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Aug 4 / Steve Runge

The wonders of Discontinuity in discourse-I

I am working my way through Con Campbell’s Verbal Aspect, The Indicative Mood and Narrative, currently in the section on the present tense form. He has made some great observations about the kinds of verbs that are found in the historical present (HP), viz. that most are either verbs of speaking/communication, or verbs of propulsion i.e. movement. However, Rick Brannan pointed out that these two semantic classes of verbs are also the most frequently occurring, based on the LN semantic domains. Notwithstanding Rick being the precise contrarian, some hay can be made from Campbell’s point, but a bit further on.

Due to the preponderance of these patterns, Campbell generally opts for not seeing any special discourse function of the historical present in these contexts. More specifically, he feels that the presents that are verbs of speaking, which report speech, represent “spill” over from the dialogue itself, since the present tense is primarily found in dialogue. With regard to the verbs of propulsion, he claims that the historical present with the verb of propulsion is to “heighten the sense of transition” (66).

More broadly speaking, the HP is generally claimed to be some kind of paragraph marker, prominence marking device, or some combination of the two. Porter claims that the prominence of the HP is not so much because of its historical usage, but the foregrounding affect of the present tense form itself, based on its “semantic weight.”1 In terms of function, Porter seems to opt for more of an “all of the above” solution regarding its discourse function, based on the fact that the proposals work some of the time. The main claim he makes is that the semantic weight of the present is what brings about the effects, not using the wrong tense in a past context.2

What has been missing in the debate over the HP is a rationale for why the present sometimes seems to have special functions and sometimes not, why it stands out in some cases and sometimes not. What exactly is it that turns it from a mild-mannered verb form into one that seemingly has “extra-grammatical powers”?3

I will be claiming in my SBL paper that the sole discourse function of the HP is to segment the text into smaller chunks, nothing more. The answer to the questions regarding prominence marking and other such functions has more to do with the discourse role of discontinuity than with the HP itself. I presented a paper two years ago with Sean Boisen on the discourse function of seemingly redundant vocatives and nominative of address. In that presentation we alluded to how creating a new segment—not a paragraph, just a smaller chunk of text—can have various effects.

Established patterns and perceptions of discontinuity

Imagine driving along in a car at a consistent rate of speed, and seeing utility poles pass at a regular interval. If the poles began to be spaced more closely together and you were used to them passing at a consistent rate per minute, you would get the sense that you are going faster on the basis of the increased frequency of the passing poles. I have contended elsewhere that this same principle of patterns and changes in patterns is the key that unlocks the mystery of most discourse devices.

I demonstrated in my dissertation that that overspecified NPs in BH play the same discourse function as the particle DE in Greek, or temporal adverbs like then or next in English, to mark the next step or development of the discourse, segmenting the text into smaller chunks. In BH, one can use this same device to mark the approach of a peak or climax in the discourse by overencoding active participants more frequently than is needed for processing the text, i.e. breaking the expected pattern by increasing the frequency of the segments by making them shorter. The net result is the sense that the discourse has picked up pace, “the utility poles” seem to increase in speed. The same thing can be done in Greek or English, using the appropriate device. This principle has little to do with Greek in particular, and more to do with how God has wired us to process language.

Want a real life example of someone exploiting this principle? Consider Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Listen to it and you will notice that the segments of the speech between the “I have a dream” refrain get shorter and shorter as he nears the climax. It is the same “utility pole” principle again. The refrain serves to segment the speech into smaller chunks, sign-posting to the hearer the transition from one point to another. The first couple segments establish an expected length, allowing him to masterfully exploit this expectation to build to a crescendo.

Most every discourse device that I described in my grammar utilizes either redundancy or discontinuity to achieve its effect, often both. Instead of addressing “What is the discourse function of the HP” in my paper, I will present the discourse function of discontinuity, with the HP as the specific application of these principles.

So what do Con Campbell, Martin Luther King, and verbs of propulsion/speaking have to do with each other, you ask quizzically? Well, discontinuity of course! I’ll start with verbs of movement/propulsion in the next post.

  1. The concept of “semantic weight” deserves much greater attention, so it will have to wait for another post. []
  2. Again, this deserves more thorough inquisition, but later. []
  3. Yes, my dear Carl, I coined that term for you! []


  1. Rick Brannan / Aug 5 2009

    Since Steve mentioned me above (“However, Rick Brannan pointed out that these two semantic classes of verbs are also the most frequently occurring, based on the LN semantic domains”) I thought I’d provide some numbers on this assertion. I was going to do it all in this comment, but it got long, so I composed a post/response on my own blog:

    If you’re interested, check it out and let me know what you think.

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