What Do We Do with Non-Past Aorists?

In an interview (soon to be published) with Greek linguist Chris Fresch, co-editor of The Greek Verb Revisited, he explained his own contribution on non-past aorists. In the indicative, we occasionally encounter non-past aorists (e.g., Mark 11:24; John 13:31; Rom 8:30; Rev 10:7; see Wallace, GGBB, 563-564). What do we do with these? Are these aorists an indication that aorists are not semantically past-referring, but rather that past-reference is only a pragmatic effect (how the verb is used in context)? Or, are the present- and future-referring aorists simply exceptions, and the aorist does semantically refer to past events?

I’ve always leaned toward the former, but Chris Fresch has written a fine essay arguing for the latter. He’s summarized his argument for us, which I share with you here. Thanks Chris!

To summarize, the essay tackles the issue of aorist indicative verbs that are non-past referring. Traditionally, the aorist indicative has been classified as a past perfective verb. Given this, why do we see instances in Koine of an aorist indicative referring to an event in the present or in the future? I approached this question with three linguistic perspectives in mind: typology, polysemy, and prototype theory. From a typological viewpoint, what we see in Koine is not odd at all. Across the world’s languages, particularly those with a Perfective: Imperfective aspectual split (like Koine), the perfective verb is a past-tense verb (sometimes morphologically marked for past time, sometimes not — but always regarded as a past tense).

This alone was a significant realization, because it informs us that what we see in Koine lines up perfectly with similar languages across the world and thus strongly suggests that the aorist indicative, like perfective verbs in those other languages, is a past-tense verb. Also like Koine, other languages do allow their past perfective verb, in certain contexts and/or when used with certain verb types (like statives), to refer to non-past events. Despite this, the perfective verb form is still regarded as a past-tense verb. It simply has some exceptional (albeit often motivated) usages.

When we look at these data, at all of these other languages whose perfective verbs behave the same way as each other and as the aorist indicative, the takeaway is that it is highly probable that the Greek verbal system is structured in the same way. While it is not impossible for Greek to be unique and have a temporally undefined perfective verb form in a language with a Perfective:Imperfective split, linguistic typology would answer that possibility is not sufficient without overwhelming evidence against the overwhelming cross-linguistic data.

With regard to polysemy, I argue that verb forms can be semantically encoded for more than one thing. This is a normal feature of language. Thus, the aorist can be semantically encoded both for perfective aspect and past tense. In addition, polysemy allows for encoded semantic meaning to be contextually overridden, particularly the less central meaning. Thus, it is not problematic that the aorist indicative sometimes only displays perfective aspect. Not only is its aspect the more central semantic component, but polysemy informs us that it can still be semantically encoded for past time even when the tense parameter is contextually overridden.

I also argue against the notion of cancelability as it has been understood by proponents of the tenseless view. Within Gricean pragmatics, cancelability is an important test used to determine whether a given meaning is semantic or pragmatic. However, many who use cancelability to prove that the aorist is tenseless make two missteps. First, cancelability is meant to be applied only to a single context. Proponents of the tenseless view, however, use two contexts to prove their thesis. This is not cancelability. Second, even if the cancelability test were rightly applied, cancelability is one of a handful of related, dependent tests, all of which must be passed before a meaning can be declared pragmatic.

Finally, prototype theory informs us that humans structure grammatical categories around prototypes, that is, a central member of the category that exemplifies the category and from which other non-central usages may be extended. Given this, it is completely normal that the aorist indicative is regarded as the past perfective. The aorist indicative as a past perfective is the central category member. Other usages can all be explained as motivated by and extending from that central member. Cognitively, it would be terribly inefficient and unaware to create discrete boxes for every single possible usage of every grammatical category!

Prototypes encourage natural, usage-based categories to form that allow for non-prototypical uses as well as fuzzy boundaries between various categories. We know that this is how humans tend to categorize, and we can even see it in the Stoic categorization of the Greek verbal system. They regarded the aorist indicative as the past perfective, but surely they, as native speakers, knew it could be used in non-past contexts! The structure of the verbal system as represented by the Stoic grammarians evinces a prototypical categorization.

I hope that very brief and distilled explanation makes some sense!

The importance of the thesis comes down to how we are conceiving of the Greek verbal system and whether we are conceiving of it rightly. Granted, I only deal with non-past aorists, but much of my argument extends into the broader discussion. Many of the arguments put forward for a tenseless Koine verbal system are predicated on ideas that I am pushing against in my chapter. What happens in languages typologically? (This is a massively important question in linguistics proper, yet it has not featured in most conversations on the Greek verb.) What is cancelability and how is it properly applied? Can verb tenses be polysemous? How do humans structure grammatical categories cognitively? The answers to these questions, in my estimation, require us to posit a tensed aorist in the indicative mood (and a tensed verb in the indicative more generally), and that directly effects how we read Koine Greek.

Thanks to Chris for distilling his article for us. Check out his co-edited volume with a multitude of helpful articles on the Greek verb: The Greek Verb Revisited (read our review, or view on Amazon).

Tagged on: ,