Verbal Aspect

Note: Again, a bit off topic, but I’m posting this material to provide a permanent link. Everything here is extracted from Dave Black Online. — HN

These extracts are posted sequentially from Dave’s blog, starting Saturday, October 11 and ending Monday, October 13.

1) In the first, “New Testament Greek Geek” Joshua Covert discusses the confusion engendered by something Rob Plummer said in one of his videos. Read Verbal Aspect and then tell me what I should do. I don’t want to be guilty of being out of sync with modern scholarship, but is there really a standard nomenclature to describe verbal aspect today? It’s all very complex. Maybe you’d like to share your thoughts at your website.

9:58 AM Good morning my intellectual internet amigos!

I hope you saw last’s night announcement about Rod Decker’s textbook. Yes, I’m actually promoting this book even though I’ve written my own beginning Greek grammar. And why not? I’ve always found it interesting to watch how different minds tackle the same problem. Someday, praise God, we’ll no longer have the need to study languages – any language. But in the meantime, we still have to put our collective nose to the old grindstone, and because each of us learns in different ways, we will probably end up using different textbooks. The one thing all of us teachers of Greek have in common is a love for the language and an irrepressible joy when we see our students finally “get it.” But none of us would claim that we have the last word when it comes to grammar or even pedagogy.

This morning I’m still mulling over the matter of verbal aspect. What in the world shall we call the three (or two) aspects? For what it’s worth, Id like to share a few brief comments with you in the hopes of nudging the conversation forward.

1) In the first place, as I read Joshua Covert’s excellent summary of recent approaches to the problem – and the wide variety of terms used to describe the aspects – I’m more convinced than ever that this is a real problem for Greek scholars and students alike, and it’s frankly beautiful to watch the discussion proceed. For our students’ sake (at the very least), we need to work towards some kind of agreement or standardization, don’t you think?

Note: Again, a bit off topic, but I’m posting this material to provide a permanent link. — HN

These extracts are posted sequentially from Dave’s blog, starting Saturday, October 11 and ending Monday, October 13.

1) In the first, “New Testament Greek Geek” Joshua Covert discusses the confusion engendered by something Rob Plummer said in one of his videos. Read Verbal Aspect and then tell me what I should do. I don’t want to be guilty of being out of sync with modern scholarship, but is there really a standard nomenclature to describe verbal aspect today? It’s all very complex. Maybe you’d like to share your thoughts at your website.

9:58 AM Good morning my intellectual internet amigos!

I hope you saw last’s night announcement about Rod Decker’s textbook. Yes, I’m actually promoting this book even though I’ve written my own beginning Greek grammar. And why not? I’ve always found it interesting to watch how different minds tackle the same problem. Someday, praise God, we’ll no longer have the need to study languages – any language. But in the meantime, we still have to put our collective nose to the old grindstone, and because each of us learns in different ways, we will probably end up using different textbooks. The one thing all of us teachers of Greek have in common is a love for the language and an irrepressible joy when we see our students finally “get it.” But none of us would claim that we have the last word when it comes to grammar or even pedagogy.

This morning I’m still mulling over the matter of verbal aspect. What in the world shall we call the three (or two) aspects? For what it’s worth, Id like to share a few brief comments with you in the hopes of nudging the conversation forward.

1) In the first place, as I read Joshua Covert’s excellent summary of recent approaches to the problem – and the wide variety of terms used to describe the aspects – I’m more convinced than ever that this is a real problem for Greek scholars and students alike, and it’s frankly beautiful to watch the discussion proceed. For our students’ sake (at the very least), we need to work towards some kind of agreement or standardization, don’t you think?

2) Secondly, I think the elephant in the room has yet to be discussed. It seems to me that a major part of the problem, if not the biggest challenge we face, is the fact that Greek teachers and linguists are often talking past each other. Each of us approaches the problem from a different set of perspectives. For the Greek teacher, for example, pedagogy is often paramount. Moreover, most of us have little or no formal training in the science of linguistics. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t interested in what linguists are saying. We are. It’s just that we don’t always feel that we necessarily have to follow their explanations or terminology. I’ll give you one example from an email I received yesterday. The author wrote:

According to the online Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the perfect is stative:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/286368/Indo-European-languages/74555/Vowels#74556

The imperfective aspect, traditionally called “present,” was used for repeated actions and for ongoing processes or states—e.g., *stí-stH2-(e)- ‘stand up more than once, be in the process of standing up,’ *mn̥-yé- ‘ponder, think,’ *H1es- ‘be.’ The perfective aspect, traditionally called “aorist,” expressed a single, completed occurrence of an action or process—e.g., *steH2- ‘stand up, come to a stop,’ *men- ‘think of, bring to mind.’ The stative aspect, traditionally called “perfect,” described states of the subject—e.g., *ste-stóH2- ‘be in a standing position,’ *me-món- ‘have in mind.

Now think about this. According to Britannica, “The perfective aspect, traditionally called ‘aorist,’ expressed a single, completed occurrence of an action or process….” This will not do. Ever since Frank Stagg published his essay “The Abused Aorist” in JBL (followed up later by Charles Smith’s “Errant Aorist Interpreters” in GTJ), teachers have been cautioning their Greek students never to view the aorist as referring to a “single” action. Yet still today one hears statements, in both sermon and commentary, such as “The aorist here shows that Paul had in mind a once-for-all-action.” Much of this confusion stems (I believe) from A. T. Robertson’s use of “punctiliar” to describe the aorist tense. Of course, Robertson never meant us to understand a “once-for-all action,” yet the term “punctiliar” was easily misunderstood to mean that very thing. After all, something that is “punctiliar” has one single “Punkt” or “point,” doesn’t it? My point here (no pun meant) is simply this: While Greek scholars are obliged to learn as much as they can from linguists (and I, a non-linguist, have even published two books on the subject: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, and Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation), they are not obligated to follow linguistic science blindly.

3) In the third place, I’m not sure we are as far apart as the evidence may seem to point. For example, the two most widely used beginning grammars in North America today (mine and Bill Mounce’s) have somewhat similar terminology, as Joshua noted in his post:

Mounce:

Completed (also called perfective)

Continuous (also called imperfective)

Punctiliar

Black:

Perfective

Imperfective

Aoristic

As I stated above, I prefer “aoristic” to “punctiliar” because of the way the latter term has been abused by preachers and commentators. “Aoristic” works because its meaning is “undefined.” In other words, by choosing aoristic aspect, an author is intentionally refraining from trying to describe how an action occurred. The action is a-oristos – “unlimited” or “undefined” in terms of its kind of action. This is precisely the point that was made by both Stagg and Smith in their journal articles.

4) Finally, let me just state why I still prefer my terminology. It comports with conventional usage by traditional New Testament grammarians. (Wow. I can’t believe I just made that statement. If there ever was a person who enjoys challenging conventional wisdom, it’s yours truly.) Think about how easy we make it for our students when we say that the imperfect tense has “imperfective” aspect, or that the perfect tense has “perfective” aspect, or that the aorist tense has “aoristic aspect.” Incidentally, K. L. McKay, in his A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, uses “aorist” as I do “aoristic” and labels the other aspects “imperfective” for present and imperfect and “perfective” for perfect, so I am not exactly alone in my nomenclature. (Profound thanks to my friend Craig for pointing this out to me.) Now don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to change my nomenclature if I can be convinced to do so. Indeed, Robert Picirilli, in a JETS essay that appeared in 2005, makes a suggestion I am almost happy with. Addressing the “issue of terminology,” he writes:

I think we must recognize that it is too late in the game, as A. T. Robertson said long ago, to change the names of the tenses or the word “tense” itself. It is hard enough to teach Greek students that “tense” does not meantime and “present” does not mean present; but we have learned to handle that. If aspect theory is to win wide recognition and usage, as I think it should, I believe we must develop a terminology that does not overlap with those names and is both appropriate in meaning and relatively easy for students to learn and use. I tentatively suggest, then, that “progressive” works better than “imperfective” and that “wholistic” works better than “perfective.” I have no suggestion as a replacement for “stative.” From this point on, then, I may speak of aspect or perspective, and of progressive perspective or imperfective aspect (for the present and imperfect tenses), of wholistic perspective or perfective aspect (for the aorist tense), and stative perspective or aspect (for the perfect and pluperfect tenses).

“Wholistic” may well work better than “aoristic,” and I’m open to using that language, though I still feel it’s too confusing, from a purely pedagogical standpoint, to use “stative” for “perfective.”

In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying this gentlemanly debate as much as I am. I enjoy having my ideas challenged. Indeed, I’ve organized many conferences at SEBTS to discuss the synoptic problem, textual criticism, the ending of Mark, etc. and I’m wondering if it might be a good time to hold another gathering in which we could spar with each other over this matter and maybe, just maybe, come to see eye to eye. As in many other matters, on the issue of verbal aspect we have to say “Let the discussion continue!”

 

12:44 PM As always, I appreciate the insights of Henry Neufeld when it comes to the biblical languages. In a recent email exchange (dealing with verbal aspect this time), he wrote:

I have no trouble teaching verbal aspect from your grammar or Mounce’s. I always expand on this to the students and discuss the difference between the aspect and the time, and so forth, but I give them the simplified discussion as an anchor point. It’s similar, in my view, to learning the gloss of a word as vocabulary, when you know very well that the gloss doesn’t really tell you what that Greek word means any more than giving a synonym (always NEAR synonym of an English word is the same thing as providing a definition or a set of definitions. Verbal
aspect itself has a semantic range, i.e., it doesn’t work itself into
neat categories as we’d like it to. Instead, it is rough around the edges.

A few random reflections:

1) Standard terminology in any field is a desideratum. This is no less true of Greek grammar than it is of horticulture (in which I have dabbled a bit). However, at the beginning level of any subject, some oversimplification is unavoidable.

2) At the same time, the goal is comprehension and especially the ability to read Greek. Henry reminds us that there are sometimes more than one way to “get there.” An example might be teaching -omen and -ete instead of -men and -te as the primary active suffixes in the first and second person plural. In my view, only the latter approach is linguistically defensible. But what does it matter in the end?

3) At other times, there are “hills to die on.” We all have these I suppose, and for me I’d have to include the debate over time in the Greek verb system. As I’ve previously noted in this blog, I still believe that the Koine Greek verb system grammaticalizes time in the indicative mood — and I say this despite the noble attempts of several prominent Greek scholars to dissuade me. Why, I even call the prefixed epsilon the “past time morpheme”!

4) Thus, to paraphrase Henry, flexibility is needed at all times, and wherever there is significant debate, we must be willing to help our students negotiate the muddy waters.

5) I’ll let Henry have the last word, to which I say a heart “Amen!”

I agree with the way you do this [teach verbal aspect] in your text, though again I would say that a good teacher can expand on the text. If the teacher is stuck with the text, in my view, he has no business teaching. I’ve read a number of other grammars, so I can take elements that work for me and use them to help students. A teacher should be teaching well beyond the text. The text is what reading is for

 

2) Secondly, I think the elephant in the room has yet to be discussed. It seems to me that a major part of the problem, if not the biggest challenge we face, is the fact that Greek teachers and linguists are often talking past each other. Each of us approaches the problem from a different set of perspectives. For the Greek teacher, for example, pedagogy is often paramount. Moreover, most of us have little or no formal training in the science of linguistics. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t interested in what linguists are saying. We are. It’s just that we don’t always feel that we necessarily have to follow their explanations or terminology. I’ll give you one example from an email I received yesterday. The author wrote:

According to the online Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the perfect is stative:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/286368/Indo-European-languages/74555/Vowels#74556

The imperfective aspect, traditionally called “present,” was used for repeated actions and for ongoing processes or states—e.g., *stí-stH2-(e)- ‘stand up more than once, be in the process of standing up,’ *mn̥-yé- ‘ponder, think,’ *H1es- ‘be.’ The perfective aspect, traditionally called “aorist,” expressed a single, completed occurrence of an action or process—e.g., *steH2- ‘stand up, come to a stop,’ *men- ‘think of, bring to mind.’ The stative aspect, traditionally called “perfect,” described states of the subject—e.g., *ste-stóH2- ‘be in a standing position,’ *me-món- ‘have in mind.

Now think about this. According to Britannica, “The perfective aspect, traditionally called ‘aorist,’ expressed a single, completed occurrence of an action or process….” This will not do. Ever since Frank Stagg published his essay “The Abused Aorist” in JBL (followed up later by Charles Smith’s “Errant Aorist Interpreters” in GTJ), teachers have been cautioning their Greek students never to view the aorist as referring to a “single” action. Yet still today one hears statements, in both sermon and commentary, such as “The aorist here shows that Paul had in mind a once-for-all-action.” Much of this confusion stems (I believe) from A. T. Robertson’s use of “punctiliar” to describe the aorist tense. Of course, Robertson never meant us to understand a “once-for-all action,” yet the term “punctiliar” was easily misunderstood to mean that very thing. After all, something that is “punctiliar” has one single “Punkt” or “point,” doesn’t it? My point here (no pun meant) is simply this: While Greek scholars are obliged to learn as much as they can from linguists (and I, a non-linguist, have even published two books on the subject: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, and Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation), they are not obligated to follow linguistic science blindly.

3) In the third place, I’m not sure we are as far apart as the evidence may seem to point. For example, the two most widely used beginning grammars in North America today (mine and Bill Mounce’s) have somewhat similar terminology, as Joshua noted in his post:

Mounce:

Completed (also called perfective)

Continuous (also called imperfective)

Punctiliar

Black:

Perfective

Imperfective

Aoristic

As I stated above, I prefer “aoristic” to “punctiliar” because of the way the latter term has been abused by preachers and commentators. “Aoristic” works because its meaning is “undefined.” In other words, by choosing aoristic aspect, an author is intentionally refraining from trying to describe how an action occurred. The action is a-oristos – “unlimited” or “undefined” in terms of its kind of action. This is precisely the point that was made by both Stagg and Smith in their journal articles.

4) Finally, let me just state why I still prefer my terminology. It comports with conventional usage by traditional New Testament grammarians. (Wow. I can’t believe I just made that statement. If there ever was a person who enjoys challenging conventional wisdom, it’s yours truly.) Think about how easy we make it for our students when we say that the imperfect tense has “imperfective” aspect, or that the perfect tense has “perfective” aspect, or that the aorist tense has “aoristic aspect.” Incidentally, K. L. McKay, in his A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, uses “aorist” as I do “aoristic” and labels the other aspects “imperfective” for present and imperfect and “perfective” for perfect, so I am not exactly alone in my nomenclature. (Profound thanks to my friend Craig for pointing this out to me.) Now don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to change my nomenclature if I can be convinced to do so. Indeed, Robert Picirilli, in a JETS essay that appeared in 2005, makes a suggestion I am almost happy with. Addressing the “issue of terminology,” he writes:

I think we must recognize that it is too late in the game, as A. T. Robertson said long ago, to change the names of the tenses or the word “tense” itself. It is hard enough to teach Greek students that “tense” does not meantime and “present” does not mean present; but we have learned to handle that. If aspect theory is to win wide recognition and usage, as I think it should, I believe we must develop a terminology that does not overlap with those names and is both appropriate in meaning and relatively easy for students to learn and use. I tentatively suggest, then, that “progressive” works better than “imperfective” and that “wholistic” works better than “perfective.” I have no suggestion as a replacement for “stative.” From this point on, then, I may speak of aspect or perspective, and of progressive perspective or imperfective aspect (for the present and imperfect tenses), of wholistic perspective or perfective aspect (for the aorist tense), and stative perspective or aspect (for the perfect and pluperfect tenses).

“Wholistic” may well work better than “aoristic,” and I’m open to using that language, though I still feel it’s too confusing, from a purely pedagogical standpoint, to use “stative” for “perfective.”

In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying this gentlemanly debate as much as I am. I enjoy having my ideas challenged. Indeed, I’ve organized many conferences at SEBTS to discuss the synoptic problem, textual criticism, the ending of Mark, etc. and I’m wondering if it might be a good time to hold another gathering in which we could spar with each other over this matter and maybe, just maybe, come to see eye to eye. As in many other matters, on the issue of verbal aspect we have to say “Let the discussion continue!”

 

12:44 PM As always, I appreciate the insights of Henry Neufeld when it comes to the biblical languages. In a recent email exchange (dealing with verbal aspect this time), he wrote:

I have no trouble teaching verbal aspect from your grammar or Mounce’s. I always expand on this to the students and discuss the difference between the aspect and the time, and so forth, but I give them the simplified discussion as an anchor point. It’s similar, in my view, to learning the gloss of a word as vocabulary, when you know very well that the gloss doesn’t really tell you what that Greek word means any more than giving a synonym (always NEAR synonym of an English word is the same thing as providing a definition or a set of definitions. Verbal
aspect itself has a semantic range, i.e., it doesn’t work itself into
neat categories as we’d like it to. Instead, it is rough around the edges.

A few random reflections:

1) Standard terminology in any field is a desideratum. This is no less true of Greek grammar than it is of horticulture (in which I have dabbled a bit). However, at the beginning level of any subject, some oversimplification is unavoidable.

2) At the same time, the goal is comprehension and especially the ability to read Greek. Henry reminds us that there are sometimes more than one way to “get there.” An example might be teaching -omen and -ete instead of -men and -te as the primary active suffixes in the first and second person plural. In my view, only the latter approach is linguistically defensible. But what does it matter in the end?

3) At other times, there are “hills to die on.” We all have these I suppose, and for me I’d have to include the debate over time in the Greek verb system. As I’ve previously noted in this blog, I still believe that the Koine Greek verb system grammaticalizes time in the indicative mood — and I say this despite the noble attempts of several prominent Greek scholars to dissuade me. Why, I even call the prefixed epsilon the “past time morpheme”!

4) Thus, to paraphrase Henry, flexibility is needed at all times, and wherever there is significant debate, we must be willing to help our students negotiate the muddy waters.

5) I’ll let Henry have the last word, to which I say a heart “Amen!”

I agree with the way you do this [teach verbal aspect] in your text, though again I would say that a good teacher can expand on the text. If the teacher is stuck with the text, in my view, he has no business teaching. I’ve read a number of other grammars, so I can take elements that work for me and use them to help students. A teacher should be teaching well beyond the text. The text is what reading is for

 

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