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Mar 15 / Steve Runge

On contrastive substitution and the Greek verb

Ever since undertaking my 2009 SBL paper on the historical present, I have been obtaining and reading the core sources that Porter uses to support his theoretical framework describing the Greek verbal system as essentially a prominence-based aspectual system. He claims that it does not grammaticalize tense as time, but rather it is more spatial in nature. While there is widespread acknowledgment in the linguistic literature that Greek is highly aspectual, Porter is something of a lone voice in his claim that the verbal system is tenseless and does not convey time as a semantic feature. The latest acquisition was Stephen Wallace, “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories,” in Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1982), 201–223. Wallace’s work is often cited by Porter in support of his grounding model of aspect.

Now Porter relies heavily upon a concept called “contrastive substitution” in building his case against tense grammaticalizing time in Greek. The basic idea is that if the Present tense really grammaticalizes present time as a tense, then it should not be found in non-present contexts. The reasoning goes that if the tense-forms are regularly found in contexts that clash with their purported temporal meaning, then it must be grammaticalizing something other than tense, i.e. aspect. Thus in summarizing the arguments presented on pp. 76-82, Porter concludes, “On the basis of contrastive substitution, it is clearly shown that tense forms in Greek are not primarily time based (i.e. tense is not grammaticalized in Greek) but that they are aspectually based.”1 Twenty years on, Porter reaffirms this claim, stating “Verbal aspect theory is the theory that tense-forms in Greek do not grammaticalize temporal relations, but another semantic category concerned with how a speaker or writer chooses to conceptualize and present a process. Contrastive substitution, as well as other determiners, shows that tense-forms in Greek are not time-based, even in the indicative, but that temporal relations are established through other means.”2 So while contrastive substitution is not his only determiner, it is significant enough that it is the only one he mentions by name.

Here is where it gets interesting. In Wallace’s article that Porter relies upon heavily to substantiate his argument for “grounding,” Wallace also discusses contrastive substitution. His objective is not to disprove the presence of tense, but to show that:

The problems with the classical trinity [i.e. tense, mood and aspect], as I shall detail in this section, are two. One, it is an arbitrary division of verbal semantics into compartments which are not quite as easily separable as one is led to believe. Time, aspectuality, and modality—the semantic fields to which the formal categories of tense, aspect, and mode [mood] are supposed to refer—are almost inextricably scrambled together.”3

In other words, Wallace is claiming that it is almost impossible to clearly establish a division at the level of semantics between tense and aspect in most cases. This should have been a harbinger of the challenge Porter and others face is their attempt to disprove the existence of tense, when more likely what was (and is) needed is a more sophisticated understanding of tense, aspect, and the interplay of the two. But alas, I digress.

The real surprise in reading Wallace’s article was seeing him apply the same model of contrastive substitution to English. By Porter’s standards, this should significantly undermine the well-accepted notion that English verbs grammaticalize tense. Here begins an extended quote:

But ‘present’ and ‘past’ tenses are by no means free from meanings traditionally classified as modal. Note the pervasive existence of the ‘historical present’—the ‘present’ tense used to narrate past events—in languages such as Greek, Latin, English, French, Georgian, and Bulgarian (Comrie 1976:73-8); Bennett 169; Goodwin 269). The effect of such usage is supposedly to make the narrative more ‘lively’ or ‘vivid’ (but see Wolfson). Observe further the polite or indirect use of the ‘past’ tense in English and French (Leech 11; Waugh 1975:463-5) where one might expect the ‘present,’ especially with regard to cognition and emotion. In English, for example, to say ‘Did you want me?’ with reference to a present desire is more tentative and thus more polite than to say abruptly ‘Do you want me?’…

The fundamental question therefore is: If ‘present’ and ‘past’ tense do not necessarily refer to present and past time, if the ‘present’ can refer to the past and the ‘past’ to the present, how are we justified in talking about tense and time with regard to these categories? At least to me it would seem that when authors talk about the ‘imaginative use of tenses’ (Babbitt 264) or the ‘illusion of presentness’ (Comrie 1976:74), they are no longer talking about time but something else. No reasonable person would deny that time is an important semantic property of the categories of tense. The moot point is whether or not it is a focal, central, neutral property…In fact, one wonders whether a language exists in which ‘tense’ refers only to time.4

Although Wallace does not provide examples for every English tense in every temporal context, such a feat could be accomplished  using a series of Google searches and checking the temporal reference. If you have examples to suggest, leave a comment.

It was at this point that I scratched my head and wondered. First, Wallace does not claim that tense is absent in English on the basis of contrastive substitution; instead he uses it to illustrate the complexity of the issues. Even a highly time-oriented tense system like English does not grammaticalize absolute time in the tense. He seems incredulous that such a thing is even possible. Yet this is the very kind of standard to which Porter holds the Greek tense-form, and not surprisingly finds it wanting. He summarizes the case of the present tense-form, stating: “Applying this to the Greek examples above, it becomes clear according to a principle of contrastive substitution…–by which the identical form is used in different temporal contexts—that Greek does not grammaticalize absolute tense with the Present, since only Matt 8:25 clearly makes reference to present time as defined above.”5 He makes similar claims about the other tense-forms elsewhere in this chapter.

Why did I scratch my head? Because it should have been clear from reading Wallace that to claim that tense does not grammaticalize absolute time in Greek on the basis of contrastive substitution is little more than a straw-man argument. Sadly, this claim has gone largely unchallenged for two decades.6 Far from disproving the presence of a temporal semantic element in the tense-form, it merely highlights the complexity of the system, a point Wallace has already made clear from his use of contrastive substitution in English. Far more would be required to be able to substantiate the claim that temporal semantics are absent in Greek tense-forms. Rather, what is needed is a more patient description using something other than absolute categories, since Wallace has made the point that tense and aspect are virtually inseparable. I illustrated a way forward in my historical present paper by showing how reformulating one’s presuppositions about tense-forms based on how they operate in other languages can change the chaotic distributional data into something approaching 95% consistency. I expect that that percentage would drop as the data was increased, my primary purpose was demonstrating that these issues are not unknowable. Rather they necessitate a reevaluation of core presuppositions being used by those arguing against the presence of temporal semantics in tense-forms.

To be sure, aspect is far more prominent in Greek than it is in English, whereas the opposite is true of tense in English. However, in neither case is it a matter of absolute tense or absolute aspect, with the other being completely absent. Nonetheless, this is the kind of case that Porter undertakes to build. The arguments marshaled by Wallace advocate taking a different tack in describing the relationship of tense and aspect to time in Koine Greek. These issues should have been engaged 20 years ago when the ideas were initially being formulated.

Return to On Porter, Prominence and Aspect

  1. Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek New Testament, with Reference to Greek and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1989) 107. []
  2. Stanley E. Porter, “Prominence: An Overview,” in The Linguist as Pedagogue, ed. Stanley E Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2009), 58-59. []
  3. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 202. []
  4. Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 202-3. []
  5. Porter, Verbal Aspect, 77. []
  6. Mike Aubrey is one of the few who have raised the issue, but I had forgotten where until he posted a comment for me. Thanks Mike! []


  1. Josh Mann / Mar 15 2010

    I think you’ve raised an important issue. As I studied the debate, I kept coming back to the same question: If temporal reference is encoded in the tense-form (i.e., it is a semantic feature), should one expect the temporal reference to remain unchanged in (most) every usage of any given tense-form?

  2. Mike Aubrey / Mar 16 2010

    Here’s my own post on a similar issue from last May:

  3. Rod Decker / Mar 16 2010

    Have you talked to Porter about his take on this?

  4. Steve Runge / Mar 16 2010

    Rod, I spoke with Porter briefly at SBL regarding his view of markedness compared to that of Zwicky, Comrie and Lyons; and about the concept of “frontground” in his grounding model. I only read Wallace’s work Saturday, so I have not spoken with him in person. I discussed each issue I was aware of at that time. He confirmed that I was correctly understanding his positions.

    On contrastive substitution, I am taking his written work to be representative of his view on the matter. His most recent article “Prominence: an overview” goes a long way toward clarifying his understanding of such issues compared to how he frames things in “Verbal Aspect.” He is far less tentative, removing room for questions I previously had. I read that article on Friday, so there was no opportunity to discuss it.

    I have proposed a paper in the BGLL section to present these issues. I am in the process of writing a detailed article which will allow for a detailed response and dialogue.

    Did these questions come up in preparation of your “Temporal Deixis” volume?

  5. Rachel Aubrey / Mar 19 2010

    Steve, your want for tense examples reminded me of a paper I read last year. Spyridoula Bella published an article in the Journal of Greek Linguistics entitled: Cognitive motivation and Pragmatic functions of the Greek deictics (2005).

    Bella writes, “in extended functions [of deixis] the traditional notions of proximity and distance are interpreted as metaphorical mappings from the physical to the conceptual domain” (40). Using relevance and distance, and both standard and extended uses of deictic elements, Bella discusses deictic tense in Modern Greek (40).
    With examples from natural speech, she argues that present tense encodes prominence because the content is considered salient between speaker and audience. She examines situations such as one in which her co-worker used present tense to tell her about a man she liked, but past tense to explain who the same man was to another co-worker. The “proximal” present brings the subject toward deictic centre because it is shared information between the speaker and Bella. She used past tense to encode distant, less relevant information to the second co-worker because the content was not salient to their relationship.
    In another case, which I found to be prominent in English as well, Bella describes how the past tense is used to distance information, thus communicating politeness in a sensitive context. A student visits a professor’s office during non-office hours, the student addresses the professor in this way: “I wanted to see you for a bit. Do you have a minute now?” The speaker distanced herself from an action that could be viewed as peremptory. If the student construes her request in the past, then it is perceived as less urgent, and thus distant from her demand for the professor’s time.
    Past tense signals distance in other ways too. It has a detaching aspect as well, where the vantage point is from the participants’ point of view. It implies that “the people other than the speaker who at a certain place (there) and a certain time (then) were participants in the event” (45). In Bella’s analysis, deictic tense and the shift in focus between distance and relevance, shows a cognitive pragmatic system that works for both standard uses (now, then, here, there) and extended uses (past and present tense) of deixis in Greek.
    She claims that tenses carry pragmatic nuances, such as attitude, evaluation, and point of view. Conceptually, present tense encodes absence of distance and presence of relevance, while past tense points to the opposite. A study of how tense communicates distance and point of view may be a worthwhile and interesting pursuit. In light of Levinson (2003), Bella’s tenses in Modern Greek may fit into his conceptual frames of reference, with present tense as a viewer-centered frame, and past as object (or participant)-centered.

  6. Mike Aubrey / Mar 19 2010

    That’s my wife.

  7. Jared Lovell / May 27 2011

    This article is very interesting as I have been trying to work out how one might view the “unexpected usages” of time as some sort of pragmatic implication if time was grammaticalised in the tense-form, as Gentry (seems to) suggest.

    What I find difficult about this view is that if aspect and tense are so inextricably bound up can there be a language (say Hebrew for e.g.) that was completely aspectual?


  8. Steve Runge / May 27 2011

    There are indeed languages that do not grammaticalize temporal information in the verb, they do it some other way. Every language has the same basic tasks to accomplish, but each places a different value on things like time. It is very important in the English system, yet Stephen Wallace’s work shows that even here it can play second fiddle to other interests. And because it does so does not negate the presence temporal semantics in the verb form. Bear in mind as well that my claims about temporal semantics in Greek are restricted to the indicative mood.

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