The Greek Perfect, Learners, and you (part 1)

Having been asked about how you teach the Greek perfect, or even how you figure it out, I thought I’d start by surveying a range of books that I have to hand or easy access to, to see what they say about the Perfect.

 

The Greek perfect tense for learners

In the first of this mini-series, I wanted to look at how a number of introductory Greek texts introduce and explain the perfect forms.

 

Zuntz (English ed.):

“The Greek perfect, unlike the Latin perfect, does not refer to completed past actions. In Greek, such actions are referred to in the aorist. The Greek perfect refers, in a particular manner, to a situation now existing, and hence might appropriately be called the ‘present perfect’.

He focuses on the reduplication as conveying either a ‘feeling of intensity’, (πεπίστευκα ‘I firmly believe’, or ‘a state now reached and maintained, usually as the effect of a preceding action. e.g. ηὕρηκα.

JACT Reading Greek:

RG introduces it with

“At an early stage of the language, the perfect means ‘I am in the position of having -ed’. (§ 262)

In Classical Greek, the perfect also acquired the meaning ‘I have -ed’.” (§ 262)

Then, in § 418

“The ‘presentness’ of the original perfect arises because it was used to denote a state, in particular a present state resulting from a past action.”

But, it goes on to provide some ‘wrinkles’ –

  • states not involving past actions δέδοικα
  • presents which do not appear to be stative κέκραγα
  • ‘stative’ in the passive system ‘it is -ed’, γέγραπται
  • passive meaning in active morphology: κατέαγε ‘it is broken.

Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics

“The aspect of the perfect and pluperfect is sometimes called stative, resultative, completed, or perfective-stative. Whatever it is called, the kind of action portrayed (in its unaffected meaning) is a combination of the external and internal aspects: The action is presented externally (summary), while the resultant state proceeding from the action is presented internally (continuous state).(p573)

Wallace categorises uses into Intensive (Resultative) – emphasises the results or present state of a past action, and Extesnive (Consummative) – emphasises the completed action of a past action or process, from which a present state emerges. Then he includes ‘Aoristic Perfect’, ‘Perfect with a Present Force’ (e.g. οἶδα), Gnomic, Propleptic, Allegorical (?).

Athenaze (English) (chapter 27)

Athenaze, interestingly, introduces perfect middle/passive and participles first.

“enduring states or conditions resulted from completed actions” (p215)
“Greek thus distinguishes clearly between progressive, aorist, and perfective aspects”
“states or conditions existing as a result of completed actions. The state or condition described is ongoing or permanent” (p240)

Comment: This is really where I think Athenaze is the worst of all these. I know that it’s not uncommon to use the progressive/aorist terminology. But using ‘perfective’ for the perfect, is actually deeply misleading. The aorist system is perfective in aspect, and when you treat the aorist as ‘aoristic’ or ‘simple-past-time’ or ‘undefined’, you are confusing the Greek verbal system and confusing your students (if not now, then down the track).It is unfortunate that the English labels ‘perfect’ and ‘perfective’ are so close, and yet refer to quite distinct things in the Greek aspectual system.

Mastronarde (1993), p280-281

“the aspect of completed action with a continuing or permanent result”

In early Greek, “principally to the continuing state brought about in the subject of the action” e.g. μεμάθηκα. “In classical Attic, however, the use of the perfect was extended so that it could also express a permanent result affecting the object” e.g. τέθηκα.

Decker, Reading Koine Greek

Firstly, Decker is nice in that he uses perfective and imperfective labels throughout, though not always strictly correctly.

“The aspect of the perfect is stative: it describes a state/condition rather than an action – a situation described with no reference to change or expenditure of energy” (p329)

It is true, he concedes that a previous action is likely the cause, but Decker says that the verb implies nothing about that action, only about the condition that exists.

Mahoney First Greek Course (p174)

“The perfect tense has stative aspect. That is, it refers to a state that the subject is in, typically as a result of a prior action.” Or… “the perfect denotes the continuing consequences of a previous act.”

“τὸ βιβλίον γέγραφα means something like “I have the status of writer: I wrote the book and am therefore now a writer.”

Comment: I think this example is over-drawing the stative idea. Indeed, for γράφω I would think that the perfect normally applies to the completeness of the book, not to the state of the writer.

Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

p297, ‘Stative’, though their presentation draws from Porter, Wallace, Dana & Mantey, and focuses on the idea of (a) the state that results from a previous action, and (b) the combination of perfective and imperfective aspects. They then provide subcategories largely reflecting Wallace: Intensive, Consummative, Dramatic (Aoristic), Present-State, Gnomic, and Iterative.[1]

 

Conclusion:

There’s wide agreement among the intro grammars that the perfect is stative in aspect. How well that’s expressed varies though. I think some of these grammars struggle with how this actually contrasts with the imperfective and perfective aspects. In particular, the kind of approach in Athenaze is problematic, precisely because the perfect is not perfective, and I think having a schema that thinks Greek’s aspect system is progressive v aoristic v perfective is going to lead you astray.

Reading Greek has the advantage of recognising various ‘wrinkles’, but does nothing to help the learner sort them out.

Decker is good for using perfective/imperfective, though I think he overstates the fact that the perfect has no reference to a previous action. In verbs that are not themselves stative in semantics, I don’t see how you could suggest the stative does not necessarily entail prior action.

Wallace, and his not-quite-heirs, are useful in that sub-categorisation at least allows one to see the variety of usages and put them under some umbrella labels, though the general view that the Perfect is some kind of ‘combination’ of imperfective and perfective, I think is untenable.

 

In my next post I’ll turn to how I understand the Perfect, and some thoughts on teaching it.

[1] I think this last one is doubtful, based on their examples.

One response

  1. Pingback: The Greek Perfect, Learners, and you (part 1) — The Patrologist | Talmidimblogging

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