson, Exegetical
Fallacies, 27-64; P. Cotterell and M. Turner, Linguistics and Biblical
Interpretation, 106-25; Silva, God, Language and Scripture, 86-97; and
idem, Biblical Words and Their Meanings, 17-51. Regarding the historical
approach to the cases as evidenced, e.g., in Robertson, Grammar, 446-543,
see J. Louw, "Linguistic Theory and the Greek Case System," Acta Classica 9
(1966): 73-88; E. Nida, Linguistic Interludes, 78-79; Silva, God, Language
and Scripture, 102-11; and Porter, Idioms, 80-83.

<3> M. Silva, "Response," 79. Wallace echoes the same sentiment (Grammar,

<4> J. Louw, "Linguistic Theory," 73-88, the quote is from 76; Louw cites
the German terminology from Brugmann's Griechische Grammatik, 436. Louw
suggests the following semantic definitions for the cases. The nominative
expresses "the mere nominal stem," the genitive restriction, the dative
togetherness, and the accusative "denotes relation to the constructional
chain without defining the relation" (Louw, "Linguistic Theory," 79-83).

<5> Porter explains his approach in similar fashion: "I am primarily
concerned with defining the essential semantic component(s) of tense usage
in Greek, i.e. use of the tense forms at the level of code or network which
allows various pragmatic manifestations at the level of text" (PVA, 82).


 Rodney J. Decker Baptist Bible Seminary
 Asst. Prof./NT P O Box 800 Clarks Summit PA 18411 USA

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