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Mar 21 / Steve Runge

On background, foreground and genre in Greek

This post follows on with more information from Stephen Wallace’s “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories.”1 This post is meant to summarize Wallace’s arguments, so what follows uses quotations extensively in order to best represent his position. Wallace’s article is foundational to Porter’s model of “grounding”: i.e. assigning background and foreground (and frontground in Porter’s case) to the various tense-forms. Wallace’s model follows that of Grimes,2 Hopper and Thompson,3 Jones and Jones,4 and Longacre and Levinsohn,5 in using a simple binary opposition of background and foreground. While this sounds very much like Porter’s claim (and much of it is), there is one very significant difference. Not one of the ‘godfathers of grounding’ ever make a global claim about grounding. For instance, some make the claim that the present is the foreground tense in non-narrative genres, whereas Porter makes a global claim that it is always the foreground tense, regardless of genre. I have bolded the references to genre in the literature to help highlight this point. Claiming the Greek tense-forms are globally always background (aorist) or always foreground (present/imperfect) represents a major departure from the linguistic literature on grounding. The literature he cites does not substantiate the claims he makes.

Wallace describes background and foreground as follows:

Included in the foreground, for instance, are the more important events of a narrative, the more important steps of a procedure, the central points of an exposition, the main characters or entities involved in an episode. The background includes events of lesser importance, subsidiary procedures, secondary points, descriptions, elaborations, digressions and minor characters or things.6

He goes on the make the same point that Con Campbell makes regarding the salience of background information:

The mainline of the narrative text is concerned with the major events, actions, and developments that project the narrative in the direction it is going. Without the sequence of mainline events and actions, offline information, such as supplemental information, inside information, speech and so forth, will not make sense; these require the mainline to provide context and to enable the reader to understand how the narrative arrived at the location where such offline material is meaningful. Offline material is contingent and dependent upon the mainline events.7

Background information provides the context within which the foreground events or content take place. It is considered background primarily because it does not advance the narrative or argument. Wallace then goes on to cite examples from Greek and Latin to illustrate these concepts.

Grammarians of Latin and Greek, who have produced some of the most detailed grammars in existence, have been long aware, especially with regard to narrative discourse, of the role of aspectual contrasts in providing different sorts of information in extended texts. They point out, for example, that the Latin “perfect” and Greek “aorist” provide the basic narration, that is, the presentation of the central sequential events, whereas the “imperfect” in these languages is the verb form of description, the depiction of attendant circumstances (Bennett 169-70; Goodwin 269-72); Moore 74; Schwyzer 277). More recent analyses of aspect in other languages make similar judgments about the function of the contrast of perfective vs. imperfective in narrative discourse.8

He goes on to cite similar claims made about Russian, Homeric Greek, French, and Zapotec (Mexico). Regarding Zapotec,

In analyzing a narrative text from this language, Jones and Jones find that the completive aspect marks events which are ‘important in the plot progression,’ those which constitute the ‘backbone events’ of the narrative. The other aspects, however, serve to give ‘background information’: ‘less significant events,’ ‘elaboration or extra information, such as descriptions of scene or characters, or minor events concurrent with major events.’9

Here is the key conclusion for the whole section, and something that I think has been overlooked by Porter:

The general conclusion, discussed in some detail by Hopper (1979), is the following: If a language has a contrast between a perfective (completive, non-durative, punctual) aspect and other aspects, then part of the meaning of the perfective aspect, at least in narration, is to specify major, sequential, foregrounded events, while part of the meaning of the contrasting non-perfective aspects, particularly an imperfective, is to give supportive background information.10

You may have noticed that I bolded any reference to genre-specific things in these comments. It is because they are targeted to specific genres, e.g. narrative. If you go back to the initial quote, Wallace discusses both narrative and non-narrative. I repeat it again for clarity sake:

Included in the foreground, for instance, are the more important events if a narrative, the more important steps of a procedure, the central points of an exposition, the main characters or entities involved in an episode. The background includes events of lesser importance, subsidiary procedures, secondary points, descriptions, elaborations, digressions and minor characters or things.11

The important thing to note here is that the element that is claimed by Wallace to be the mainline depends upon the genre in which it occurs. The claim that the aorist is the mainline, foreground tense-form is limited to narrative proper in Greek. It is not a global claim, in rather stark contrast to Porter’s claims. I say narrative-proper in order to draw a distinction between reported speeches that are embedded within a narrative. Speeches are considered non-narrative, tending to follow the principles that govern expository genres like the NT epistles.

In contrast, Porter’s model seemingly ignores the key distinction made by most every linguist working on grounding. I have not found anyone besides Porter who attempts a global claim about an aspect like Stative always being most prominent, or Perfective always being least prominent. I expect that if someone had, he would have cited them. This is not just a terminological issue, it critically impacts Porter’s claims about the prominence of the various tense-forms. His claim that the perfective is always the least prominent is dependent upon that fact that it always carries the ‘background’. This is not the case; grounding changes from one genre to another. Porter’s model is in serious jeopardy. One of the core pillars on which it is build–Wallace’s grounding model–has no support for a global claim about the grounding of a tense. Porter’s most recent article, “Prominence: an overview,” does acknowledge that the “mainline” and “offline” changes from genre to genre, but ignores the fact that linguists use “foreground” and “mainline” as synonyms. Porter must reconcile these differences, and more significantly must find some other support to substantiate his genre-blind claims about grounding. It cannot be found in Wallace, Hopper, Dry, Tomlin or Lyons. I think this will prove to be a very difficult task for him, should he chose to do it.

If you have not already, I would strongly encourage you to read Stephen Wallace’s article, it is chuck full of goodness. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading the primary literature for yourself, see here why.

Return to On Porter, Prominence and Aspect

“Included in the foreground, for instance, are the more important events if a narrative, the more important steps of a procedure, the central points of an exposition, the main characters or entities involved in an episode. The background includes events of letter importance, subsidiary procedures, secondary points, descriptions, elaborations, digressions and minor characters or things.”12
  1. Pp. 201–223 in Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics, ed.  Paul J. Hopper (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1982). []
  2. Grimes, Joseph Evans. The Thread of Discourse. The Hague: Walter de Gruyter, 1975. []
  3. Hopper, Paul J., and Sandra A. Thompson. “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse.” Language 56: 251–99. []
  4. Jones, Linda K. J, and Linda K. Jones. Theme in English Expository Discourse. Edward Sapir Monograph Series in Language, Culture, and Cognition 2. Lake Bluff: Jupiter Press, 1977. []
  5. Longacre, Robert E., and S. H Levinsohn. “Field Analysis of Discourse.” In Current Trends in Textlinguistics, edited by Wolfgang U. Dressler, 103–22, 1978. []
  6. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 208, bolding mine. []
  7. Constantine Campbell, Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament (Studies in Biblical Greek 13. New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 116. []
  8. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 208, bolding mine. []
  9. Ibid, 209, bolding mine. []
  10. Ibid, bolding mine. []
  11. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 208, bolding mine. []
  12. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 208. []