RE: Tense and Aspect Definitions

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Tue Mar 09 1999 - 07:41:27 EST

Dear Alan and Jonathan,

I found your posts interesting, and I would just like to focus on one
single point which for the most part is neglected in discussions of aspect
- although it was implied by Alan's post- namely, the relationship between
aspect and time. I believe that the best way to come to grips with the
opposition "subjective/objective" as applied to aspect, is to become
absorbed in the question about aspect and time.

A fine starting point is the book of Mari. Honestly speaking, I have never
seen anything better than her privative model for the study of dead
languages where informants are lacking. The fundamental *semantic*
properties she proposes for describing the "vendlerian categories" (her
"lexical aspect"), namely, (+durative), (+dynamic), and (+telic), and tense
(+past) and (+future), are intuitively understood in all languages, thus
being universal. Without reservation these can be applied to the study of
Greek and Hebrew verbs.

Her model for aspect (her "grammatical aspect"), with (+perfective) and
(+imperfective), the difference being that in the imperfective aspect
reference time (RT) intersects event time (ET) at the necleus while in the
perfective aspect RT intersects ET at the coda (end), seems to work
excellently for English. However, her definition of what is imperfective
and perfective is not intuitively recognized in different languages and
cannot therefore be universal. I use her whole model in my study of Hebrew
and Greek verbs by applying the fundamental semantic properties of "lexical
aspect" and "tense" in a deductive-nomologic way (just as if the were laws
of nature in the explanans of a syllogism), but her properties of aspect I
apply in a hypothetic- deductive way. This means that I use her definitions
of what is imperfective and perfective as a point of reference, while
working out a scheme of where RT intersects ET in Greek and Hebrew.

Mari's view of aspect is what I will call objective, i.e. the combination
of aspect and tense tells us something definite about the nature of the
situation described. Let us use the verb "walk" as an example. The event
"walk" has a beginning, and end, and there is a phase between these. The
time from the beginning to the end is the event time (ET), and this time is
non-deictic, i.e. it has no particular relationship to speech time or
another point of time. Tense is on the other hand deictic, the reference
time of (+past) comes before the deictic point (C) , and (+future) comes
after the deictic point, while present tense coincides with the deictic
point (past tense RT>C, present tense (RT=C), and future tense C>RT).

Tense is clearly a semantic (uncancelable) property, and if this also is
the case with aspect (something it must be if it is objective), then the
combination of tense and aspect always gives the same results. I am not an
expert of English, but it seems to me that Mari's scheme for the English
verb is consistent and logical. This is so because the RT of
(+imperfective) in English always intersects ET at the nucleus and the RT
of (+perfective) always intersects ET at the coda.
Two examples:
The combination of (+future) and (+imperfective) gives future progressive
"I will be walking".
((+future) tells that the event occurs after C and (+imperfective) tells
that the event continues after the point where RT intersects ET.)
The combination of (+future) and (+perfective) gives future perfect "I will
have walked".
((+future) tells that the event occurs after C and (+perfective) tells that
the event does not continue after the point where RT intersects ET.)

When I apply this model to Hebrew, I find that (+imperfective) and
(+perfective) in this language is completely different from English. Any
event in the past, present or future can be expressed by both aspects, and
it is not possible by the help of the aspect *alone* to know whether an
event is terminated or continues. The only possible conclusion to draw is
that aspect in Hebrew is subjective and that the English definition of
aspect must be substantially modified. As to Greek I find the same
situation as in Hebrew: RT does not always intersect ET at the nucleus in
imperfective aspects and at the coda in perfective aspects, although the
subjective choices are much more restricted in Greek due to a more
complicated verbal system with more members than in Hebrew.

My intention was not no argue for a special aspectual viewpoint, but to
point out that all who work with Greek aspect ought to be aware of the
opposition subjective/objective and work hard to come to grips with it. Let
me conclude with an example for the consideration of those interested,
namely Jude 1:14:


This is a prophecy which must refer to the future. How should we translate
HLQEN? I agree with Mari that aorist is not a past tense but only the
perfective aspect. If now, we view aspect as semantic, and aorist is
perfective with RT intersecting ET at the coda, there is just one way to
translate HLQEN, namely as a future perfect "the Lord will have come with
his holy myriads". However, if we view aspect as subjective, we could
either translate the clause as future "the Lord will come with his holy
myriads" or as future perfect "the Lord will have come with his holy
myriads", or perhaps even as past tense (provided we signal a retrospective
viewpoint) "The Lord came with his holy myriads.". But how many thinks of
the subjective/objective nature of aspect when doing translating work? So
fellow students of Greek: Become absorbed in the question about whether
there is a particular relationship between aspect and time!


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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