Redefining Verbal Aspect: Challenging the Reigning Paradigm

In The Greek Verb Revisited, one author took on a reigning paradigm in Koine Greek studies: how we define verbal aspect. It is widely understood (and I have understood it myself) as the subjective representation of an event. That means the author’s choice of tense-form determined how they were attempting to portray the event, not how the event actually happened in reality.

Aspect has been taught using the parade analogy. Perfective aspect is like a snapshot of an entire parade from 5,000 feet high in a hot air balloon. The focus is on the parade as a whole, not on any of its processes. Imperfective aspect is like the perspective of an audience member sitting on the sideline, watching the parade go by. The event is seen as a process with no focus on beginning or end. (Let’s ignore the perfect for now.) Thus, aspect is taught using a spatial metaphor. Perfective aspect is spatially remote, which is why it often (but not always) refers to something in the past, while imperfective aspect is spatially near, which is why it is often used for the present and the imminent future.

One of the main problems with this understanding of verbal aspect is that it does not play nicely with Aktionsart categories. As an example, Rev 11:17 says “we give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and ἐβασίλευσας. Most translations treat ἐβασίλευσας as an inceptive aorist (an Aktionsart category), which makes sense in light of v. 15, which says “the kingdom of the world has become (aorist) the kingdom of our Lord and Christ.” Something new seems to be happening, a transition described in 1 Cor 15, when Christ takes complete control of the kingdom of the world as his own. But if we use the spatial metaphor to describe ἐβασίλευσας, we should see the event as a snapshot: “you reigned.” The emphasis would be on the whole concept of God’s reign, rather than on the fact that a transition has happened at the end of history. The inceptive is a better translation than the bare perfective translation, in my opinion, so Aktionsart and aspect are not playing nicely. Campbell, Wallace, and Fanning would say lexical and contextual factors override the bare aspectual value, so there is no problem here, but then why did the author choose the simple perfect tense and not simply use a grammatical construction to relate an inceptive meaning?

I think J. Thomson’s chapter in The Greek Verb Revisited gives us a way forward. He argues that the “viewpoint” definition of aspect, which rejects any direct relation to time, is out of step with the general conception of aspect among linguists (p. 13-81). The majority of linguists now view aspect as the way a situation is presented in relation to time.

Russian linguist Isačenko came up with the parade analogy to suggest aspect allows a speaker to focus on a specific time frame of an event; imperfective aspect is as if the speaker were within the process itself, while perfective aspect is as if the speaker were outside the process, observing the entirety of the event (which is different from the snapshot view from a hot air balloon that biblical scholars have turned the analogy into). Thus, the perfective includes the entire timespan of the event from beginning to end, while the imperfective focuses on only part of that timespan (23–24).

The choice between aspects is also not fully subjective, since the choice is often already made for the speaker by other factors (24). Only in some cases is there a truly subjective choice when multiple aspects may be possibly employed (33). Thomson suggests we throw out the “viewpoint” spatial metaphor and replace it with literal language, that aspect is literally “the temporal phase or phases about which the speaker or writer is speaking.”

Thomson borrows a taxonomy for verbs from Vendler: events can be states, activities, accomplishments, or achievements, and these have mixes of stativity, durativity, and telicity (see table on pp. 48–49). He attempts to show how each class of verbs is conducive for certain aspects. The takeaway is that, if aspect is simply focusing on a certain time period for an event or situation, then Aktionsart categories fit well with aspects.

To return to Rev 11:17, the temporal phase to which the writer is referring is the entirety of the “reign,” but contextual factors suggest that the focus of that entire temporal span is at the beginning of the reign. To me, this allows aspect and Aktionsart to play nicer together. I’m not completely sold on teaching it this way from now on, but Thomson cites a multitude of studies and monographs on verbal aspect that I plan to follow up on.

What about you? Do you see more value in Thomson’s definition of aspect than in the spatial definition?

Read more about The Greek Verb Revisited, or preview it on Amazon. If you’re into Greek, you’ll want to buy it.

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