The “Tense” Terminology Problem

Should a future Hellenistic Greek Reference Grammar do away with the traditional & problematic terminology?

The table of contents I proposed a few weeks ago did, but do you think it is worth the effort to try to make the change?

Specifically, I’m talking about the major problems with the terms: “Present” & “Aorist” which are inconsistent labels that mean different things in different inflectional situtations.

Is it possible that such a change could stick?

11 thoughts on “The “Tense” Terminology Problem

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  1. I think you can, so long as you give thumbnail sketches of how the terminology you use describes English and another “control” language – my choice would be: ancient Hebrew!

    I am serious about this. In particular, if one continues to use a very different set of categories to describe the grammar of one’s native language, an intuitive set, an old-school descriptivist set, whatever, the heuristic exercise of describing the grammar of Hellenistic Greek – that’s all it is, BTW, an exercise; those who used the language would have described things in a very different fashion, without thereby compromising their fluency or powers of interpretation of the language, which was superior to ours now, and always will be.

  2. Oops. I forgot to finish my run-on sentence. Let me try again.

    The best way to demonstrate the power of the new categories is to show how they illumine our understanding of a language we know relatively well – like English.

    On the other hand, if I come away from an analysis of English grammar in which my conclusion is that things like situation aspect and viewpoint aspect muddy things up further rather than clarify, I am going to be predisposed to stick with more traditional categories.

  3. I’d suggest always clarifying with respect to English grammar. And while you’re at it, teach a little English grammar. Most first-year (undergrad) students don’t have a grasp of grammar, and so they’re doomed before they start unless they receive some remedial lessons.

  4. This has to happen eventually. Like many, I learned English grammar when I learned Greek grammar. Perhaps my biggest struggle in learning about verbal aspect in Greek was my lack of a reference for it in English. Perhaps the biggest aid for your proposed Hellenistic grammar to be able adopt new and more accurate terminology will be the increase of high schools/undergrad programs that have basic linguistics courses as pre-requisites. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem Gary has mentioned.

  5. Mike,

    You say,

    “Teaching English grammar has very little relevan[ce] for the Greek verbal system.”

    No. It’s worse than that. Most people who are going to read a grammar of Hellenistic Greek will translate it consciously and subconsciously into the specific emic and etic categories they are already familiar with.

    So you are better to tackle the problem head on.

    If people like Carlota Smith can illustrate aspect via examples from English, so can you.

    1. Hi John, sorry I hadn’t actually gotten to your comments yet, I’ve been running around all day and had only seen that one (& replied to it) because I had to “approve” it to appear.

      Now that I’m free, yes. I like your suggestion and would definitely take a very similar (if not identical) approach — though the question of turning my own small snowball into an avalanche of change continues to loom.

  6. I am extremely skeptical about this effort’s being successful even if it should be workable. I suspect that Randall Buth is right in insisting that the descriptive terminology for Greek ought to be formulated in Greek.

      1. Well, the real fossil here is ancient Greek pedagogy; no, I don’t expect general change in this regard; only a few individuals will change the way they teach. In reality, I don’t think you can bring about general change in the terminology; much easier (but not more likely to be successful!) would be simply to adopt the existing Greek language terminology — which is what Randall Buth does use.

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