What’s Happening with the Greek Verb?

On July 10–11, a massive Greek nerdfest is being held in Cambridge (at Tyndale House) on Linguistics and the Greek Verb. The conference is being chaired by a friend of mine, Chris Fresch (who will soon be taking a teaching post in Australia after completing his PhD at Cambridge), and Steven Runge (from Logos).

Available for preorder at Logos

The focus of the conference is, in effect, to shed some light on the latest things happening in the study of the Greek verbal system. It may look like arcane stuff, but much of it will be informing your Bible translations for years to come. So even if you don’t know or care what aspect-prominence or grounding mean, in years to come your handy thinline or study Bibles will be impacted by this kind of research.

I am attending (most of) the conference and will post a summary of the major points in the papers I attend below. Fortunately, the papers from the conference will be published soon enough in The Greek Verb Revisited.

Summary of Presentations

I will not be able to attend all sessions, but of those that I do attend, I will post a few summary points below.

  • Buist Fanning (Dallas Theological Seminary) – Porter and Fanning on NT Greek Verbal Aspect: Retrospect and Prospect
    1. Contrasts between the two (simplification)
      1. View of past scholarship/paradigms: Fanning more appreciative, wants to refine; Porter thinks most are wrong and need revolution (esp. on views of tense and Aktionsart)
      2. System-level vs. specifics: both want a system, but Fanning more interested in local texts/contexts, and Porter more interested in the network-level or model.
    2. Areas of consensus
      1. Verbal aspect is central to understanding Gk verbal meaning
      2. Aspect is a matter of author’s viewpoint (distinct from kind of action / Aktionsart)
      3. Aorist has perfective aspect; Present/Imperfect have imperfective aspect. Future and Perfect are still debated.
      4. Aspect is important to discourse structuring.
  • Rutger Allen (VU Univ. Amsterdam) – Tense-Aspect in Classical Greek: Two Historical Developments on Augment and Perfect
    1. Augment
      1. Augment is still best seen as a marker of past-ness (as a starting point). Arguments that it reflects immediacy/nearness to the speaker are invalid.
      2. Augment is not always needed to signal past in narrative because that mode of speech (or genre) already sets that up for you. But greater need for augment for past in non-narrative (direct discourse) because you need a stronger verbal marker for the time shift.
      3. Use of augment in gnomic aorist remains difficult to explain. But it seems like the speaker is making a choice in how they want to portray the gnomic/generic situation, either emphasizing past-ness or present-ness with or without the augment. Thus, while use of gnomic present is more common but gnomic aorist is not that big a deal.
    2. Perfect
      1. Evolution: (stage 1) resultative-stative … (stage 2) current relevance / continuative … (stage 3) past perfective (not continuative)
      2. Aorist emphasizing change of state; adding reduplication to that aorist stem in the Perfect suggests resulting state
      3. Perfect also used for iterative, intensive, and continued relevance (aka anterior) in Homeric and Classical Gk
  • Peter Gentry (Southern Seminary) – Function of the Augment in Hellenistic Greek
    1. The ε-/η- augment was a relatively late innovation in only a select number of Indo-European languages
    2. Augment in Hellenistic may indicate foregrounding
    3. The so-called secondary endings (most of which are used for past tense) are original. The so-called primary endings (used for present tense) are actually derived from the secondary endings (regardless of modern nomenclature).
    4. Between Homer and Koine, the augment became used to grammaticalize temporal value.

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  • Chris Thomson (Cambridge) – What is Aspect? Contrasting Definitions in Linguistics and New Testament Studies
    1. Biggest question is which phenomena are included in aspect, and whether to define it generically or for a specific language.
    2. Broad approach
      1. Aspect = linguistic representation of the perspective a speaker expresses with regard to the temporal course of an even. HOW it relates to time, not WHEN it occurred.
      2. “Situation” encompasses both actions and states.
      3. Temporal structure refers to beginning, ending, and middle/duration.
      4. Key is that aspect refers to how one expresses temporal structure
      5. Factors of aspect: choice of lexeme, form of verb, argument, adverbs
    3. Narrow approach
      1. “Aspect” originally a calque from Russian “form, type, view”
      2. Perfective “expresses the action as a total event summed up with reference to a single specific juncture”
    4. Other notes
      1. Parade illustration (originally; Isacenko)
        1. Perfective = spectator watching parade from the stand, seeing whole thing from beginning to end
        2. Imperfective = participant of a parade who doesn’t see the beginning and end
      2. But this illustration has flaws because parades take place in both space and time (versus just time). Moreover, the spectator does not see the duration of the parade all at once but still sees it unfolding over time.
      3. Perfective represents beginning-middle-end, but imperfective only middle (and not beginning-end).
      4. The spatial/viewpoint metaphor (“internal” vs. “external”) are not actually helpful. What does it mean to say “He was reading a book” is an “internal” perspective?
      5. Another problem with “viewpoint” is that verbs don’t actually “view” but refer.
      6. Better definition: “aspect is a temporal phase or phases of the situation to which the verb refers” (Johnson, Klein)
      7. Porter, Fanning, and Campbell all operate from the perspective that aspect is not fundamentally about temporality. They prefer the “viewpoint” metaphor. They are right (in principle) in denying that aspect is not tense, and that it is not the actual progress of an event through time.
      8. Three key features of verbs: duration, change, and telicity (does it have an endpoint).
      9. Better way of viewing perfective aspect is not “completion” but on “completeness,” that is, it includes the end point but is not necessarily emphasizing it. Imperfective aspect does not have the beginning or ending in view.
  • Steven Runge (Faithlife Corporation) – Verb Forms and Grounding in Non-Narrative
    1. Main point: no single component of verb form establishes grounding in non-narrative (unlike narrative, where perfective aspect usually relates to grounding the narrative mainline, but not always)
    2. Mainline/foreground = backbone of discourse, e.g., main events in narrative, main steps of a procedure, main points of an argument, main commands of an exhortation. Depends on genre. Advances things.
    3. Offline/background = material that is necessary as background to the main line. Does not advance things.
    4. Genre distinctions
      • Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 9.42.23 AM
    5. Indicative to non-indicative (Matthew-Acts sample)
      1. Narrative: 15.5 to 1
      2. Non-narrative: 3 to 1
    6. Use of γαρ and ουν in narrative vs. non-narrative is usually 1 to 3 ratio. Another sign of the importance of non-aspect related discourse markers in non-narrative.
    7. Logical connectives (γαρ, διοτι) and inferentials (ουν, δια τουτο, ωστε, διο) tend to move off or onto the mainline (but other markers within the text tells you which direction to move), while και/δε tend to move within the mainline/offline
    8. Moods also also relate to mainline/offline. Imperative usually mainline; subjunctive usually offline if using certain connectives. Harder to say for infinitive.
    9. Perfect typically offline, providing relevant ground for a proposition. But occasionally mainline (e.g., in Luke, Romans, Hebrews, but still <15%).
    10. Foreground usually relates to independent clauses (but can include dependent clauses within a broader discourse structure).
    11. Participles convey relative importance or prioritization of information. Distinct from but often coincides with grounding.
    12. Conclusions
      1. Finite independent + Finite independent = Two independent clauses
      2. Finite independent + Dependent = One complex clause
      3. Position matters. Before the verb, dependent action is backgroundED. After the verb: participles elaborate/expand upon main verb, subordinate clauses relate based on connective.
  • Mark Dubis (Union Univ) – Determining Grounding Status in Non-Narrative Discourse: A Test Case from 1 Peter
    1. 1 Peter 5:1-11 test case
    2. Steps to analysis
      1. Break into sentences (independent + dependent clauses)
      2. Highlight verbs, esp. indicatives driving the mainline
      3. Identify connectives that join sentences. E.g.,
        1. και – being added to and associated with previous material; typically in close connection
        2. δε – a new development that makes a distinctive contribution to the argument
        3. ουν – foreground development that is inferential or resumptive to a prior topic or both
        4. γαρ – strengthening contents of a prior sentence (and thus introducing backgrounded information)
        5. οτι – strengthening contents of a prior clause within the same sentence (and thus introducing backgrounded information)
      4. Identify what the author is mainly trying to impact—ideas, behaviors, or emotions. In this example, the imperatives indicate a behavioral emphasis.
      5. Identify type of background/supportive information: motivational, situational, evidential, elaboratory, explanatory. (E.g., 5:1-3 would be foreground, 5:4 would be background [motivational])
      6. Analyze the content within each sentence.
  • Nick Ellis (BibleMesh) – Aspect-Prominence, Morpho-Syntax, and a Cognitive Framework for the Greek Verb
    1. Tense-prominent framework is correct for English but is fundamentally flawed for Greek, structurally, semantically, and terminologically. Fails to reflect the essential organizational and cognitive framework of the language.
    2. Languages emphasize either tense, aspect, or mood. Greek is aspect-prominence.
    3. Tense = deals with situations’ relative location in time, esp. past, present, future
    4. Aspect = situation’s internal structure, usually in terms of being bounded (self-contained) or unbounded (uncontained). Manner and extent to which time unfolds with respect to a situation. Greek has imperfective (assumes an event has begun but makes no reference to beginning or conclusion) and perfective (views event as a whole including beginning, middle, end), and combinative (a mix of both).
    5. Mood = deals with irrealis modality, e.g., possibility, necessity, etc.
    6. Verbal prominence does not mean (a) the prominent category is more strongly expressed at all times or (b) the other categories are unimportant. Rather, it deals with the extent to which the central category provides the primary concept around which the verbal system is structured.
    7. Classifying prominence
      1. Degree to which the category is grammaticalized or encoded in the morphology of the verb
      2. Formation of a complete paradigm
      3. Pervasive and obligatory
      4. Degree to which the non-prominent features recede outside the indicative
    8. In Greek:
      1. Tense is important only indicative
      2. Mood is important only in subjunctive, optative, etc.
      3. Aspect is important in all moods, tenses, and voices
    9. In English:
      1. Tense is encoded in the morphology (e.g., -ed suffix)
      2. Aspect and mood are expressed with helping words and are, thus, less central (b/c less grammaticalized)
    10. Greek aspect is a three part system: perfective, imperfective, and (arguably) combinative (also called stative).
    11. Aspect system in Greek (in order of appearance in the morphology of a verb
      1. Tense indicator (indicative mood only)
      2. Aspect prefix for imperfective
      3. Lexical core (never used by itself)
      4. Aspect prefix for perfective
      5. Personal ending
    12. Past/non-past augment is only relevant in the indicative, but aspect shows up across everything.
    13. Sum: aspect is more grammaticalized, paradigmatic, pervasive, and obligatory (than tense and mood) in the Greek verbal system. It differs from English in a big way, and this must be take into account in pedagogy, etc.
    14. Why the confusion? All major grammars of Greek have been written in tense-prominent languages (English, German, French), thus implicitly leading authors to emphasize tense.
    15. Teaching students within an aspectually prominent verbal system offers a way to help students deal with the cloud of inconsistent categorization.
  • Elizabeth Robar (Cambridge) – The Historical Present in NT Greek: An Exercise in Interpreting Matthew
    1. Historical present = use of a present form where a past form would have worked just fine, and the semantics still convey past-ness
    2. Recycling tense morphology to do non-tense work.
    3. E.g., historical present in Hebrew narrative structures the discourse.
    4. Historical present in koine may introduce direct speech, change in geographic location, etc.
    5. The historical present in Gk has perfective aspective even though its morphology/stem is technically imperfective.
    6. Does historical present represent vividness? Perhaps—it arrests the attention of the reader and forces him/her to focus on what is going on. Slow down narrative and build tension; forestalling a climax.
    7. Historical present can be used as first finite verb of a section, as the last verb to close a section, or as a middle verb of a section.
    8. Study of passages with 1 or 2+ historical presents in Matthew, no real pattern is revealed. Do not connect to separate motifs, but simply are one strategy (among others) of indicating prominence/emphasis. But other semantic features are usually operating there.
    9. But some small clusters of historical presents may relate to a specific theme (e.g., she argues that Matt 1-4 may be recapitulating Israel’s history and signaling geographic moves).
  • Randall Buth (Biblical Language Center) – Participles as Pragmatic Choice
    1. Rule of thumb: where a Gk author wants to condense a communication in order to highlight the main point(s) of a sentence, participles may be chosen to demote other clauses in relation to the main verb.
    2. Historical present breaks the normal imperfective aspect. It functions more like an aorist but in a pseudo-backgrounding function, anticipating something to follow.
    3. Aorist participles with historical presents typically preserve their perfective semantics. That is, the historical present has dropped its aspect, but the participles retain it.
    4. Also, continuative (present) participles used with historical presents also retain their imperfective aspect.
    5. Thus, the primary focus of historical present is not aspect; rather, its focus is on contravening tense. It uses an absolute present tense against the grain, that is, for the past.
  • Stephen Levinsohn (SIL International) – Functions of Copula–Participle Combinations (‘Periphrastics’)
    1. Periphrastic construction =  use of copula ειμι and anarthrous participle as a roundabout way of expressing what could otherwise be said with a finite verb.
    2. Key question: what to do if there are intervening words between ειμι and the participle. Does that break the periphrasis?
    3. Topic-comment: ειμι + subject + participle. Does not carry primary stress.
    4. Thetic/presentational: subject intervenes if it does not feature as an argument in the next clause or the participial clause is adjectival
    5. Constituent order does not always identify periphrasis.
    6. Copular Imperfects (ειμι + present participle)
      1. Could be used to distinguish stative vs. action (describe ongoing state)
      2. Could be used for iterative events
      3. Could be providing background information at beginning of pericopes
      4. Generally more stative (less dynamic) than its simple equivalent
    7. Copular Perfects (ειμι + plpf/pf participle)
      1. Simple imperfective is most dynamic, portraying ongoing event
      2. Simple perfect portrays a complete event with ongoing (usually stative) results
      3. Copular perfect is least dynamic, portraying an ongoing state (which has resulted from a completed event)
  • Randall Buth (Biblical Language Center) – Perfect Greek Morphology and Pedagogy: Their Contribution to Understanding the Greek Perfect
    1. The semantics of the perfect is well illustrated by its morphology (reduplication AND κ- formative)
    2. Aorist and imperfective (Impf and Pres) use same stem for middle and passive
    3. Perfect has two incongruities: active and middle use different stems (κ only used in active, not middle), and perfect has two morphological markers
    4. κ- is a greek innovation within prot-Indoeuropean
    5. Four stages in Gk perfect development
      1. Vowel or consonant shift in root (e.g., γεν to γον)
      2. Reduplication as a grammaticalization of doubling
      3. Orientation of stative perfects with the middle voice, a proto-‘active’ perfect stem
      4. Active-only formation based on a κ-perfect as the perfect grew to include non-stative, transitive lexemes
      5. There’s a relationship between the development of iterative sense of a verb and the use of reduplication. That is, reduplication is linked with intransitivity or stativity.
    6. Aorist {+perfective}, Imperfective {+imperfective}, and Perfect {+perfective +imperfective}
    7. Perfect
      1. Temporal view: past event with current/present relevance
      2. Aspectual view: completed (perfective) event with continuing (imperfective) relevance
      3. Modal view: realis event with irrealis relevance (something needs to be done)
      4. The augment is primarily a past marker, not a spatial/proximity marker
  • Robert Crellin (Cambridge) – The Semantics of the Perfect in the Greek of the New Testament
    1. Greek Perfect associated with three types of meaning: anterior (past action with current relevance), resultant state (state resulting from event taking place prior to reference time), and state concurrent with reference time of clause with no reference to any prior event
    2. What is the relationship between Perfect and tense?
      1. Porter: none. No allusion to a previous event.
      2. Campbell: primary aspectual value is imperfectivity. E.g., he usually opts for present progressive.
      3. Different kinds of even or situation distinguished according to their even structure: (a) telicity (having a set end point), (b) durativity (lasting for more than one conceptual moment), (c) homogeneity (capacity to divide an event into multiple smaller instances of the same event type)
    3. Types of event
      1. Activity (no endpoint, non-homogeneous, durative)—e.g., swimming
      2. Accomplishment (set endpoint, non-homogeneous, durative)—e.g., building a house
      3. Achievement (set endpoint, non-homogenous, non-durative)—e.g., recognize a friend
      4. State (no set endpoint, homogenous, non-durative)—e.g., believing in God
      5. Complex event (accomplishment that leads to a new state, no set endpoint)—e.g., a banana rotting (leads to the banana being in the rotten state that continues on and on)
    4. Tense and aspect
      1. Topic time (TT): the time for which, on some occasion, a claim is made. E.g., “the time we are talking about”
      2. Tense = relationship between topic time and utterance time (TU).
        1. Past: TT precedes TU
        2. Future: TU precedes TT
        3. Present: TT includes TU
      3. Aspect = relationship of TT to time of the situation (TSit)
        1. Perfective: TT includes TSit
        2. Imperfective: TSit includes TT
    5. Problem with Perfect is that it can behave like an imperfective (e.g., it includes TT), but in other times it (superficially) behaves as a perfective (e.g., TT includes TU and TSit prior to TT)
    6. Proposal: the perfect of a predicate derives a homogeneous eventuality for the grammatical subject from the predicate and includes TT in the TSit of this homogeneous eventuality.
  • Amalia Moser (Athens) – Tense and aspect after the New Testament: What does a NT specialist need to know about the Greek verb (from a Linguist’s point of view)?
    1. Don’t just let one particular thing (eg., Aspect!) dictate your interpretation of a given text
    2. Synchronic look at a language is most important, but diachronic study of a language’s history should not be overlooked

Connecting to the Pew

(To be added after the conference)

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6 thoughts on “What’s Happening with the Greek Verb?”

  1. The conference volume is almost through the copyediting stage, hoping to release it this summer in both print and electronic, the latter first. I’m headed to the UK in May for NT seminars overviewing the material in Durham and St Andrews, and possibly at SEBTS in March. Not sure if RTS would be interested in hosting something, but would be interested in starting a dialogue. I assume you have absolutely nothing going on this month. #sarcasm

  2. Would love to know if anyone offered explanations for the anarchic morphology of Greek verb conjugation – unparalleled (as far as i know) in any other language. Eg would the nu suffix (deiknumi etc) be a semelfactive as in Russian, or the isko suffix be inchoative as in Latin and Romanian? Can anyone offer other deep semantic threads beneath the apparent mess of forms, alternating roots etc?

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