Re: (longish) aktionsart and subjective

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Fri Mar 27 1998 - 09:21:01 EST

Mari Broman Olsen writes

<On subjectivity, this feature is often used to distinguish tense from
<aspect, not because the interpretation of the forms is subjective (I
<would argue it is not, at its semantic core), but because the choice
<of the forms is, in a broader way than tense. That is, if a speaker
<wants to assert (semantically) that an event is fast, she uses a past
<form. However she can choose to present the same past event as
<completed (perfective), ongoing-at-the-time (imperfective) or neutral
<(unmarked). THat choice depends on how she wants to weave it into the
<discourse (fore- or background, e.g.). Once having chosen
<(subjectively) the presentation, the interpretation of the particular
<form chosen is constrained objectively by its semantics.

This explanation of subjectivity is completely sound in relation to Mari`s
linguistic model, however, I will argue that it does not fit Greek well.
Even Bernard Comrie, 1976 p 18, "Aspect" , who does not draw the clear
distinction between aspect and Aktionsart as we do on b-greek, says in his
general discussion of the perfective aspect that "The use of "completed",
however, puts too much emphasis on the termination of the situation". He
himself uses "complete" instead.

Says Fanning about subjectivity (pp 31,34): "ASPECT involves a way of
viewing the action; reflects the subjective conception or portrayal by the
speaker; focusses on the speaker`s representation of the action (..) "the
"subjectivity" of the aspects had been exaggerated. The fully free choice
of the speaker to portray an action by any aspect occurs only in a limited
range of situations" I understand Fanning to mean that in a limited range
of situations is the author free to choose any aspect, and it follows that
in these situations ( and others for that matter) need not the choice of
aspect tell us anything about the *objective* nature of the event or state.
It is difficult for me to reconcile this with a definition of perfectivity
as "completed" and imperfectivity as "ongoing at the time."

It is true that most situations in the NT where the perfective aorist is
used, are completed, and those where the imperfective imperfect and present
are used. are/were ongoing. But there are many exceptions. Regarding the
completed situations we could ask: Why are they objectively*completed*.
Regardless of whether we view the aorist as having an intrinsic past
meaning or not, it is a fact that most situations expressed by verbs in the
aorist are completed. So I ask: Is there not a connection between what is
completed and past time? Are not situations which are completED past in
relation to something, either to speech time or to some other point of
time? I do not deny that the *aspect" (and other factors) can contribute to
signal the *completedness*, but which factors are doing what. The aorist
either has intrinsic past time, or is primarily used in past contexts. so
it is possible that the "time factor" is the primary cause for the
completedness seen in so many situations.

 We cannot argue against this that we also have an imperfective aspect
primarily used with past meaning, and therefore must the difference be
aspectual. I think that the main difference between the imperfect and the
aorist is aspectual, but aspects need not be equipollent (although I
believe they are in Greek), and more important, there are other definitions
than "completed/ongoing" that can account for the differences.

Mark 12:41,44 are examples where "ongiong action" is problematic as a
definition for the imperfective aspect. Verse 41 says that "many rich
people *throw* (EBALLON, imperfect) many coins". V 44 says that "for they
all *throw* (EBALON, aorist) out of their surplus" In v 41 both the subject
and object are plural, suggesting ongoing action. However, also in v 44 is
the subject plural, and so is also the implied object, a fact which no less
suggests ongoing action. The only reason why we would interprete EBALON in
v 44 as completed is our definition of aorist as completed, but such a
stand is of course circular. (Further examples: Fanning 257-259)

Rom 12:14,17,21 are examples where "completed" is problematic as a
definition of the perfective aspect:
"but death *rule* (EBASILEUSEN, aorist) from Adam until Moses"
"death *rule* (EBASILEUSEN, aorist) through that one"
"just as the sin *rule* (EBASILEUSEN, aorist) in death"
While the context exhorts men to break free from the rule of sin and death,
that rule continues to this day (6:23), so how could the rule have been
*completed* in the days of Paul?
 Heb 4:4 shows that "God *rest* (KATEPAUSEN) on the seventh day", and the
argument of the chapter is that this rest still continued when the epistle
was written. So how could the rest have been *completed*?
One example of the perfect where the end is not included is Heb 11:17 "by
faith Abraham (..) *offer* (PROSENHVOCEN, perfect) Isaac" (The parallel
conative aorist *offer* (PROSEFEREN) suggests that the perfect means that
Abraham "as good as offered Isaac" but did not complete it.
Could someone defending the "completed/ongoing action"-definition please
comment on these examples?

I conclude with Fanning that *subjectivity* as a designation of aspect
implies that we cannot construe the objective nature of an event or state
from the choice of aspect; the aspectual choice is more or less free and
only represents a particular stress, or that a particular part of the
situation is made visible for the viewer.


Rolf Furuli
lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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