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
- Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek New Testament, with Reference to Greek and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1989) 107. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 202. [↩]
- Wallace, “Figure and Ground,” 202-3. [↩]
- Porter, Verbal Aspect, 77. [↩]
- 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! http://evepheso.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/remoteness-tense-in-english-and-greek/ [↩]