Passing grammar notes: Aspect & aktionsart in the Dead Grammarians, Pt 1

The more I read the Greek grammars of earlier centuries, the more my perspective on Dr. Porter’s historical survey of the Greek verbal system is wrong.

Here are a few quotes from Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament, which is fairly represented of Porter delineates three periods in the modern study of the Greek verb. The first is Winer:

Study of Greek verb structure has undergone radical changes in the last almost two-hundred years. The first period of modern study has been called the rationalist period. This period, perhaps best represented by the influential grammarian G.B. Winer, analyzed Greek verbal structure in terms of a logical framework. In this framework, tense-forms were said to be equated with temporal values. As a result, Winer says that


the aorist refers to the past simply (the simple occurrence of an event at some past time, considered as a momentary act) … the imperfect and the pluperfect always have reference to subordinate events which stood related, in respect of time, with the principal event (as relative tenses); and last, the perfect brings the past into connexion with the present time, and represents an action as a completed one, in relation to the present time.

Winer goes on to say that ‘Strictly and properly speaking, no one of these tenses can ever stand for another …’ This kind of framework, in which tense-form and time are rigidly equated, is still reflected in a number of elementary or teaching grammars, whose frameworks students and scholars tend to take with them in their exegesis of the text.
(Porter 2002, 114-5).

Now, I’m less concerned with the so-called first period and more interested in the second, though there are issues. Porter continues in his discussion his second historical period being that of Brugmann. Blass, Moulton, Robertson, Moule, & Turner:

One of the most important of these grammarians was Karl Brugmann, who elucidated the theory of Aktionsart. This theory stated that verb structure is related not only or exclusively to temporal categories, but to the kind of action or the way that an event occurs. Aktionsart theory stated that a language has various means, including the use of verb tenses, verbal roots, and affixing of prepositions, to express the ways in which action occurs.

Aktionsart theory made a distinctive contribution to Greek grammatical study in that it frees the tense-forms from strict reference to time, especially promoting the recognition by most grammarians that non-indicative verb forms did not refer to time. However, this theory also had severe limitations. The first was in its attempt to objectify a conception of how events transpire, and then to equate these conceptions with particular grammatical forms. It was soon seen that action is multifarious, and that there is no such thing as a punctiliar action or a linear action in and of itself, only insofar as a given observer chooses to describe it as such, and certainly no easy way to equate this to tense-forms (Porter, 2002, 115-6; my emphasis).

Let’s focus on the words in bold. I’ll be writing a part two to this post where I’ll discuss my frustration with this description. Many of you can probably guess, but there’s more to it than my pass rants on this subject. As I’ve been reading some dead grammarians and have found some juicy evidence that I would suggest contradicts these words here.

But in the meantime, how do you feel about these quotes and the words in bold?

Do you think that they accurately represent this particular period of Greek scholarship?

Why or why not?

We’ll discuss Porter’s third period of Greek verbal studies and then make some comparisons with his words here using quotes from a number of the grammarians he refers to.

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