Re: English perfect, Greek perfect

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Jun 05 1998 - 08:08:01 EDT

At 7:19 AM -0400 6/05/98, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>At 03:49 PM 6/4/98 -0400, Rod Decker wrote:
>>Porter has developed McKay's position even more extensively. Although
>>there are areas of disagreement between them, the two discussions are very
>>similar in that both argue for stative aspect being the only semantic value
>>of the perfect form. Porter summarizes: "the Perfect grammaticalizes the
>>state or condition of the grammatical subject as conceived by the speaker.
>>Whether a previous event is alluded to or exists at all is a matter of
>>lexis in context and not part of aspectual semantics." "The stative aspect
>>distances itself from the process itself, referring to the state of the
>>represented process."
>I have two basic problems with this view. The first is that the aorist and
>the perfect are often closely related, and the perfect, in the New
>Testament era, is in the process of disappearing in favor of the aorist. If
>the past event is not a big part of the meaning of the perfect, it is odd
>that the aorist and perfect are often easily exchanged.
>The second difficulty I have with this view is that the Aoristic Perfect
>(aka Historical Perfect) does not stress the current state at all. Consider
>the following examples:
>this [Moses] God ... sent

I've been standing on the bank, wondering whether I really dare or care to
plunge into this fascinating abyss. But what Jonathan says in the first
paragraph cited above perhaps gives me the opening for the point I've been
mulling over since he first posted the question yesterday (he even WARNED
me by phone a day earlier that he was going to post this question!).

I think that endeavors to "grasp" the Koine present perfect and the English
present perfect tend to be frustrating precisely because both are slippery
phenomena subject to wide-ranging manipulation (in this regard I am very
grateful for the input of David Mills--I'm inclined to think that
English-speakers may be the last ones to understand their own language, but
the perspective of a teacher of English as a Second Language is worth a
lot, IMHO, in a discussion such as this), and, whether or not it's true of
English, it is certainly true of the Koine Greek present perfect that it is
in a stage of transition.

It strikes me that some uses of the present perfect in English are really
"indefinite" in the sense that the "passˇ indˇfini" of the Romance
languages are "indefinite" and very much akin to the Greek aorist in
function: "Je suis venu ici aujourd'hui" is simply HLQON ENQADE SHMERON.
Consider three of the examples that David cited from Peter Master's book:

>b. A past experience with current relevance:
> I have already seen that movie.
>c. A very recently completed action:
> Mort has just finished his homework.
>e. With verbs in subordinate clauses of time or condition:
> She won't be satisfied until she has finished another chapter.

I think that (b) and (c) would, I believe, be aorist indicatives in Koinˇ
Greek: TAUTA HDH EIDON ("I already saw that."); NUN EMAQON TI LEGEIS ("Now
I see/have grasped what you mean"), while (e) would require an aorist
subjunctive, PRIN AN ALLO TI GRAYHi ("until she's written something else").

These are very different from those characteristically Johannine
formulations that are clearly Stative and emphasize definitive present
reality: TETELESTAI, "It stands completed"; hO GEGONEN EN AUTWi ZWH HN
(this is the clause as currently divided and edited in UBS4 and NA27; it is
a lot easier to understand than it is to get into English); my stab: "What
exists as creature was life in Him"; hO GEGRAFA GEGRAFA: "I stand by my

I think it is at best extremely difficult to formulate a set of principles
for translation of Koinˇ perfect tenses. Of course Jonathan CLAIMS he
doesn't care how they're translated, he just wants to understand how they
work. It is a terrible thing to have to say, but I rather think that each
instance has to be considered in its own light. It seems to me that what
Rod states above about the positions of Porter and McKay is not quite
adequate to cover those perfects which really could have been formulated as
aorists. I rather think that getting a grip on NT perfect tense forms is
like trying to catch a bird on the wing.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243

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