Passing grammar notes: Aspect & aktionsart in the Dead Grammarians

We began by looking at a couple of quotes from Porter in the Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament  on the history of the study of the Greek verbal system over the past two centuries. In those quotes, we saw that Porter makes a distinction between what he calls Aktionsart Theory and Aspect Theory. And this is precisely why I don’t care for the term.

If we were talking about Aspect Theory with respect only to Porter’s view of the Greek verb, that is, if Aspect Theory was referred to an Aspect only perspective, I’d have no problem with it. But its clear when we read these quotes that is not the case. As a technical term, “Aspect Theory” is more all-encompassing than that. Let’s look at the next quote from what Porter describes as the third era of progress in studying Greek verbal semantics.

The third and final stage in discussion of Greek verbal structure is a logical continuation from that of Aktionsart theory, and recognizes that verbs are not primarily concerned either with time or with objectified action, but with a subjective perspective on action. This has come to be called aspect theory.

Porter, Handbook to exegesis of the New Testament, 116-17; my emphasis.

The clause marked in bold is key here and it would be helpful to go back to the quote from the previous section so that we can compare these statements about the period of “Aspect Theory” and the period of “Aktionsart Theory.”

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.30

30 See F. Stagg, ‘The Abused Aorist’, JBL 91 (1972), pp. 222–31, who brought this to vivid attention; cf. also C.R. Smith, ‘Errant Aorist Interpreters’, GTJ 2 (1981), pp. 205–26.

Porter, Handbook to exegesis of the New Testament, 116; my emphasis.

So these two quotes together make it clear that Porter views the verbal studies of the late 1800s through the 1960s as being representative of this major flaw “Aktionsart Theory,” that is, viewing the action expressed as the objective occurring of an event rather than the subjective portrayal of that event by the author or speaker. Grammarians he places in this category include, Brugmann, Blass, Moulton, Robertson, Moule, and Turner.

But is this actually the case? In a previous post, I argued that Moule’s description of the verb is much closer to Porter definition of “Aspect Theory” even though he uses the terminology of Aktionsart (HERE). I also argued that Moule also implies that this is the correct interpretation of Moulton’s description of the Greek verb in his Prolegomena as well (again, HERE). That leaves us with Brugmann, Blass, Robertson, & Turner. Let’s discuss these grammarians in reverse order.

Turner’s description of the verb may very coincide with what Porter claims. His description of the verb is probably the most likely candidate for paralleling Porter’s view of the history of research. But even still, in light of the discussion of the other grammarians coming below, I would suggest it would be unwise to assume such a view.

Robertson is the grammarian that I have most recently read and found statements completely contradicting Porter’s words. And its entirely possible that Porter has not even read these words. They appear in the Addenda to the Second Edition:

Perhaps a word more should be said as to the point of view of the speaker or writer. The same action can be viewed as punctiliar or linear. The same writer may look at it now one way, now the other. Different writers often vary in the presentation of the same action.

Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 1380; my emphasis.

Now remember what Porter said is the primary different between his “Aktionsart Theory” and his “Aspect Theory”: “[V]erbs are not primarily concerned either with time or with objectified action, but with a subjective perspective on action” (117).

Porter claims in the Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament as well as in his monograph/dissertation Verbal Aspect that Robertson advocates that verb-forms express objective action. And yet, in this quote from Robertson’s second edition addenda, he explicitly states, “The same writer may look at it now one way, now the other. Different writers often vary in the presentation of the same action” (1380; my emphasis).

Thus, Robertson, along with Moule and Moulton (again, discussed HERE), cannot be placed into Porter “Aktionsart Theory” category. He explicitly does not view the aorist, present, or imperfect verb-forms as expressing the objective action a given verb describes.

So what about Blass?

This past winter, I picked up a copy of the 1898 edition of Thayer’s translation of Blass’ Grammar of New Testament Greek (by the way, its extremely different that what you find in BDF today). And on page 187, he writes,

The present denotes therefore an action (1) as viewed in its duration (its progress), (2) as taking place in present time (bold is his, italics are mine).

Now, this is the only statement of its kind that I could find, but I still think that his view is sufficiently clear for making my point. The key words of this quote are, “as viewed in its duration,” which suggests to me that Blass also did not consider Greek verb-forms as expressing “objective” action, but rather the subjective perspective of the author/speaker with regard to how they viewed the action.

So that leaves us with Brugmann, who was one of the main forces behind the introduction of Aktionsart from the study of Greek – and unfortunately, I do not have access to his grammar. I did a year ago at GIAL, but not today at TWU. Even still, I’ve now covered all the authors except him and I think the conclusions are fairly obvious. And as soon as I can locate a copy of Brugmann, I’ll write about what I read.

2 thoughts on “Passing grammar notes: Aspect & aktionsart in the Dead Grammarians

Add yours

  1. Blass’s discussion slightly earlier [§56.1 – 1898, MacMillan, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray] affirms, perhaps slightly more explicitly, that the Greek tenses express time relations “absolutely, i.e. with reference to the stand-point of the speaker or narrator, and not relatively, i.e. with reference to something else that occurs in the speech or narrative” (italics added).

    Blass’s subsequent discussion of the present in direct and indirect discourse (§56.9) also seems to illustrate your point about his view of the Greek tenses: “In the N.T. the use of oratorio obliqua is certainly not favored, and that of oratorio recta predominates; but it is noteworthy that subordinate sentences after verbs of perception and belief are assimilated to oratorio recta, and the tenses therefore have a relative meaning” (italics added). Blass then cites Matt 2:22 and John 6:24. In these cases, then, the tense in the quoted discourse is relative with respect to the writer who reports the discourse and absolute (see §56.1) with respect to the person(s) reported as constructing the discourse originally.

    So, to change the terminology set, it seems that, even if the tenses in the original discourse were “objective” [i.e., that they were directly tied to the reality described by the person(s) who originally used these tenses], the quoted forms themselves properly describe only the original user(s) “subjective” perspective, which may be quite distinguishable from the perspective of the person who later quotes this original material (e.g., Matt 5:43–45; 11:18). If this reading of Blass is correct, then your point about his agreement that tense forms of themselves do not necessarily correlate with reality becomes even more sure.

  2. Thank you. I’ve been reading a lot of Porter lately trying to wrap my mind around verbal aspect theory, and you’ve given me an area to research more thoroughly.

    Regarding Brugmann, I can’t find an English copy of his grammar at the university libraries around here (upstate SC) either.

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