The New understandings in Greek, Part 1: Verbs, Aspect and Tense

A couple of people asked me how to go about getting up to speed on the ‘newer ways’ of talking about Ancient Greek that have become current in the last few years. In this and subsequent posts I will try my best to provide a relatively accessibly explanation of the major shifts in some of these areas, particularly for those who were trained in Koine Greek in traditional classes and are mostly used to older terminology.

This week we’re talking about the Greek verbal system.

If you pick up a traditional grammar textbook, the presentation of Greek verbs tends to break things down primarily by tenses: Present, Imperfect, Aorist, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect. Often introduced in that order too (The future gets moved around a little bit). Basically you’re taught to treat these like English tenses, with some minor modifications:

Present = English General Present & Present Continuous

Imperfect = English Past Continuous (and Past General)

Aorist = English Simple Past (and gets talked about as ‘punctiliar’, even ‘once for all’)

Future = English Future

Perfect = English Past Perfect (have verbed) (and gets talked about as ‘past with present consequences)

Pluperfect = English Further Past Perfect (had verbed)

There are advantages to this system: it actually works reasonably well as a short-hand guide for translation. It also makes things readily accessible to someone who only knows English.

But, there are several problems with this approach. Firstly, it does a very poor job of explaining tense-choice outside the indicative. Secondly, it is the outcome of an attempt to impose a Latinate grammar structure onto Greek. And that’s not good for Greek. As a Latinist, let me say this isn’t Latin’s fault. In English textbooks, it is often the relic of having tried to impose Latin grammatical categories onto English (also a bad way to do English grammar) and then onto Greek.

Introducing Aspect

Somewhere along the line grammarians woke up and realised linguistics existed. And that Latin was not the ur-language of the heavens (Gaelic is). And that other languages functioned with a category that we call Aspect. Aspect, as you can tell if you think about the word itself, is about how you view the action. In languages that have aspect, one reasonably common dichotomy is between a perfective and imperfective aspect.

perfective aspect means looking at the action as a whole, from an exterior viewpoint, as a complete entity

imperfective aspect means looking at the action in process, from an internal viewpoint, as an ongoing entity.

Both of these are choices of the speaker in describing the action, not features of the action itself. I can describe the same reality in two ways. For example,

  1. I studied Greek
  2. I was studying Greek

Sentence 1 is perfective, it describes this action as a whole, complete entity. Sentence 2 is imperfective, it describes this action as an ongoing process. This has nothing to do with tense.

Now, the closer we looked at Greek, the more we realised that Aspect was far more important to Greek than grammatical time (tense), and that the way Greek organised itself made Aspect (a) more fundamental, (b) not optional. By ‘not optional’ I mean that every time you use a Greek verb, you make a choice about aspect, you must make a choice about aspect. You don’t have to make choices about time.

As a consequence, the categories we call ‘tenses’ are not always tenses. That’s why you see a shift to calling them ‘tense-forms’, to highlight that they are forms more than simply tenses.

So we can reorganise those Greek verbs based on their aspect:

Perfective: Aorist

Imperfective: Present, Imperfect

Great, except this is only 3 out of 6 tenses. What about the other 3?

The perfect and pluperfect, when viewed in terms of aspect, turn out not to be perfective or imperfective but something else. And there isn’t consensus about how to describe that. It’s not helped that now we have some real terminological confusion: we’re talking about the ‘perfect’ tense-form, but it’s not perfective in aspect! One, fairly common, approach is to call it ‘stative’ in aspect, i.e. referring to a state of being. Con Campbell’s hypothesis is that both are actually imperfective, but that the perfect tense-form has ‘heightened proximity’ and the pluperfect tense-form has ‘heightened remoteness’. Personally, I’m persuaded by Mike Aubrey’s recent thesis, in which he says, ‘the perfect aspect refers to internal temporal structure that is either completed (completive) or exists as achieved state (resultative). It is inherently telic and will either assign an endpoint to a situation or event or denote the resultant state of that situation or event. As such, the perfect is both telic and bounded.’ (Appendix B, p199). That’s a bit complex and you can let it go over your head for now.

So there’s relative consensus that the perfect and pluperfect are doing their own thing, but there’s some discussion about what that thing is.

What about the future? Again, there’s some discussion, though generally the drift seems to be towards seeing the future tense-form as properly time significant before it’s aspectual. That is, because what demarcates the future is its time reference, there aren’t two or three different aspects for the future, there’s just the future that incorporates whatever aspect for the future tense.

What does this mean for the average Joe?

  1. It’s more important for Greek verbs to think about their aspect, before you think about their tense.
  2. Tense is almost always marked either by (a) the presence of the augment (i.e. usually the ἐ augment or its counterpart), or (b) determined contextually by things like adverbs or other indicators.
  3. The significance of choosing a tense-form lies first in considering its aspect, not in notions like ‘once for all’, ‘past with present consequences’, etc., which are almost always misleading suggestions.


Did this help you? Could something be explained better? Do you want to correct something I’ve said? Let me know in the comments below.

Next time I’ll talk about Aktionsart and why you can mostly ignore it most of the time.




3 responses

  1. I was definitely taught the old-fashioned way, and had been wondering about this new way of talking about Greek verbs for a while. Thanks for the intro.

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