A Fresh Perspective on the Greek Verb in JETS


Greek is an aspect-prominent language. This means verbal aspect (ὄψις) in Greek is an uncancelable semantic feature of every verbal form (including the oblique mood forms). In fact, verbal aspect is encoded in every verbal stem (the ‘future’ is debatable, but I find its close morphological relation to the ‘aorist’ to be compelling evidence that the ‘future’ is the nonpast counterpart of the perfective binary, with additional semantic features of irrealis/desiderative modality). In other words, aspect, and not tense, is obligatory and pervasive throughout the morpho-syntax of the Greek verb (‘Time’ and ‘tense’ are not synonymous—‘time’ is a meta-linguistic category under which both tense and aspect, which is also temporal, fall).

Of course, this is not how the Greek verbal system has been taught (or how many students of Greek would describe it today). In the newest JETS, Ellis, Aubrey, and Dubis lay out the proceedings from the recent conference on the Greek verb at Cambridge, and call (thankfully) for a new descriptive apparatus in Greek pedagogy:

The fundamental linguistic principle of verbal prominence changes the basic question we ask when encountering a Greek verb form. Rather than orienting one’s linguistic framework to grammatacalized “tense markers” as has commonly been taught, students of Greek should primarily orient themselves to the grammatacalized aspectual prominence of the verbal system. Why does this need special emphasis? The answer is simple. The majority of grammars of NT Greek over the past two centuries have been written by speakers of tense-prominent languages who naturally compare Greek to their own tense-prominent language. This has invariably affected how the Greek verbal system has been portrayed, with grammarians tending to place an undue emphasis on tense over against aspect. As Bhat puts it, “It is something like trying to understand the colour of various objects around us while looking at them through a red-coloured glass.” Being aware of our own native linguistic bias from the beginning will help us to avoid misreading Greek. When we utilize an aspect-prominent organizational and terminological system in our analysis of the Greek verb, suddenly our descriptions of the language become simpler and more coherent.

The Greek Verbal System and Aspect Prominence: Revising our Taxonomy and Nomenclature. Nicholas Ellis, Michael Aubrey, Mark Dubis. JETS 59/1 (2016): 33–62.

As an instructor in Hellenistic Greek, I could not agree more. Why coldly embrace a fossilized perspective on the Greek verb that can’t even incorporate all of the data into its already less-than-useful descriptive apparatus? What we need (and what Ellis and Aubrey are arguing for) is Greek pedagogy with special sensitivity to this fresh perspective on the verbal system (which would include, for example, dropping deponency and advocating a duality of ‘voice’ or διαθεσις).

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