The Basics of Verbal Aspect – A Review Part I

I must first extent my thanks to Jesse Hillman of Zondervan, who went beyond the call of duty and gracefully sent me a review copy in spite of the fact that I’m in Canada.

Basicas of Verbal Aspect

The Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek
By Constantine Campbell

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (November 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 031029083X
ISBN-13: 978-0310290834
Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.6 inches
Amazon: Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek

I was excited to see this book come out. Many of you who have been reading my blog have problably seen some of my past discussions as Aspect, both problems that I see in the current discussion, misunderstandings, and poorly used terminology. Dr. Campbell’s new introductory book makes some improvements that are encouraging to me and he also finally provides a more accessible introduction to the topic that also combines some very helpful practical exercises and discussion. In this review, I want to first begin with what I consider weakness before moving on the the book strengths. My hope is that if I do that, you will walk away with those strengths in your mind because the strengths definitely outweigh the weaknesses.

The book itself is comprised of 10 chapters and a postscript on Tense and Proximity. The book is split in half with the first five chapters examining verbal aspect more generally and the second providing some more extended discussions of the different verb forms, exegetical implications, and practical exercises. It is with the first half the book where my contentions lie.

Following Campbell, my review is also divided in half, first examining the technical points of the book before moving on to the more practice. For those of you who are more interested in the practice, I would suggest going HERE to Part II.

The Technical Side

Chapter one is basically a brief introduction to terminology. Probably the biggest challenge for the student (or even the non-linguist Greek professor) is terminology. The fact that historically, English has either use different terminology or no terminology at all for describing aspect makes the concept harder to wrap ones mind around (My own understanding of aspect actually came after I had completed a B.A. in Koine Greek, in the beginnings of my graduate studies in linguistics).

But the fact that we don’t use the terminology of aspect in traditional English grammar doesn’t mean English doesn’t have an aspectual system. It does. In traditional terminology we make a distinction between the present and present progressive. The progressive is the English imperfective aspect. In general, Campbell does a fine job making this clear by giving a number of English examples of aspectual distinctions.

I really only have two contentions. The first issue is the debate about the aspect of “perfect.” The other is one I’ve written about a number of times is everyone’s use of the term Aktionsart (Campbell included).

The “Perfect Tense Form”

I must say right out of the gate that Campbell does an excellent job of making clear that the aspectual value of this verb form continues to be debated and he generally does well surveying the debate. But I do disagree with his statement in reference to Porter and McKay claim that the perfect form encodes a stative aspect, “Perhaps most serious of all, however, is the fact that stativity is not normally regarded as an aspectual value. Across all languages and in linguistic theory, stativity is an Aktionsart value, not an aspect” (49).

Generally, I’m extremely suspicious about blanket statements about what is said across the board in the linguistic world and in languages. For one, there is so much literature being published every year that its impossible to make such statements with the certainty that Campbell has.

In particular, it is common in much linguistic literature studying living languages to only use the term stative in reference to Aktionsart and in this sense, Campbell is correct and Porter & McKay are wrong. But if we focus primarily on Indo-European linguistics, we find the tables flipped. This is seen in a number of places, though probably most accessibly in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on Proto-Indo-European Verbal Inflection.

The stative aspect, traditionally called “perfect,” described states of the subject—e.g., *ste-stóH2 ‘be in a standing position,’ *me-món- ‘have in mind.’

This is confirmed in more specialized works such as James Clackson’s Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction.

Alongside its peculiar morphological status, the perfect appears to have been semantically distinct. In Greek the difference between the present and the aorist stem is aspectual: broadly speaking, the present stem is imperfective, and the aorist stem perfective. The perfect principally denotes a state (121, my emphasis).

So then, if Porter and McKay are actually more in line with Indo-European Historical Linguistics, the argument could easily be made that they are following better approach, considering that Koine Greek is an IE language. This must be emphasizes since it is actually Campbell’s introduction of “heightened Proximity/Remoteness” that is, as far as I’ve read, unique in linguistic literature (though I would welcome being proven wrong on that one).

But with all of that said, one must question the semantic difference between Campbell’s system and Porter’s for the (plu)perfect. And If heightened proximity “creates a super closeup view of an action” (110), what is preventing us from saying that such a narrowing in on an action is actually the depiction of that action as a state. Campbell admits, “Perfect tense-forms often end up depicting a state” (106). It almost feels like word games more than anything else, though I’m sure Campbell did not intend it as such.

The Problem of Akionsart: History and Terminology

One thing that I have seen in the majority of books on Greek aspect I have read (including but not limited to: Porter, Campbell, McKay, and Fanning) continue to state that Aktionsart means “kind of action.” Yes, this is true in a literal sense. But that’s the point, it is a literal meaning. What is clear from reading Robertson and Moulton is that the term is consistently used in a technical sense to refer to aspect whether Lexical or Morphological (this is clear in a close reading of McKay, 27; though his relative clause makes it confusing).

All this to say, I don’t understand the benefit when Campbell writes on page 21, “[Aktionsart] is a German word that literally means “type of action.” The context in which Campbell writes suggests that this is how past grammarians actually used the word (though, in a way Moulton and Robertson set themselves up to be misunderstood by giving the same sort of “literal” definition to a technical term, though it is clear that their usage was technical). The previous sentence on the same page says, “The nineteenth century answer to this question — the difference between two past tenses in Greek — is the type of action, or Aktionsart” (his italics).

The problem with these two statements is that they imply that past Grammarians actually used the term Aktionsart as if they were always referring to an objective, external view of an given action or verb. This is simple not true and I have argued the point extensively in a previous post, “On Porter’s View of the Greek Verb Part III.” It is suffice to say that the old grammarians used the term Aktionsart in a technical sense, not referring to objective view of “how an action takes place” (Campbell, 22), but covering both the lexical aspect (today’s Aktionsart) and also morphological aspect.

Campbell is inconsistent on this point. In his introductory discussion of Aktionsart on pages 21-22, he seems to imply that this definition of Aktionsart as “how an action takes places” as opposed to “how the action is viewed” (22) is the definition of both the 19th and 20th century grammarians and today’s 21st century grammarians. But when we move to his discussion of history in chapter two, we find a different side of things, one that I actually must praise him for because, unlike Porter, Campbell gets his history right. Regarding the early 20th century, he writes, “Among the issues being investigated, an important question arose concerning the range of aspect values that occur in Greek and Indo-European languages. The result of this, however, was that a multiplicity of categories was born, complete with conflicting terminology. Confusion resulted from the interchangeable usage of three terms Zeitart, Aktionsart, and aspect. (28, my italics).

Essentially the problem is that pages 21-22 imply that the grammarians of the past defined Aktionsart in the same way that it is defined today: Aktionsart represents the actual objective action of the verb. But pages 27-28 state that aspect, Zeitart, and Aktionsart were interchangeable in the early 20th century. My fear is that this kind of inconsistency has (and will continue) to cause people to misread the old grammars that use the term Aktionsart, or worse, lead people to think that the old grammars are not needed and obsolete.

Some may see this as a minor detail, but when such problems have already cause gross misunderstandings from PHD scholars, such as the quote below, the issue must be addressed and rectified. This quote comes from the RBL review of Dr. Rodney Decker’s volume on Deixis and Aspect in Mark,

Even my oversimplification of the thesis here should show that there are indeed some interesting new ideas in the study of Greek; if Porter is correct, standard works such as A. T. Robertson or Blass, de Brunner, and Funk will become of relevance mostly to scholars of the history of New Testament criticism.

Robert Paul Seesengood, review of Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect, Review of Biblical Literature.

There is also one minor issue with the word Aktionsart as well, though it has less to do with Campbell and more to do with linguistics in general. These days the word is used to refer both to lexical meanings and pragmatic meanings and rarely is there clarification as to which one a given author is referring to. This is seen in Campbell’s book relatively regularly. Aktionsart is referred to as pragmatic on page 23 but on page 28 it is referred to as lexical. These two distinct uses should have been described more clearly. This holds true in general for any book or article on Aspect & Aktionsart and is often a problem.

Positive Aspects

But before I appear too negative of Campbell’s book, I must move on to what I enjoyed and appreciated. I must say that I am glad to see Campbell holds that the Future is perfective, a point which I’ve argued myself in agreement with both Campbell and Wallace.

I am yet to see a valid example of a Future form that is best interpreted as imperfective – and this is something that all other positions would have to do whether they believe the Future is aspectually vague or that it encodes either perfective or imperfective aspect. If its vague, then there must be vague examples where it could be either and the same holds for those who believe can be both. There is also the morphological evidence in the sigma morpheme in both the Future and the Aorist, which must be explained as well.

In spite of the inconsistency in the historical discussion compared with the terminology discussion, Campbell provides an accurate and clear historical survey of aspect studies, which if taken seriously will hopefully prevent the neglect of past grammars discussed above that concerns me greatly.

More of the positives will be discussed in Part II, to which we now turn.