Passing grammar notes: Aspect & aktionsart in the Dead Grammarians, Pt 2

Previously, in Part I, 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 2002, 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. (Porter 2002, 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 in my earlier discussion of Porter’s view of the verb two points. First, Moule’s description of the verb is much closer to Porter definition of “Aspect Theory” even though he uses the terminology of Aktionsart. Secondly, I argued Moule also implies that this is the correct interpretation of Moulton’s description of the Greek verb in his Prolegomena as well. 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, 1923, 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). But this statement here is in direct contradiction to that. If one writer can present the same event as either punctiliar or linear, then Aktionsart, for Robertson, cannot be claimed to be about the objective vs. subjective views of an event.

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, 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.

What, then, about Friedrich Blass? The 1898 edition of Thayer’s translation of Blass’ Grammar of New Testament Greek makes the following statement:

The present denotes therefore an action (1) as viewed in its duration (its progress), (2) as taking place in present time (Blass 1898, 187; bold is his emphasis, italics are my emphasis)

Now, this is the only statement of its kind that I could find. Nevertheless, it seems only fair to take Blass at his word and the key words of this quote are, “as viewed in its duration,” which suggests rather clearly 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.

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