Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Basics of Greek Aspect Theory

Due to relatively recent advancements, aspectual theory has become an important consideration for anyone working in the Greek New Testament. I have no intention here to canvass the issues, debates, and positions on aspect theory. What I want to do instead is simply provide a perspective on aspect as presented by my first-year Greek instructor Professor Jon Laansma. It has proved to be a valuable reference point for me as I continue to think about Greek verbs and poke around in discussions of aspectual theory. Professor Laansma was one of the clearest teachers I've ever had, communicating his subject matter with crystal clarity, never leaving me in doubt about what he was talking about and what I needed to know.

What follows comes from the handouts Professor Laansma gave to his first-year Greek class at Wheaton College in 2007:
Aspect: the speaker's presentation of an action to the hearer. It is a matter of choice (it is subjective). It is a matter of how one chooses to talk about an action. Aspect does not describe an action realistically. It does not tell us that an action is or was actually ongoing, momentary (i.e., punctiliar), and so on. It only presents the action from a certain viewpoint. 
Laansma then describes the different kinds of aspect:
Imperfective aspect [present and imperfect tenses]: presents the action as a process; looks at the action from the inside, as if we are watching the action unfold. "I am hitting the ball." We cannot infer from the use of this aspect alone, however, that the action was or is of an ongoing nature (although it may often be). The action could be "point-in-time"—such as "to hit the ball"—but presented as a process, contemplating the action as if watching it happen. 
Perfective aspect [aorist tense]: presents the action as a simple and undifferentiated whole; looks at the action from the outside, as if we see it all at once. "I studied four years." We cannot infer from the use of this aspect alone that the action was or is momentary or point-in-time, although it may be. In fact, this aspect tells us the least about the nature of the action itself. 
Stative aspect [perfect and pluperfect tenses]: presents the action as an entire state of affairs coming to fruition; looks at the action as if from both the inside and the outside. "I have hit."
Future aspect [future tense]: presents the action from the viewpoint of expectation or intention, implying futurity in most contexts. 
Describing how the imperfect tense (imperfective aspect) and the aorist tense (perfective aspect) often function in the literature, Laansma says this:
Some grammarians argue that what distinguishes the imperfect and present tenses is not time (present vs. past) but space (foreground vs. background; here vs. there; nearness vs. remoteness). What is not debated is that the imperfect tense is usually used in narrative contexts for background (vs. foreground) action, and it usually refers to past-time action. Like the imperfect tense, the aorist tense [perfective aspect] is used most often in narrative literature to refer to background material (though it is extremely common throughout the NT), usually with a past-time reference. Yet the aortist tense is also used for present and even future time action, as well as for timeless statements. The time reference of aorist tense verbs is therefore dependent on context, and the aorist tense is not a past time tense. The decision of time-reference depends on word choice and context.
Lastly, he says this of the stative aspect:
The stative aspect expresses the speaker's personal choice to present the state of the (grammatical) subject from the speaker's viewpoint. The focus is broadened from the action of the verb as such to a whole state of affairs dependent on that action and in which the subject of the verb is involved. Thus we have in our mind's eye not merely the action happening on the street [as with the perspective of the imperfective aspect; Laansma is deploying a parade analogy here], but the whole complex of arrangements and events surrounding the parade [the view of the parade master]. It is this complex state of affairs that is analogous to the perspective taken with the stative aspect. This aspect draws the most attention to the action of the verb and thus demands careful attention whenever used.
There you have it. Greek aspectual theory basics. Thanks Professor Laansma!

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