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Jan 29 / Steve Runge

Markedness, Part 2

This is the second part of an introduction to markedness, specifically an asymmetrical view. In the first part, I talked about how the default is the most basic member of a complex set, the option that generally occurs most frequently. This becomes the canon or baseline against which the non-default or marked options are described. Each of the marked options is understood to signal that some distinct feature is present that the default would not have signaled. If the default is used, the feature may or may not be present; nothing about the default signals one way or the other. So let’s take a set of items and organize it based on what each member of the set marks or signals is present.

If we look at the Greek verbal system, for instance, we could take the standard explanations of the verb forms and organize them as an asymmetrical system. The aorist form is generally understood to portray the action as an undifferentiated whole. It is the form that is used when there is no particular interest in looking at some aspect of the action in greater detail. Aorist also happens to be the most frequently occurring form in narrative proper, reported speeches, and epistolary literature. Based on its simplicity and its frequency, it is reasonable to take the aorist as the unmarked or default form around which the asymmetrical explanation of the verbs would be organized.  Saying it is the default makes no judgment about the significance or prominence of the aorist, as in a symmetrical framework. It simply forms the canon against which the other forms will be described. In other words, the other forms will be described by how the are not the aorist. The aorist is the form used when you do not “care enough to send the very best.”

The present and imperfect form are generally differentiated from the aorist on the basis of perfectivity. While the aorist protrays the action as perfective (i.e. a complete, undifferentiated whole), the aorist present and imperfect grammaticalize imperfective action. Both forms explicitly mark the presence of impefectivity, portraying the action as ongoing or incomplete. A writer may use an aorist form to describe an action that is ongoing or incomplete. However, the aorist is unmarked for imperfectivity. It may or may not be present, nothing in the form signals whether it is present or not. The aorist portrays the action as an undifferentiated whole, nothing more. If the writer had wanted to draw attention to the imperfective nature of an action, i.e. to explicitly mark this feature as present, he would need to use a form that explicitly marks it. In Koine, this would be the imperfect or present forms.

Wallace describes what he calls the “ingressive aorist” wherein the aorist tense “may be used to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state.”1 He cites Matthew 9:27, 22:7, John 4:52 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 as examples. However, if the aorist is indeed perfective (which I believe it is), and if it views the action as an undifferentiated whole (which I believe it does), then it is not accurate to describe the aorist as “stressing the beginning of an action.” From an asymmetrical view of the verb forms, an action in the aorist may or may not be incomplete or ingressive. Nothing in the form marks this feature. It seems better to say that actions expressed in the aorist may indeed be more complex, but nothing about the aorist “stresses” this. If a writer had wanted to stress it, he would have used a form that explicitly marks the desired feature.

In the case of Wallace’s examples, the ingressive nature of the action is better understood as being unmarked, present but not stressed. And in contrast to the symmetrical view of markedness–which views the aorist as the least prominent form because it is most common–the asymmetrical view is concerned with what feature is marked as present. In many cases, the default option does correlate with “least prominent”. However, as one moves up the symmetrical cline or frequency, the explanatory power of the system quickly breaks down.

One last comment about Wallace’s claim. In the description of the ingressive aorist, he states further, “Unlike the ingressive imperfect, there is no implication that the action continues. This is simply left unstated. The ingressive aorist is quite common.”2 In other words, it is sort of like an ingressive imperfect, but not really. To claim that the aorist form portrays the action as an undifferentiated whole is not to deny that the action is more complex, as Wallace claims regarding these ingressive aorists. Instead, the use of the aorist implies a meaning: If the writer had wanted to explicitly mark the action as ingressive, the imperfect form would have explicitly done so. Use of the aorist implies a disinterest on the writer’s part in explicitly marking the ingressive nature. This may be motivated by it being so obvious that a caveman could recognize it. Alternatively, it may be that the writer was more concerned with other matters, and simply wanted to express the action without a finer differentiation regarding the kind of action.

So to summarize, the asymmetrical view of markedness is an organizational framework for breaking down a complex set to facilitate the description of each member. The most basic member of the set (which often happens to be the most frequently occurring) is adopted as the canon or baseline, called the default. It is used to describe the other members of the set by describing how they differ from the default, and from each other. The default is considered to be unmarked for the features found marked in the other members. It may or may not be present, there is no explicit marker to indicate one way or another. In contrast, the other members each mark a unique constraint or feature as being present, ones that are unmarked by the default. The asymmetrical approach allows a complex set to be broken down and organized into essentially binary oppositions, allowing one to discretely compare members to determine the meaningful differences among them.

In contrast, the symmetrical view organizes the same set based on frequency of occurrence, with the least frequent ones being construed as the “most marked”. There is no answer to the question of “Marked for what?” in this system, other than to say they are “more prominent”. The goal of the symmetrical view is not to isolate the meaningful difference between each member. The more marked forms are simply considered to be more prominent, to stand out more in the discourse. It holds little explanatory value in determining the meaningful differences between each of the forms. The complex set remains complex, simply reorganized by frequency. I will drop the issue of symmetrical markedness from here on out. It is crucial that you understand the distinction that I make here, as the two views are near opposites.

If there is anyone out there that can provide a cogent answer to my questions of “Marked for what?” or “What is the meaningful difference between the more marked and less marked forms other than ‘markedness’ or ‘prominence’?” I would love to hear it. I have been asking since 2005 and am still waiting.

I will take up the imperfective aspect in the next post. Isn’t grammar wonderful?

  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 1:558 (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002).  []
  2. Ibid. []

24 Comments

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  1. Paul O'Rear / Jan 29 2009

    Great stuff, Steve. In your third paragraph, I think you meant to say:

    While the aorist protrays the action as perfective (i.e. a complete, undifferentiated whole), the *present* and imperfect grammaticalize imperfective action.

    Rather than ‘the aorist’.

  2. Steve Runge / Jan 29 2009

    Thanks, Paul. On rereading I found about six other typos that your were probably kind enough not to point out. Thanks for the heads up on the wrong content. I love the detail people in my life!

  3. Paul O'Rear / Jan 29 2009

    Re: your question of:
    “What is the meaningful difference between the more marked and less marked forms other than ‘markedness’ or ‘prominence’?”

    Without being too facetious, isn’t the difference the meaning?

    Bringing the question back into the general idea of discourse, the notion of ‘markedness’ or ‘prominence’ of something seems to apply more at an individual word level – like if an individual form is ‘marked’ then somehow that single thing is generally important.

    But perhaps we can better say that the ‘markedness’ or ‘prominence’ of something affects the overall semantic meaning of the combined elements in the discourse at hand. That there are interdependent links or impacts between marked and unmarked elements in any given discourse that will affect the overall meaning.

    Sort of a ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ type of relationship.

  4. Steve Runge / Jan 29 2009

    If you read Porter and O’Donnnel’s “The Greek Verbal Network Viewed from a Probabilistic Standpoint: An Exercise in Hallidayan Linguistics.” Filologia Neotestamentaria, Vol.14(2001) 3-41, you will find them claiming something more than simply the difference in meaning. Here is the link: http://www.bsw.org/?l=7214

  5. Paul O'Rear / Jan 29 2009

    Thank you for the pointer – I’ll check that out.

  6. Rod Decker / Jan 29 2009

    > Wallace describes what he calls the “ingressive aorist” wherein
    > the aorist tense “may be used to stress the beginning of an
    > action or the entrance into a state.” …
    > an action in the aorist may or may not be incomplete or ingressive.
    > Nothing in the form marks this feature.

    I think the basic problem with this sort of statement is attributing Aktionsart values to a grammatical form rather than to a complex of factors including lexis, tense/aspect, and context. This has been a perennial problem in NT grammars and commentaries.

  7. Daniel B. Wallace / Jan 30 2009

    Rod, I would have to disagree with you pretty strongly here. I said that the ingressive aorist is an aorist that “may be used to stress the beginning of an action…” The language there is very carefully worded: it is the author who is using an aorist to convey a meaning that is more than the aorist, by itself, can convey. I am not in any sense attributing Aktionsart to a grammatical form. A careful reading of my grammar shows that I make a very careful distinction between what a form means by itself and what it can be used to indicate when lexeme, context, genre, and other grammatical features are combined. I do agree with you that this has been a perennial problem among grammars and commentaries–one of the reasons I wrote my grammar.

  8. Steve Runge / Jan 30 2009

    Dan,
    Thanks for the clarification, it shows that we are looking at the same phenomenon of the aorist being used for a wide range of actions. My only caveat is that if the writer were seeking to stress an ingressive sense, the imperfect form seems like the more viable option for drawing attention to it. According to my view, the aorist does not signal it one way or the other. Your comment is most appreciated.

  9. Rod Decker / Jan 30 2009

    Dan (& Steve), That’s an interesting clarification Dan–and I agree with the sentiments of your reply. But I wonder then why we call it an “ingressive aorist”? The ingressive idea, you say, is “a meaning that is more than the aorist, by itself, can convey. I am not in any sense attributing Aktionsart to a grammatical form.” Is not, then, the ingressive a contextual description rather than a feature of the aorist? Even though, yes, the aorist is one part of that statement? It seems to be that it’s not the *aorist* that’s ingressive. Rod

  10. Daniel B. Wallace / Jan 30 2009

    Rod,
    I think that the reason grammarians have given various grammatical forms detailed labels that go beyond the form is because they are dealing with syntax, not morphology. Further, they are dealing with pragmatics, though most grammarians (as opposed to linguists) don’t use that term much. Thus, an ingressive aorist means an aorist that is used by an author in a certain context and almost always with certain lexemes to communicate the beginning of an action. If you want to insist that we not use such syntactical and pragmatic terms for grammatical forms, then all of syntax will have to be rewritten. But wouldn’t it be a bit cumbersome to speak of “genitive, with the basic notion of possession, used by an author in certain contexts, in relation to certain nomens regens, and involving other grammatical intrusions, to convey the meaning of semantic subject of the verbal idea of the head noun”–INSTEAD of speaking of a subjective genitive as a morpho-syntactic category? You’ll notice that I never call such uses a morphological category; they are morpho-syntactic. That is, a subjective genitive, an ingressive aorist, etc. are titles used to describe what an author does with certain morphological categories.

    Steve, my basic disagreement with you is that it seems you are looking merely at aspect rather than Aktionsart. An ingressive aorist is one that does indeed stress the beginning of an action, but it says nothing about it continuing. The aorist by itself cannot do this, but in combination with lexeme, genre, context, and other grammatical forms, it can. This is what I call the ‘semantic situation’ and what linguists call pragmatics. So, the question I would have of you is: If an author wanted to stress the beginning of an action that did not continue, what choices does he have?

  11. Steve Runge / Feb 1 2009

    “So, the question I would have of you is: If an author wanted to stress the beginning of an action that did not continue, what choices does he have?”

    From my view, I would not attribute the “stressing” that may come about to the aorist. There was an issue that stymied me doing the LDGNT analysis, the use of ἤρξατο essentially as a helping verb. My initial reaction was to think ingressive, in the sense of ingressive imperfect, but they were all aorist in form, and largely restricted to narrative proper. Not all are indicatives, some are circumstantial participles. I honestly have never thought about stressing the beginning of an action that did not continue. Certainly one would not expect an imperfective aspect. Aorist is your only option. But to *stress* the beginning would take something more that the verb form alone. In looking as the ἤρξατο tokens, I would lean toward saying this is a way to stress it. I do not see the need to claim that the beginning of the action is stressed in Mt 9:27 or 22:7. It seems that the blind men followed Jesus long enough to follow him into the house. I do not see the need to claim much beyond looking at the action as an undifferentiated whole. The present participles that follow ἠκολούθησαν elaborate on the action. The conversation with Jesus seems to be a primary focus of the pericope. They needed to follow to establish the situation. YOu define the ingressive aorist as stressing the beginning, with no implication that the action continues. In the case of 9:27, is does continue, as you state: “The following verse makes it clear that an ingressive idea is meant, for the blind men are still following Jesus.” I do not see what is gained by claiming a stress on the beginning of the action when it ends up continuing.

    I would say the same about 22:7. The kings anger is important in that it explains why he sends troops and destroys the people and their city. I do not see a need to stress the beginning of the anger that did not necessarily continue. He still seems to be a bit ticked off at the people in v. 8 in referring to them as unworthy. Again, I would not feel compelled to claim anything beyond viewing the action as undifferentiated. I am not that granular, for better or for worse. The various factors of the context do not make a compelling case to me. I do not think about such matters in this kind of detail.

    This is my answer for narrative proper, but have not looked thoroughly into the issue in the epistles and reported speech. My gut reaction would be to say aorist tense combined with temporal adverbial information to add the stress. Again, I would attribute the stress to the adverbial info, not to the tense form. The aorist is really one’s only choice to represent stressing the beginning. From a methodological standpoint, I tend to focus on describing the “affecting” factors, like temporal frames of reference, and let the verb form stand on its own, unless the form itself is what brings about the affect. This will be the case in my discussion of the historical present.

  12. Daniel B. Wallace / Feb 1 2009

    Steve, that’s an excellent response. I appreciate it very much. I think we’re pretty close to each other. We both agree that the verb form itself cannot stress ingressiveness. I think that you think I do believe that it can, however, when you say, “Again, I would attribute this stress to the adverbial info, not to the tense form” as though I did the latter. But where we disagree is here: it seems that you are restricting how an author can stress ingressiveness to only a couple of options. But if he chooses to be more succinct in his writing, he can also stress it. I think that the aorist tense, in combination with the lexeme, context, other grammatical features, genre can indeed be shaped by an author to stress ingressiveness. Secondly, I do find it helpful to think in such categories because to not do so is to miss, in my view, part of what the author is saying. At the same time, you may have offered a corrective to how I construct things: I noted in my grammar that an ingressive aorist stresses just the beginning of the act, while an ingressive imperfect stresses the beginning but also implies continuation. In that context, I was arguing that the aorist _in contrast to the imperfect_ stresses only the beginning. But I was not making statements about what the aorist’s primary function is, even when ingressive. This may require a bit more clarification on my part. Thanks again for the interaction.

  13. Steve Runge / Feb 1 2009

    Dan wrote, “I think that you think I do believe that it can, however, when you say, “Again, I would attribute this stress to the adverbial info, not to the tense form” as though I did the latter.” I will own that one, you’re right. I just wish there was more ability to more closely associate the affect with the primary thing bringing about the affect. The greater this gap, the greater the probability for confusion. Thanks for helping me eat my own dog food ( a friend from Texas says this is a common saying down there). I ranted about the need to engage scholars on their own terms, not based on how they are not using my approach, and are thus wrong. Six months ago I could not have had nearly so coherent a discussion as now, so perhaps there is hope for continued improvement. I think that Carl deserves much credit in screwing my head on straight about some of these things, though I expect he probably tore some hair out along the way.

  14. Daniel B. Wallace / Feb 2 2009

    LOL! Steve, “eat your own dog food” might be a Texas expression, but I’ve never heard it. Of course, I’m not FROM Texas (genitive of source), though I do now live here.

  15. Paul O'Rear / Feb 3 2009

    We say that quite a bit in the software industry, where it implies that you should be using the product you’re developing – regularly and often – so that you experience any pain that the end customer might feel before they do. (And therefore fix it!)

  16. John Lawless / Feb 4 2009

    I am only a third year Greek student about to graduate from Golden Gate Seminary. Yet, Steve I would offer one suggestion. When disagreeing with Dr. Wallace it might be adviseable to wear a steel helmet. It might come in handy if God should choose to strike you with lightning. LOL.

  17. Steve Runge / Feb 4 2009

    Based on the interactions of the last week, I am quite happy to take my chances without a helmet! 1 Pet 3:15

  18. Rod Decker / Feb 4 2009

    Hmmm. John may not have your best interests at heart Steve. Steel is a conductor… :)

    Though it is true that one disagrees with respected grammarians with due caution!

  19. Dan / Jul 23 2013

    Just wanted to say that this is awesome. Wallace and Runge smackdown. Made my day this has.

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