Re: (longish) The Mysterious Disappearance of Verb Aspect

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sun Apr 12 1998 - 07:21:18 EDT

Clayton Stirling Bartholomew writes,

>When the "meaning" of a verb's aspect is considered together with lexical
>meaning of the word and all the other semantic information provided by the
>higher levels of discourse, it seems to melt into insignificance. That is the
>meaning of the aspect alone seems to be so over powered by the other carriers
>of meaning that it is almost as if the aspectual marking of the verb is some
>kind of ghost that one cannot quite see.
>In Chapter 3 of Fanning (Verb Aspect). On Page 163, under 3.2 "The Effect of
>Compositional Elements on Aspectual Function", Fanning states ". . . the
>overall meaning of the aspects can be greatly influenced by other elements
>used in composition with the verb." This seems like a innocent statement. But
>having read the rest of the chapter up to that point, I was more inclined to
>modify his statement so that it would read: ". . . the overall meaning of the
>aspects *is nearly eclipsed* by other elements used in composition with
>the verb."
>It seems that verb aspect is kind of a shadowy being and when it is surrounded
>by it's stronger siblings like lexical semantics and discourse semantics it is
>hard to see, almost not there.

Dear Clay,

I understand your confusion regarding the different comments and
explanations of aspect, but I think you start in the wrong end. You see it
through the eyes of Greek students of the 20th century, but we should
rather start with the author. Writing is communication! The author of Acts
had for instance a story to tell, and to achive his goal he used different
lexical, grammatical, syntactical and pragmatic means. The combination of
these (their sum) is communication. True, some factors are more important
in particular contexts and others are the principal ones in other contexts.
But an author will hardly use combinations of factors which are mutually
exclusive or use some factors which have little or no meaning. So if our
definition of Greek present, aorist, imperfect and the others cannot
account for the use of particular verbs in particular contexts, the
definition needs a revision. We should be suspicious at a definition with
many exceptions.

Both in Hebrew and Greek are the aspects the superior concepts under which
the voices and the moods are subsumed. It is difficult to believe that the
very frame of the whole verbal system is insignificant. Time and again I
have tried to point to the real problem with aspects, namely that they are
defined in Aktionsart terms, and even Fanning who goes very far in the
right direction, is not free from confusion here. The problem with the
Aktionsart definition of aspect is that aspects are viewed as objective
properties, and because of this "the overall meaning of aspects *is nearly
eclipsed*" as you say, when aspect meets real Aktionsart.

But why not cultivate the view that aspects are real *subjective*
viewpoints just as modality, and see where this leads us. I think aspect is
much closer to mood than to Aktionsart. The modal opposition is between a
real and an irreal (imagined) world. This opposition is absent in aspect,
although a combination of aspect and mood can be used as a powerful
communicative tool. The principal similarity between mood and aspect in my
mind, is that both are completely detached from the verbal action and in no
way communicate the nature of this action. We can give a detailed
description of a situation in the indicative mood, and then change the mood
to the effect that we signal that we just hope that this situation will
materialize. And this we can do without altering *any* part indicating the
nature of the situation.

(1) Indicative: "John is a murderer. Yesterday he was caught and put to jail"
(2) Subjunctive: "(John is a murderer). Must/may he be caught and put to jail"

The Aktionsart is similar in (1) and (2) (there is ongoing action); the
"procedural traits" (telicity/non-telicity) are also similar; both
situations are complete. In addition to a realis/irrealis difference, there
is a temporal difference because of the past tense of (1); so (1) is
completed but (2) is just complete.

In a similar way do I claim that the imperfective and perfective aspect is
completely detached from verbal action and in no way does aspect signal the
Aktionsart or the procedural traits of the situation, whether it is/was
ongoing, complete, completed, punctiliar, durative or the like. These
characteristics can adequately be expressed by other tools. So just as mood
is an *extra* characteristic, so is also aspect. It introduces a certain
distance and scope related to the situation and makes a part of it visible
for inspection. Let me add that this is not always easy seen in Greek
because of the augment which seems to signal past time. If two important
verbal characteristics are combined in the same morphological form (past
time + imperfectivity in imperfect and possibly past time + perfectivity in
aorist) it is difficult to know which factor is responsible for which
effect. I believe the augment is responsible for a good many of the effects
which are interpreted as aspectual.

I have made similar observations as you, of the seemingly insignificant
nature of aspect when I teach Accadian. Because the same cuneiform sign can
mean different things and because of much assimilation, it is not always
easy to see if a verb is imperfective or perfective. The normal procedure
is that the student finds the lexical meaning of the words, makes a
syntactical analysis, looks at the context, and then translates the clause.
For his or her translation into Norwegian (or English) he or she seemingly
does not need the aspect. So I often have to ask which aspect is used, and
then the student takes a new look and can figure out the finer nuances of
the text, because aspect can be a strong tool for the communication of
these finer nuances.

By way of conclusion I will say that if I had started with Greek I doubt if
I ever would have viewed the Greek aspects as subjective viewpoints
completely detached from verbal action, even though the reference grammars
in many respects are so confusing and contradictory. But having worked with
Semitic languages for a long time, this is a natural model to test. It may
be wrong to apply it to Greek, but its advantage, it seems to me, is its
explanatory force, there are no exceptions. But I realize that brains which
are immersed in Norwegian or English thinking have difficulties with the


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:39:23 EDT