Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: Dionysius Thrax

Dionysius Thrax (or at least the grammar attributed to him) represents one early voice on the structure of the Ancient Greek verbal system and today I want to look at his depressively brief on tense-aspect. My translation is descriptive in nature rather than using the standard labels for the various inflectional forms:

χρόνοι τρεῖς, ἐνεστώς, παρεληλυθώς, μέλλων. τούτων ὁ παρεληλυθὼς ἔχει διαφορὰς τέσσαρας, παρατατικόν, παρακείμενον, ὑπερσυντέλικον, ἀόριστον· ὧν συγγένεια τρεῖς, ἐνεστῶτος πρὸς παρατατικόν, παρακειμένου πρὸς ὑπερσυντέλικον, ἀορίστου πρὸς μέλλοντα.

There are three tenses: present, past, future. Of these, the past has four sub-types: non-completive, completive, past-completive, and undefined. These stand in three sets: the present with the non-completive, the completive with the past-completive, and the undefined with the future.


It isn’t clear whether or not “present” is a sufficiently accurate translation gloss from ἐνεστώς, a perfect participle, but we have no single English word that fits the bill, I think. LSJ provides some interesting notes on this front. The lexeme is, of course, ἐνίστημι, which is causal in all its non-perfect forms (i.e. present, imperfect, aorist, and future): “to put or place in.” But the perfect is non-causal in its sense (for reasons to be discussed below) and LSJ gives the following (relevant) glosses: “to be upon,” “to be at hand,” “pending,” and “present.” The last two are, perhaps, most important since there LSJ states “especially in [the] perfect participle.” So the question I ask is this: unlike the English word, “present,” which we have continually used to refer to these inflectional forms, does the perfect participle ἐνεστώς express a sense of an ongoing state of affairs in the present that we miss out on in translating it?

Perhaps. It just unfortunate that we cannot ask the author. But he did choose this particular inflectional form of this particular verb to refer to what we today call the “present tense,” an inflectional form that is consistently acknowledged to denote both imperfective aspect and present tense. And if this suggestion for how we understand Thax’s terminology is correct, it makes the correlation between ἐνεστῶτος and παρατατικόν much clearer, the latter, unequivocally meaning incomplete, ongoing, imperfective.

The other two terms, παρεληλυθώς and μέλλων, are less complex in their meaning and I think we can sufficently move on to his other distinctions. I think that of the past tenses, the imperfect is generally self-explanatory: παρατατικός translates perfectly into the Latin based grammatical terms imperfect and imperfective. Ἀόριστος is more difficult. Pefective has become a standard designation for the aorist’s aspectual meaning. The problem is that the term perfective doesn’t entirely match with the term ἀόριστος. Perfective, following its origins in Russian linguistics emphasizes completion, but the ancient grammarians of Greek looked at the aorist form and saw an undeterminative aspect. The question is though, is whether or not these two view can be brought together and if so, should they.

Perfectivity involves the presentation of “a situation as a whole. The span of the perfective includes the initial and final endpoints of the situation: it is closed informationally.” (Smith 1997:66). The first half of this definition might suggest that modern perfectivity is somehow distinct from the undefined nature of  ἀόριστος. Alternatively, the second half of the definition, “closed informationally,” may very well share much in common with ἀόριστος, with its conception that the internal temporal makeup of the situation is inaccessible and thus undefined. If ἀόριστος can be accurately said to be “close informationally,” then it would also implicitly be perfective in the modern sense of including the initial and final endpoints of a given state-of-affairs. On this reading of the term, Dionysius Thrax chose the term ἀόριστος not because it wasn’t perfective, but because the completed nature of the form is not its distinguishing characteristic, since the Perfect also involves completion. The aorist’s nature of closed informationally is more prominent in Greek than its endpoints, since the former quality is precisely what clearly distinguishes it from both the perfect, which only involves a single endpoint, and the present which is not closed informationally and makes no reference to endpoints.

The terminology of the (plu)perfect also necessitates comment. The two terms in question are παρακείμενος and ὑπερσυντέλικος. The former is a paticiple of the verb παράκειμαι,  “to be present and ready for some purpose” (BDAG). But some of LSJ’s glosses are also useful here, denoting a sort of establishment: “to be attached or appended,” “to be laid down,” “to be preserved.” Between the two lexicons, we get the sense that the word involves present time and past establishment (the latter is what drives the translation above). The latter likely motivated Thrax to include the verbal form with the past reference forms, but the former suggests a close correlation with the modern conception of the perfect as stative/resultative: the perfect refers to a current state of affairs that would have arisen from the situation expressed by the present of the same verb (e.g. ἵστημι “to cause to be  in a place or position” –> ἕστηκα ‘I stand’)—though this situation is complicated by a variety of other factors in the period of the New Testament and the picture is not quite so clean.

Regardless it is still quite clear that across the board there are distinct parallels to be drawn between the terminology used in the grammar attributed to Dionysius Thrax and contemporary views on tense and aspect.

Works cited:

Bauer, W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liddell, H. G., et al. 1996. A Greek-English lexicon. 9th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Carlota. 1997. The Parameter of Aspect. 2nd ed. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.