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Mar 26 / Steve Runge

More on background, foreground and genre

This post takes up a point raised here regarding the problems associated with making claims of global prominence of verbal aspect based largely on frequency. I noted that linguists studying grounding claim that the grounding role played by a given aspect varies from genre to genre. Moises Silva raised this issue from the very outset in his SBL conference presentation, highlighting the problem Porter’s claims faces as one moves from one genre to another or from one author to another, the latter of which Silva describes in terms of “ideolect”. His point is that if the aorist is least prominent since it is the purportedly the most frequently occurring, then what results obtain in contexts where this no longer holds true?

Another restriction to which more attention needs to be given is that of individual preferences (idiolect). Porter places a good bit of emphasis on the present as the marked aspect, especially in the subjunctive and imperative moods. Part of the argument is that the aorist is more frequent than the present (p. 323). But this distribution is not consistent among the various authors. The present imperative in Paul, for example, is at least three times more frequent than the aorist (the difference is considerably greater if we leave out of account the more than 20 instances of ἀσπάσασθε, most of which occur in Rom. 16).1

Porter’s global claims are really only mostly true in narrative proper. His frequency claims match up there, the use of the historical present (HP)  indeed adds prominence, but not for the reasons he claims.2 Whether Silva knew it or not (and I’d like to think he did), he is echoing the very same sentiment about the affect of genre on grounding (and thus on prominence) that is found in virtually all of the linguistic literature Porter cites. I would expect that if any linguist had made a comparable global claim about aspectual prominence to that of Porter, he most certainly would have cited it.

If you go back and read Porter’s argumentation in support of his background-foreground-frontground model of aspectual prominence,3 it is inextricably tied to “distributional frequency.” Thus, since the aorist is the most frequent, it must be the least prominent. Porter does use other pillars to support this claim in his dissertation, particularly the idea that various kinds of markedness contribute to “semantic weight” of each tense-form. However, the problem raised by Silva 20 years ago remains unresolved: the theoretical claim of global prominence in contrast to the reality that foregrounding changes from genre to genre. Porter’s claim either needs to be reformulated, or other literature that specifically supports his claim must be provided.

Return to On Porter, Prominence and Aspect

  1. Moises Silva,  “A Response to Fanning and Porter on Verbal Aspect.” Pp. 74-82 in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research, edited by Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 79. []
  2. See Runge, “Verbal Aspect of the Historical Present.” Paper delivered to Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Section at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA, November 21, 2009, available here. []
  3. Porter, Verbal Aspect, 92-93, 178-81. []

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