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Aug 17 / Steve Runge

Aspect: Areas of Agreement

A great point was raised on Facebook yesterday that deserves a bit more consideration. The comment came from a NT scholar looking in as an outsider to the debate about the Greek verb. There seems to be this notion that if one rejects the idea of a timeless verb in Greek, then one must also reject the idea that it conveys verbal aspect. Thus, to do so dooms one to become re-enslaved to viewing the verb as conveying absolute tense and Aktionsart, the very things Frank Stagg fought against. DOOM, DOOM!

Well folks, I am here to tell you that this is not really the case. Regardless of the hype, there is actually quite a bit more consensus on these issues than you might think. If you like Porter’s taxonomy then we have something in common; I like it too. Here is what I mean:

  1. Greek tense-forms convey perfective, imperfective, or a third kind of tense/aspect.
  2. The aspects are present in every mood, whereas tense (“spatial proximity/remoteness” for you timeless folks) is only found in the indicative mood.
  3. The aorist conveys perfective aspect, the present and imperfect convey imperfective aspect, and the perfect and pluperfect convey a third thing. Porter calls it stative aspect, which I can live with.1

On these issues I have sided with Porter’s taxonomy, both on the web and in print. Other than the quibbling over what to call the perfect, there is a high degree of consensus regarding perfective and imperfective aspect, and how the Greek tense-forms align with them.

So how did people get the impression that if you reject some portion of Porter’s framework that you are rejecting it all? Well, he has framed it as an all-or-nothing proposition. He cast things as though standing in opposition to his ideas is to argue in favor of a “once for all time” aorist and so on. This is rhetorical scare tactic, but it has proven surprisingly effective. There does not seem to be another viable option available.

There is widespread consensus on these issues, save what to do with the perfect.2 Had Porter stopped here, there quite likely never would have been a Porter-Fanning Debate. Rather, it would have been something more like a Porter-Fanning Report on Aspect, and the field would have quietly continued working out the remaining issues of the next twenty years. However, this was not the case.

Instead of the field being able to move forward with a basic consensus about the Greek verb conveying a combination of tense and aspect in the indicative, and aspect-only in the non-indicative, we have had twenty-plus years of arguments based on two proposals put forward by Porter: a tenseless view of the verb and a semantic weighting/prominence view of the verb. These will be covered future posts.

  1. Campbell considers the perfect another kind of imperfective aspect, which is half right. Fanning calls it a combination of things, which is understandable. No worries, the linguistic field itself does not yet have a consensus about the perfect, but it is getting closer.
  2. And I think that we will find consensus in November that Campbell’s “imperfective Perfect” is wrong.