The New understandings in Greek, Part 2: Aktionsart

So last time I talked about the shift from thinking about Greek as tense based/focused to aspect focused. Another term that you can hear a lot about these days is Aktionsart.

But what is Aktionsart?

The bad news is that people use this term in different ways. The word Aktionsart means ‘type of action’. So we’re interested in what type of action a verb is describing.

The main disjunct is that Aktionsart is sometimes used for the type of action embedded in the meaning of a word. This is Lexical Aktionsart. Here’s an example: eating a pizza. This action has a natural endpoint (when all the pizza is gone and in my belly). Compare, sitting at my desk. ‘sitting’ does not have a natural endpoint. I could sit at my desk forever. Lexical Aktionsart is invariant, and it’s probably more common to talk about Aktionsart as Lexical Aktionsart outside the Greek grammar world.

Sometimes Aktionsart is used to describe Aspect. This is a problem in some older Grammars, and is mainly just a terminology confusion. If you encounter this, just be clear about what the Author is actually discussing.

Thirdly, Aktionsart can be used to describe the ‘type of action’ “as it happens out there in the real world”. I.e., the action that our words are talking about, as an external, objective, action, what sort of action is/was it?

Lexical Aktionsart and this third type of Aktionsart are considerably different: L.Ak is intrinsic to the word (lexeme). This third type, which at least for today I’m going to call ‘Objective Aktionsart’, depends primarily on the action/event itself, and has to be figured out from context. But then there’s a kind of fourth way of talking about Aktionsart that is (1) Lexical Aktionsart possibilities + (2) Aspect and Tense-Form + (3) Usage in a clause/context = (4) ‘Aktionsart’. This I would call something like pragmatic Aktionsart. It’s an analysis of ‘type of action’ conducted post-factum once you put together everything you know about the verb and its context.

So, how do we get to some actual Aktionsarten?

Vendler classified verbs into four categories:

  1. Activity: has duration but no end point (progressive, atelic): I am sitting
  2. Accomplishment: has duration and end point (progressive, telic): I am writing a blog post
  3. Achievement: no duration but has an end point (instantaneous, telic): I had an idea
  4. State: has duration but not a process

You can often test whether a verb/clause works for a category by the type of adverbial phrase you can add:

Activity: I sat for 10 years (duration of time without a telos)

Accomplishment: I wrote a blog post in 10 minutes (fixed duration of time with end point)

Achievement: I had an idea at 2:37am (specific instant of time)

But wait… what about something that has no duration, and is also atelic? Bernard Comrie came up with a category for this: semelfactive. This includes actions like ‘sneeze’ and ‘knock’. They are instantaneous but they do not have an ‘end’ per se. Another way to put this is that the difference between an achievement and a semelfactive is that the former has involves a change of state (idea-lessness, idea+fullness), whereas the latter does not (before and after I sneeze, I am still in the same condition of being).

Another category is added in RRG (Role and reference grammar), ‘active achievements’; one does this by creating a complex or compound, i.e. by taking an activity and adding an end point:

Mike Aubrey wrote for months    – Activity

Mike Aubrey wrote a thesis – Active Achievement

(I use Aubrey because that’s where I stole the last category from in writing this post) So now we’re up to six categories.


  Static? Dynamic? Telic? Punctual?
State +
Activity +
Accomplishment +
Semelfactive ± +
Achievement + +
Active Achievement + +


Okay, so that’s a linguistics-derived model of Aktionsart. How does this feed into Koine Greek grammar?

What I tend to see in writing about Greek grammar is a kind of blend of lexical, pragmatic, and objective Aktionsart. This is confusing! For example, two Aktionsarten often mentioned are iterative and conative. These are repeated actions, and attempted actions, respectively. These certainly aren’t (usually) lexical Aktionsarten; they can be objective Aktionsarten. Usually they are talked about as pragmatic Aktionsarten. What’s a poor student to do?

Here’s the type of list you might encounter among Greek grammarians:

  1. Conative: The action was attempted but not accomplished. (from the Latin conari, to try, attempt, endeavour). ex. I tried to study (Greek grammar, but it was too hard)
  2. Gnomic: The action is universal/timeless/generic. ex. Those that study, learn.
  3. Ingressive: The action began and is in progress. (Latin ingredi, to undertake, begin) . Ex. I began to study.
  4. Iterative: The action occurs repeatedly (though not constantly). (Latin, iterare, to repeat, redo) I keep studying Greek (to no avail).
  5. Progressive: The action is in progress. Ex. I am studying Greek (fruitlessly)
  6. Punctiliar: The action is presented as instantaneously done. I handed in that exam paper.
  7. Summary: The action is presented as a unitary or summary action. I studied Greek.

Some of these categories are pragmatic, but not all.

Take home value for the Greek reader:

  1. It’s really important that you understand the difference between Lexical Aktionsart and ‘pragmatic’ Aktionsart. Lex.Ak. is all about the lexeme, about the level of the word. It doesn’t change. Because it’s lexical. It’s actually better to think about Lexical Aktionsart as a range of possibilities, because a single verb (such as to study) can have different Aktionsarten depending on how it’s used:

A: I have been studying Greek all year. – Activity.

B: I studied this Greek text book. – Accomplishment.

But at the same time there are some Aktionsarten that to study cannot have. For example ‘study’ is not stative.

  1. So you need to think through what’s inherent to the word, and what is variable.
  2. Then you need to think through the use of the word in a clause and context. In Greek, this is going to mean considering the aspect and the tense-form, and the modifiers if any, and the context of the clause. All of these are going to shape how you understand the ‘objective occurrence in the world’ that the utterance is referring to.
  3. Only then can you really slap some kind of Aktionsart label onto something like ‘conative’ or ‘iterative’.

This is why I said at the start you can almost ignore Aktionsart. Aktionsart doesn’t actually tell you anything, it helps you articulate what you ought to already know. It gives you a set of categories and a grid of perception to think through what is actually being described, i.e. the ‘type of action’. And then, when you’ve thought that process through, you have a label to stick on it. But Aktionsart is not a category that actually gets you there – it’s not like tense-form or aspect or even person, number, mood, etc..

To put this another way, if I tell you something is perfective or imperfective, it changes how you look at that verb and think about it. If I tell you its Aktionsart, I haven’t told you anything that you couldn’t put together from the pieces of the puzzle in the first place, and so you haven’t necessarily gained any new information. Pragmatic Aktionsart is a post-factum description of what’s going on once you know what’s going on, not a prior piece of working out what’s going on.

I’m not sure I’ve really quite succeeded in this post to explain Aktionsart in a way that’s clear and accessible. I might need to give it another go. Let me know how this helped you or didn’t.