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On Porter, Prominence and Aspect

In the early 1990s the SBL hosted what came to be known as the Porter-Fanning debate over the nature of verbal aspect in Koine Greek. A session at an annual meeting was devoted to airing the arguments and hearing from respondents. There was a curious comment from Moises Silva that will function as my point of departure. He states:

I suppose that this problem lies behind a curious thing. In general terms, I found Porter’s theoretical framework more convincing than Fanning’s.1 Fanning is, I think, much too generous in his attempt to salvage what he can out of the traditional grammars; while I commend him in the attempt (it needs to be done), the result is a certain instability. On the other hand, when it came to looking at their implementation of the principles, I had many more problems with Porter than with Fanning: time and time again I failed to see either the logic or the evidence for his interpretations. I am not ready to suggest that we adopt Porter’s explanation of the linguistic system and Fanning’s interpretation of actual occurrences. My point is only that some important inconsistencies remain in the field as a whole, and that we all need to clarify more precisely what we are trying to do.2

At the risk of incurring the boundless wrath of one Esteban Vasquez, I will merely add to the “Infallible One’s” point (with gentleness and respect no less) rather than disagree with it. Here is the key thing to recognize: if there are problems with the implementation, then there are likely problems in the theoretical framework that guided the implementation. I have no love for theory as an end unto itself, but as a tool I have found it to be utterly indispensable for keeping me on the straight and narrow in research, especially when breaking new ground. Theoretical frameworks are something like a map: it will not tell you exactly what you will find along the way like a photo, but it will give you a solid idea of what to expect along the way as long as it is accurate. Herein lies the rub.

In a series of blog posts  building toward an article, I will critique the theoretical foundation on which Porter’s theory of verbal aspect is built, comparing his formulation with the formulation one might have expected from the literature he cites. At significant points, Porter diverges from mainline linguistic scholarship in making his claims about aspect and prominence in the Greek verb. As a new post is completed, I will add a link on this page to facilitate reading for those interested in this issue.

The goal here is not to argue that had he read ‘Peloni Almoni on Blah’, he would have come to a different conclusion. On the contrary, I  demonstrate that at critical points in the development of his model, Porter makes significant theoretical jumps beyond what can be claimed from the literature he cites, often without any argumentation to substantiate it. This does not necessarily invalidate his model, but does necessitate that Porter reformulate his framework on more solid, relevant grounds, either by specific argumentation or through providing other sources.

I. Background, Foreground and Frontground

  1. On contrastive substitution and the Greek verb
  2. On background, foreground and genre in Greek
  3. More on background, foreground and genre
  4. On grounding and synonymous terminology
  5. On background and foreground versus frontground
  6. On the need for claiming a third plane of discourse in Greek

II. Markedness and Verbal Aspect

  1. Markedness: qualitative versus quantitative
  2. Markedness: qualitative versus quantitative, part 2
  3. Material and Implicational Markedness
  4. Distributional Markedness
  5. Semantic Markedness
  6. Cognitive Markedness

III. General introduction to concepts and terminology:

  1. Background and foreground: an introduction
  2. Markedness

Bibliography relevant sources:

Andrews, Edna. Markedness Theory: the Union of Asymmetry and Semiosis in Language. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

Bernard, Jody. “Is Verbal Aspect a Prominence Indicator? An Evaluation of Stanley Porter’s Proposal with Special Reference to the Gospel of Luke.” Filología Neotestamentaria 19 (2006): 3-29.

Campbell, Constantine. 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.

Comrie, Bernard. Aspect: An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. Tense. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Fanning, Buist M. Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Haspelmath, Martin. “Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries.” Cognitive Linguistics 19, no. 1 (February 2008): 1-33.

Hopper, Paul J. “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse.” In Discourse and Syntax, edited by Talmy Givón, 12:213–241. Syntax and Semantics, 1979.

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.

Lyons, John. Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

———. Semantics: Volume 1. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. Biblical Languages: Greek 2. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

———. “Prominence: An Overview.” In The Linguist as Pedagogue, edited by Stanley E Porter and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, 45-74. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2009.

———. Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament: With Reference to Tense and Mood. Studies in Biblical Greek 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Runge, Steven E. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, forthcoming 2010.

———. “Relative Saliency and Information Structure in Mark’s Account of the Parable of the Sower.” Journal of the Linguistics Institute of Ancient and Biblical Greek 1, no. 1 (2008): 1-15.

———. “Review of Ivan Shing Chung Kwong, The Word Order of the Gospel of Luke: Its Foregrounded Messages.” Review of Biblical Literature 4 (2008): 1-8.

Silva, Moises. “A Response to Fanning and Porter on Verbal Aspect.” In Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research, edited by Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, 74-82. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.

Wallace, Stephen. “Figure and Ground: The Interrelationships of Linguistic Categories.” In Tense-Aspect: Between Semantics and Pragmatics, edited by Paul J. Hopper, 201–223. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1982. [PDF]

Zwicky, Arnold M. “On Markedness in Morphology.” Die Sprache. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft Wien 24, no. 2 (1978): 129–143.

foreground: an introduction
  1. Porter approaches his subject as a linguist and adopts so-called systemic linguistics as his model (an approach based on the fruitful and pioneering work of J.R. Firth and developed by a number of recent British scholars). That decision affects certain features of his method and presentation but it does not by itself determine Porter’s actual interpretation of the data. In line with generally accepted conclusions, Porter draws a clear distinction between aspect and time, with the latter category being played down. He goes well beyond this consensus, however, when he argues that even in the indicative mood ‘Greek does not grammaticalize temporal reference’ (p. 81; on p. 98 he states that the Greek tenses ‘do not refer to any specific absolute time’). Indeed, Porter’s analysis is particularly vulnerable in its reluctance to distinguish more sharply between the indicative and the non-indicative moods. I find it perplexing that Porter can so easily dismiss the significance of the augment for this issue (his extremely brief discussion of the augment, on pp. 208–209, focuses on Homer and is almost totally diachronic in perspective). Nor does his analysis explain why, for example, the subjunctive and imperative moods are limited to a simple binary opposition between aorist and present (the perfect is rare), whereas the indicative mood sports half a dozen different forms. []
  2. 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),77. Italics mine. []


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  1. Nicholas Ellis / Oct 22 2010

    Thanks, Steve. Very helpful information, and clearly presented. Looking forward to your paper this November.

  2. Ben Montoya / Oct 10 2014

    Hi Steve Runge,

    I was reading your posts on Porter’s work, the culmination of them in NovT, and fear that there may be some fundamental flaws in your work. Specifically, although you claim that you will critique the theoretical framework that underlies his work, you only mention that framework two to three times and never interact with it. He is clearly, and explicitly (first section of Verbal Aspect), applying Halliday’s explanation of Systemic Functional Linguistics developed for English and adapting the framework to Koiné Greek, given the significant language differences. Neither in your blog articles nor your published article do you actually interact with this theoretical framework; are you planning to do so? Until you do so, you have not actually accomplished the purpose of your blogs or the published article.

    Furthermore, you also clearly work with an understanding of a certain linguistic theoretical framework that you have neither labeled or explained nor defended. The reason I mention this point is because some of your problems with Porter’s explanations stem from foundational disagreements in the linguistic theories both of you use, not from the literature on linguistics per se, which is quite varied and completed from different linguistic frameworks.

    I have read most of your work, but I cannot find you addressing these concerns anywhere; can you do so?

  3. Steve Runge / Oct 10 2014

    Hi Ben,

    If my methological critique of Porter’s use of contrastive substitution was not sufficiently focused on his theoretical framework, then I doubt that I can offer something you’d accept. The NovT critique concerned one issue, not SFL as a whole or as a methodology. Instead the focus is on the linguistic framework assembled to argue for a tenseless indicative.

    I think it would be best for there to be a refutation of my argument about contrastive substitution. Focus on the issues raised. I purposefully avoided making new claims so as not to muddy the waters. I’d be happy to talk with you about this in San Diego, but don’t have time at the moment for an extended written exchange. I look forward to seeing the response to the issues raised in the article.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. New page on verbal aspect | NT Discourse
  2. Update to ‘Porter and Prominence’ page | NT Discourse
  3. Background and foreground: an introduction | NT Discourse
  4. On background and foreground versus frontground in Greek | NT Discourse
  5. On the need for claiming a third plane of discourse in Greek | NT Discourse
  6. On grounding and synonymous terminology | NT Discourse
  7. Peter Gentry on verbal aspect in Greek | NT Discourse
  8. Why bother with theoretical frameworks? | NT Discourse
  9. Fall update | NT Discourse
  10. Semantic markedness | NT Discourse
  11. Interdisciplinary studies: double-edged sword | NT Discourse
  12. Porter’s Use of Contrastive Substitution | NT Discourse
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