Re: The Mysterious Disappearance of Verb Aspect

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Apr 15 1998 - 07:13:58 EDT

At 10:18 PM -0500 4/14/98, Eric Weiss wrote:
>Re: George/'s discussion/disagreement/argument with
>Carl Conrad:
>Not to quell discussion or dissent, but I have learned over my couple
>years on B-Greek that - to paraphrase an E.F. Hutton commercial - "When
>Carl Conrad speaks, everybody listens!"
>When he nixes or disagrees with a point or suggestion or "insight" I
>make, I conclude it's probably pretty much a dead horse, and I don't try
>to beat it anymore. When he agrees with or supports what I - a "little
>Greek" - have to say or ask, I feel blessed and encouraged. Both are
>good learning experiences, and I appreciate his willingness to respond
>at length to any question, great or small.

I appreciate Eric's comment very much and I am grateful for other such
statements both on and off the list. I would not comment on it except that
I am sufficiently emboldened by it to say something about what I personally
have felt has been at stake in the current exchange.

God knows I have been wrong on several issues on which I have expressed an
opinion on this list, and I have probably expressed myself more forcefully
on some matters of opinion than I had a right to do. Yet I do think that I
know the difference between what is a matter of opinion and what is a
matter of demonstrable fact; my conviction is that the fundamental doctrine
of ancient Greek verb morphology and the meanings associated with the
different inflections of the verb is a matter of fact rather than of

Having said that, let me add that there are matters that I think are
currently in process of methodological investigation and on which most
serious people who work regularly with ancient Greek would not want to be

(1) The most serious of these is surely the whole area of aspect; although
I am not what has been termed quite regularly on this list an "aspect geek"
(which is, I take it, a playful self-appellation with a bit of conscious
irony to it for those who have been involved, however intensely, in the
nuanced differentiation of aspectual meanings of Koine Greek verbs in
context); I'd like to think that a consensus on aspect may emerge within
the next couple decades, but my impression is that it is far from a settled
matter as yet. Despite that seething ferment over the fine points of
aspect, however, I think that the basic doctrine of tense and aspect
differentiation and associated meanings in the ancient Greek present,
aorist, and perfect systems is solidly grounded in demonstrable fact, and
it is clearly wrong and misleading to assert that an indicative aorist
normally refers to anything but an actual event in past time.

(2) There is enough evidence to hypothesize, at least, that the perfect and
pluperfect tenses were falling into increasing disuse in the Koine, even if
not in the formal writing of major literary figures (and we know that, so
far as formal literature is concerned, the Atticist movement of the second
century stayed that process considerably and had its impact even upon
patristic literature)--and that there appears some reason to think that the
aorist was being used to represent much the same sense of completed action
or stative meanings more normally associated with the perfect and
pluperfect tenses. In Latin the perfect and aorist fused into a single
tense bearing both possible meanings before the earliest literary Latin,
and Latin had an increasing influence upon Koine Greek as the eastern
Mediterranean became subject to Roman governing authority, armies, and
commercial organizations (including tax-collection companies, the infamous
PUBLICANI). My impression is that this is a tendency that is recognized in
the Koine but that probably has not as yet been resolved adequately by
methodical exploration of the evidence. And I suspect that this process of
assimilation of aorist and perfect is entangled in the sorts of studies
that are being carried on by scholars in the field of Greek aspect.

My point here, ultimately, is that I am firmly convinced that the basic
doctrine of Greek verb tenses and aspects is NOT a matter of opinion but a
matter of demonstrable fact. And that is why I have, as Edgar has put it,
been "fastidious" about what I see as mis-statement and misrepresentation
of essential elements of Greek grammar. I have not wanted to claim
"authority" for the positions I've taken in this discussion; what I have
wanted to do rather is to re-state firmly the essential facts, most
particularly about the formation and meaning of aorist indicatives. I
apologize to the list that this has continued on for so long, particularly
after I twice said I would drop it, but I have not wanted to let
misrepresentation stand.

And that, I hope, will be enough--enough so that further discussion of this
topic will be carried on by those parties interested OUTSIDE of this list.
Thanks for your patience.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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