Re: Is TEMPUS A Part of Greek Grammar?

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Sat Sep 25 1999 - 21:31:44 EDT

<x-flowed>At 04:17 PM 9/25/99 -0400, Jim West wrote:

>We should if we can find an answer that is itself not airy speculation.
>Tell me, please, what signs point in the direction of finding an answer to
>theories of language that lie outside the realm of practice?

I stumbled into aspect theory for a very practical reason: Greek grammars
disagreed as to the meaning of verb forms, and even within a single Greek
grammar there were often very confusing inconsistencies. When I tried to
write a reasonably simple, clear explanation of verb forms for Little Greek
101, I would then do a Gramcord search and find that the examples disproved
the model that I had just written.

The books on aspect that I have read by Fanning, Porter, and Olsen were
centered on how specific passages should be interpreted, and the
argumentation was taken from the passages taken in context. Fanning and
Porter each look at an astonishing number of passages.

I find that Fanning tends to agree fairly well with A.T. Robertson when it
comes to the meaning of specific passages, but Robertson's grammar - while
definitely one of my favorites - is contradictory and hard to understand.
Fanning's treatment of aspect make it much easier for him to give clear
explanations of the meaning of these passages, explaining how and why he
interprets the meaning of the verb forms in a given way.

Aspect is not airy speculation. Most native speakers of English find that
there is a difference between the following verb forms:

A. I walked to the store.
B. I was walking to the store.

These two forms are both past tense, but they differ in aspect - one is
progressive, the other is not. This same difference shows up in the
distinction between Imperfect and Aorist in Greek, and it turns out that
Russian verbs have morphemes that express precisely this difference. Older
Greek grammars like Smyth or Robertson tended to call this distinction
Aktionsart, "kind of action", but they did not distinguish the Aktionsart
that is part of verb's inherent meaning (e.g. "began") from the Aktionsart
that is part of the syntactic form. Fanning and Olsen each make this
distinction clearly. Much of the motivation for the works on aspect in
biblical Greek is to find a consistent interpretation for each verb form,
and to explain how the meaning of the verb form interacts with other
aspects of meaning. To Olsen, the factors in the verb itself that convey
tense and aspect are:

1. Tense: Absolute time with respect to narrative.
2. Lexical Aspect: The aspect that is inherent to the meaning of the verb
3. Syntactic Aspect: The aspect that is inherent to the syntactic form.

To me, it seems obviously necessary to understand these when interpreting a

Porter tends to dismiss tense and look only at aspect. Like you, Jim, I
disagree with Porter's conclusion that tense is not grammaticalized in
Greek verbs. My main gripe with him is not that he is too theoretical, but
that I do not think that Porter gives us a clear theory that could easily
be disproven if it were wrong. My impression was that he said that tense
was conveyed by "context", but he does not go into much depth about *what*
in the context conveys the tense. He looks at many, many passages, and his
intent is to interpret them clearly and consistently. I disagree with his
conclusions, and I do not find that he gives clear guidelines for how to
understand the tense and aspect conveyed by a verb form, but I do think
that his intent is very practical, trying to help people interpret verb

Personally, I love Fanning's analysis of examples, but I think Mari Broman
Olsen's theory is much cleaner. And a clean theory is a very practical
thing, because it helps people like me write simple, consistent
explanations. Of course, her writing is not easy to read, and it should
definitely be compared to older grammars such as Smyth or Robertson instead
of swallowed blindly. But I do think that these works have helped me immensely.


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