RE: Present Tense

From: Dale M. Wheeler (
Date: Tue Nov 02 1999 - 14:48:45 EST

<x-flowed>Sorry that I haven't been able to respond to some of the other questions
raised by my initial post, but other things have gotten in the way.

Stephen has suggested that the Aorist is also a "zero aspect" tense (if I
understood him correctly), and Dennis seems to agree. Personally I can't
see any reason to abandon the traditional idea that the Aorist is *not* a
zero-aspect tense, rather it's aspect is (pick your favorite) external,
simple, snap-shot, punctiliar, etc. Personally, I tend to think of the
Aorist as putting boundaries on verbs or affirming the boundaries already
contained in the verb's lexis; the more boundless the verb is (eg.,
activities), the more compressed the resultant Aktionsart in a particular
passage ends up being. The Imperfect, on the other hand, tends to knock
the boundaries off of a verb's lexis, which tends to result in a contextual
Aktionsart of stretching, repetition, and linearity (depending on the
verb's lexis).

When I say "zero-aspect" tense of the present, I mean that it does none of
the above; it does NOTHING. The present simply allows whatever the lexis
of the verb is to come through and interact with whatever contextual
factors might be present (eg., adverbs of time, place; other lexical
factors; etc.). This is why you get in syntax books virtually every
aspectual category found in the Aorist, Imperfect, and Perfect all applied
to the Present; what the syntax books are seeing is NOT aspect at all but
Lexis and contextual factors.

Stephen also suggested that my analysis might be flawed because I was
translating into English and comparing to German and Hebrew, and suggested
that we need to look at Greek from the standpoint of Greek. My observation
is that no one today is in a position to truly evaluate Koine Greek from a
Koine speaker's perspective (unless its Carl, and I suspect that he would
deny any such ability); I don't think that this is what Stephen was
intending, but I think its important that we have an appropriate view of
our abilities and limitations when it comes to truly understanding Koine as
non-Koine speakers. The reason I suggested the German and Hebrew parallels
was because most of the Profs on this list know those languages well enough
to make comparisons between what human beings who happened to speak Greek
do to communicate ideas, with what human beings who happen to speak these
other languages do. And that is actually the bottom line in all linguistic
research, unless the language is living and your a native speaker. The way
linguists in general come at the issue of what a language is doing with,
for example, its verbal system, is to look at universally shared concepts
and then see how the target language handles those concepts vis-a-vis other
languages. For example, when it come to verbs, there are certain things
that are in general shared by all humans, regardless of time and
place. So, the idea of "to hit" as a *pure* lexis is the same for
everyone, its a punctual; "to run" is an unbounded activity. Then we look
at what languages do to condition that lexis via aspect and other factors
to create a specific Aktionsart in a specific utterance. This is what I'm
trying to do with Koine; there is nothing illegitimate about doing the
comparison to other languages, as long as the prior universal understanding
exists and you do a broad enough comparison to different types of languages
in order to see how others have handled this universal idea. This same idea
lies at the foundation of why I've come to think that in understanding any
language's verbal system, the researcher MUST start with lexis, and THEN
look at how aspect is used by speakers to modify and portray a verb's lexis
in a particular context. Lexis is not only universal (in general; there
are of course certain cultural, etc., factors that need to be taken into
consideration in certain situations), but, I feel that it is the foundation
of what is attempting to be communicated by any speaker; ie., speakers
*start* with a lexical meaning they wish to communicate and *then* choose
how to portray it in terms of aspect, time, etc., not the other way around
(which is why so much of popular preaching and exposition for the past 50
years has been backwards, ie., students were taught to start with aspect,
not lexis). So if we are going to try to describe the Koine Greek verbal
aspect system, we need to come at it the way that the native speakers did,
not vice versa.

One final thing that Stephen suggests with respect to the non-temporal
model; since it treats all the moods the same, ie., as aspectual and not
temporal, its in a better position to explain the tense usage of
Koine. The main problem that I see with this part of the non-temporal
model is that Greek verbs are grammaticalized in the indicative for past
and future time. It is my observation in various languages that speakers
tend to get rid of unnecessary elements as quickly as possible (eg., case
endings in English, word endings in French, etc.), and the fact that this
grammaticalization survived from the Classical thru Hellenistic thru Koine
thru Patristic thru Byzantine Greek tells me that it *meant* something,
namely it specified time (which is *not* saying the same thing as all the
events portrayed by past tense forms MUST occur in the past...we are, after
all, talking about portrayal and other contextual factors which result in
the Aktionsart of a specific passage). The fact that the Present is not
grammaticalized could either mean that it was unnecessary by contrast with
the other tenses, or, that the Present not only has no aspect, but it also
has no time (frankly, I'm not opposed to jettisoning the idea of time with
respect to the Present form...but I'm still cogitating on that one).


Dale M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Research Professor in Biblical Languages Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan Street Portland, OR 97220
Voice: 503-251-6416 FAX:503-251-6478 E-Mail:

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