The New understandings in Greek, Part 3: Aktionsart (revisited)

I’m going to have a second go at talking about Aktionsart.

I would begin by saying Aktionsart is simply a way of describing the type of action indicated by a predicate. As such ‘Aktionsart’ is a very wide-open term, no doubt contributing to its ambiguity.

We might talk about Aktionsart as inhering at three levels.

Firstly, the lexical Aktionsart would refer to the type of action indicated by a verbal lexeme. E.g., what ‘type’ of action is ‘walk’.

Secondly, we can talk about the pragmatic Aktionsart of a predicate in a sentence. E.g. [a] ‘John walked to the park on a sunny day’ or [b] ‘John used to walk in the rain for the past few years’.

Thirdly, we can talk about objective Aktionsart as the ‘reality’ of the predicate out there in the world apart from any utterances.

1 and 2 are clearly linked. But how they are linked is not so clear. I would put it this way: the lexeme allows and disallows various Aktionsarten. See more on this below. 2 and 3 are clearly linked as well, but at a philosophical level, not a linguistic one. Sentence [b] describes an iterative activity, but it is not the only way to describe an iterative activity, and recognising that an utterance about a (verbal) predicate is not the same thing as the reality of that predicate is a fundamental feature of modern linguistics (signifier/signified).

The reason it’s worth thinking about Aktionsart as the type of action indicated by a predicate is because verbs themselves can be modified, and so if we want to use ‘Aktionsart’ as our term to describe types of actions in actual sentences, then we need to shift to talking about predicates.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term predicate in this sense, let me explain and illustrate. In a clause (or sentence) there are two things: the Subject, and the Predicate. The Subject is what we are talking about. The Predicate is everything else, i.e. what we are saying about the Subject.

[a] John walked to the park on a sunny day

Subject: John

Predicate: walked to the park on a sunny day

In my previous post on Aktionsarten I went through a 6 category system of talking about predicates. The advantage of this system as opposed to the relatively open and ad hoc way of talking about various Aktionsarten, is that it is built on clearly defined polarities. Let me review it briefly here:


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


Here we have six categories, with four polarities. For every predicate we ask: is it a state? Is it dynamic? Is it telic? Is it punctual? The combination of these four permits identification in one of these six categories:

State: I am hungry.

  • a state indicates a condition, it has duration, but no end point, no dynamic element, and is not punctiliar.

Activity: I was writing.

  • an activity is not a condition, it is dynamic, but has no end point, and is continuing rather than instantanteous.

Accomplishment: I am writing a bog post in ten minutes.

  • an accomplishment, rather than an activity, has an end point, but has a duration.

Achievement: I had an idea

  • an achievement differs from an accomplishment in that it doesn’t have duration, but it does have an end point. The ‘idea’ is the outcome of the action, but it is instantaneous in realisation.

Active Achievement: I walked to the park.

  • the combination of an activity with an achievement is an active achievement. Here we have both an ongoing action that by itself has no end point, coupled with an end point (‘to the park’) that realises a change of state that is itself instantaneous (one moment I’m outside the park, next moment I’m in the park).

Semelfactive: I glistened in the sunlight (due to my glitter body paint).

  • a semelfactive represents an instantaneous or punctiliar occurance, that doesn’t involve an end point, and likewise doesn’t involve a change of state. Glistening, like flickering and other such events, occur as punctiliar, without duration, and without change of state.


Those six categories are workable, they are clear, and they are bounded by the polarities. They could, perhaps, be expanded, but not without showing clearly how and why they should do so (i.e. showing that there was a class of predicates that did not fit the six, or else subdividing existing classes based on an additional polarity).

This is why we can talk about the categories that a lexeme disallows while moving forward to a clausal level resolution of which category a predicate instantiates. For ‘walk’ can be an activity, but ‘walked to the park’ is an active achievement. As a lexeme ‘walk’ disallows State, Achievement, and Semelfactive. But it (at least to me) appears to allow Activity (I was walking), Active Achievement (I walked to the park), and Accomplishment (I walked a marathon in 8 hours). Note carefully how AA and Accomplishment differ: the former involves an instantaneous realisation of the change of state (outside/inside the park) which ends the activity, the latter involves a progressive accomplishing of an object (the marathon).

I think I’ve got all that right, and I trust that a linguist will show up and correct me if wrong.

So ‘walk’ allows three out of six categories, it is then at the level of predicate in a clause that one ought to determine which of these it is. This roughly aligns with Campbell’s suggestion of working from uncancellable semantics through to pragmatics in identifying the Aktionsart of a predicate, but with the modification of using a clear set of polarities to arrive at a bounded set of final categories.

What this doesn’t do is deal with such categories as ‘conative’ or ‘iterative’. I need some more thinking time to consider whether that’s important or not. The critical question is how those notions are indicated or marked in a language, how one determines that, and how one produces a classificatory scheme that adequately addresses it.

Okay, enough about Aktionsart, next time we’ll talk about Voice.