Time is not tense; Time is not aspect; but both are temporal

This started as a comment, responding the an observation made by Rod Decker and grew too long, so I’ve posted it here. He made the comment:

>Both aspect and tense are temporal. Both involve time [edit: my words]

True, but “time” is not the same in both. As an unqualified statement this is misleading.

He’s right, of course. And I made a mistake in not making it clear that this observation is precisely my point. And it is a major the problem with participants on both sides of the debate.

Through out much of the discussion and debate on aspect, it is the word time that is used to contrast with aspect rather than the actual technical terms such as temporal reference or tense.  And this is consistently done without qualification that a specific linguistic realization of time is involved. Instead, time (a non-linguistic or meta-linguistic concept) is treated as identical with a single linguistic instantiation. Some examples (in bold):

D. A. Carson:

“The issue between them can be simply put. Porter argues that aspect and only aspect is grammaticalized in the tense-forms of Greek, in all moods (which in his analysis are now renamed ‘attitudes’). There are quasi-exceptions, such as the future, which has a place apart, morphologically speaking, in the Greek verbal structure; or a verb such as εἶναι, which does not offer a full range of tense-form choices and is therefore ‘aspectually vague’, but in no case does the tense-form carry an unambiguous semantic feature other than what is aspectual (such as indication of time or Aktionsart)” (Carson 1993, 22).

“For instance, the fact that perhaps 85 per cent of finite aorists in the indicative are past-referring might owe a fair bit to the intrinsic likelihood that an action in the past will be presented as a ‘complete’ action: the speaker’s or writer’s choice of tense-forms (grammaticalizing aspects), theoretically as open-ended as the forms available, may be sharply constrained, or at least reduced within definable probabilities, by the pragmatics. Systematizing such reflections would go a long way toward deflating the protests of those grammarians who at this point are still unwilling to abandon all connections between verbal form and time in the indicative.”

Stanley Porter:

“Like McKay, Fanning assumes, but does not argue in any rigorous way, the traditional view that the tense-forms in the indicative mood and when used as participles are time-based” (Porter 1993, 37).

“Fanning, it seems to me, is incapable of shedding a time-based perspective on verbs” (Porter 1993, 38).

“So time, at least as a linguistic category, is no more absolute than any other, and I would contend that it is not grammaticalized, that is it is not enshrined by selection of a single tense-form in Greek, either in the non-indicative moods or in the indicative mood” (Porter 1993, 44).

Buist Fanning:

“First, I disagree with Porter’s strict insistence that the Greek verbal forms carry no temporal value at all, and I do not think that his view of this offers the kind of ground-breaking contribution to the field that he has claimed for it. I believe Porter has made the best case for this view that anyone can make, but it is not persuasive. It is true that time is not as important for Greek tenses as for English ones and that the aspect values of viewpoint or conception of the process are of central importance in all the forms of the Greek verb (except the future). But the linguistic evidence is overwhelming that in the indicative forms the tenses carry a double sense of time and aspect together.” (Fanning 1993, 58).

“Also, it seems to me that Porter spends so much time insisting on the absence of temporal meaning and assuming that this makes a vast difference, that he has neglected large areas of aspectual function which he should have pursued instead” (Fanning 1993, 59).

Daryl D. Schmidt:

“The more accurate claim would appear to be: tense forms in the indicative do not grammaticalize absolute time, any more than they grammaticalize absolute aspect. But this is far short of demonstrating that tense in the indicative has no temporal dimension” (Schmidt 1993, 70-1).

Daniel Wallace:

“IV. Appendix:
An Assessment of Time In Verb Tenses<
Traditionally, NT grammars have viewed time as a part of the Greek tenses, when such tenses combine with the indicative mood. In recent years, however, this view has been challenged, principally by S. E. Porter and K. L. McKay. Since the traditional view is pervasive in the literature-and in fact assumed to be true —this section will focus on the arguments for the nontemporal view, followed by an evaluation” (Wallace, 1997, 504; and this language continues through this entire section)

These are the easiest for me to search since I have these books in Logos and knew they were there from several read throughs of the book. These are unqualified statements with no reference to temporal deixis or tense as the location of an event in time with in the immediate context (there are in fact, only three instances of the phrase “temporal reference” from any author in the entire book). The same problem occurs elsewhere.

Somewhat better is this statement from Porter’s introductory grammar:

“The original function of the so-called ‘tense stems’ of the verb in Indo-European languages (of which Greek is one) was not levels of time (past, present or future), as many suppose, but one of verbal aspect (i.e. how the verbal action was perceived to unfold; see section 2 below on history of discussion). In Greek, verbal aspect is defined as a semantic (meaning) category by which a speaker or writer grammaticalizes (i.e. represents a meaning by choice of a word-form) a perspective on an action by the selection of a particular tense-form in the verbal system. The semantic features (the ‘meanings’) of the different verbal aspects are attached to the tense-forms. The verbal aspects are therefore morphologically based (i.e. form and function are matched). Verbal aspect is a semantic feature which attaches directly to use of a given tense-form in Greek. Other values—such as time—are established at the level of larger grammatical or conceptual units, such as the sentence, paragraph, proposition, or even discourse (see Chapter 21). The choice of the particular verbal aspect (expressed in the verb tense-form) resides with the language user, and it is from this perspective that grammatical interpretation of the verb must begin” (Porter 1999, 20-21).

To Porter’s benefit, the phrase “levels of time” makes relatively clear that “time” actually means “location in time.” However, there are still two serious problems:

  1. There is no actual explanation of tense as temporal deixis. Time = Tense. Nothing else is said.
  2. The fact that he still contrasts time with aspect is highly problematic. Aspect is temporal. I’ve read everything that Porter has written on aspect that I could get my hands on multiple times (and to the best of my knowledge I haven’t missed anything). At no point has he ever acknowledged this fundamental point. According to everything he’s written: Time = Tense. Time =/= Aspect. Unqualified. If anything, the sense that I get (and this is only a sense, I cannot and will not make a definitive statement about something I do not know) is that Porter has gone out of his way to avoid making statements about the temporal nature of aspect.

Thankfully, Rod himself should be highly commended for his excellent avoidance of such unqualified statements. The following quote from his article on εὐθύς is very good (as are many others from his monograph and other articles):

A major aspect of deixis relates to the grammatical function of tense. ‘In those languages that unequivocally exhibit it, tense is one of the main factors ensuring that nearly all sentences when uttered are deictically anchored to a context of utterance.’ Tense may be defined as ‘the grammaticalised expression of location in time.’ The debate as to whether Greek grammaticalizes time is complicated by two factors. First, most languages of the world do express time in this way.” (Decker 1997, 99).

While the words “whether Greek grammaticalizes time” makes is slightly uncomfortable here, this is an absolutely excellent job making clear that we’re talking about the the grammaticalization of temporal reference–i.e. a very specific realization of time in language.

As a whole, I’m sure there is no problem for those who have the opportunity to study under any of these scholars and can get direct clarification. However, my experience has been for those who cannot, the kind of unqualified statements made here confuse students. But it has also resulted in a poorly framed debate that unnecessarily conflates terminology that shouldn’t be conflated. It’s definitely made my tutoring more difficult. And the truth of the matter is that none of these people could get away with such sloppy use of terminology if they were publishing in a linguistics journal or monograph series.

Works cited:

Carson, D. A. 1993. “An introduction to the Porter/Fanning debate.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Decker, R. J. “The use of εὐθύς (“immediately”) in Mark.” Journal of ministry and theology 1 (1997):90–121. Clark Summit, PA: Baptist Bible College.

Fanning, B. M. 1993. “Approaches to verbal aspect in New Testament Greek: Issues in definition and method.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Porter, S. E. 1993. “In defense of verbal aspect.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

_______. 1999. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Edn. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.

Schmidt, D. D. 1993. “Verbal aspect in Greek: Two approaches.” In Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. Stanley E. Porter and D. A. Carson, ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Wallace, D. B. 1997. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

17 thoughts on “Time is not tense; Time is not aspect; but both are temporal

Add yours

  1. I think I would say it like this: Aspect is not wholly unrelated to temporal considerations, but it does not relate to when an event takes place (its “location in time”). The difference between perfective and imperfective aspect ~can~ be viewed in temporal terms: imperfective aspect views a situation as being extended in time (though just how long that may be varies enormously), perfective aspect views a situation as a whole without reference to any extent of time that may be included in the actual situation.

    I’d be a bit more cautious in rebuking the terminology used by some of the “aspect writers.” Though they may not use the explicit terminology “location in time,” I think it’s pretty obvious from reading their discussions that this is what they intend. See their references to absolute vs. relative time as one instance. The discussion of Aktionsart (which some prefer to call “lexical aspect” or some such term) in contrast to aspect is similar in this regard.

    I know some linguists use temporal terminology in a more technical way (Olsen is a good example of a discussion of Greek/NT aspect framed this way), but the rest of us are primarily NT scholars working with linguistics rather than linguists working with NT exegesis.

  2. Another phrase to ban (while we’re at it) is one that I’ve been guilty of myself: “aspect-only.” Nobody is “aspect-only” because everyone recognizes that the difference between the present and imperfect is not aspectual but based on some other feature, whether the traditional tense, the newer remoteness, or something else.

  3. I just ran across this statement in Fanning when I was working on another project:

    “Though aspect does produce temporal meanings of a certain sort (e.g., duration, termination), these are effects of the aspect’s combination with other factors and are related to the ~internal~ nature of the verbal action. They have no connection with the ~external~ relationship of the action to the time of speaking (i.e. deictic temporal reference or primary tense-meaning).”

    That would seem to suggest that Fanning is not guilty of your charge. I haven’t tried to find further statement in Fanning, nor have I done that for Porter. Just happened across this statement.

  4. Well, a couple thought thoughts:

    (1) I originally had absolutely no intention of “rebuking” anyone so outright. This post never would have been written without your comments on the previous post. I’m absolutely sure that they don’t intend to do what they’ve done. I tried to emphasize that in my post–i.e. read the last paragraph again. My point one and only point is that regardless of what they think, the lack of qualification and explanation has confused students. And I’ve dealt with the result of that.

    (2) To the extent that Fanning does not qualify his statements elsewhere, he is still guilty of my charge. Unless a student knows (and has the where with all to catch it) that this is how Fanning view aspect to begin with reading the statements in Biblical Greek language and linguistics: Open questions in current research. will still mislead. Again the problem isn’t what they think. The problem is how they present it. And again, my “rebuke” (your word, not mine) is grounded in my interactions with students. I’m sure anyone who studies under Fanning will never have a problem with this. What about everyone else?

    (3) The strength of my words here is no stronger (and its probably far weaker) than most of what’s in Porter’s literature review in his dissertation.

    (4) Lastly, and most importantly, I’m not sure it’s really fair to simply say that it’s pretty obvious what they intended when such a statement is equally applicable to my own words in the previous post–the words that your criticized as unqualified. All I ask is that you hold others to the same standard that you’re holding me. Your commend in the previous post was about me making unqualified statements. Well, these are unqualified statements. And personally, I think it is worse to say equivocate tense and time than to say that both aspect and tense are temporal. The former is an error of definitions that confuses non-linguistic categories with linguistic ones. The latter is a statement whose meaning is easily discovered by looking up the definition of aspect on page one of Comrie’s book. Moreover, on question of whether or not they’re understandable or not,

    1. I’m not trying to belabor the point (and I won’t pursue it further), but let’s be careful that we don’t require every writer to qualify every statement he makes on any subject. Once someone explains what he means, it is both normal and acceptable to use “shorthand” terminology afterward. Even in the debate vol., the writers deserve to be read in light of their books which the papers only summarize in very terse measure. Could they be more clear. Sure. But then that applies to other writers I know who speak “confidently” of their position also! 🙂 Publish a few books (or a thesis) and face the reviewers…

  5. One hundred years ago Moulton, Robertson, Blass, and others understood the verbal system pretty well. Sure their terminology wasn’t perfect, but they’re understanding was good. Things really only got problematic when the commentary writers ran with it. And it was there that we ended up with “once and for all aorists.” And now today we’re trying to correct 100 years of bad grammar multiples in commentary after commentary.

    I don’t expect everyone to qualify everything. In this case, the entire issue can be side stepped by people avoiding the phrase “grammaticalize time” when they really mean “grammaticalize tense.” It doesn’t need a five page excursus. Just don’t say it. Don’t use the word time when you mean the word tense. It’s that easy.

    If by writing something about how terminology are used has even a slight chance of contributing toward not having to fix the next 100 years worth of commentaries, then its worth writing…even if its only a blog post…

  6. Grammaticalising time would mean something like having one inflection for the morning, one for the afternoon, and one for the night. Now maybe that might be the case for languages with metrical tense, but I know nothing about such languages other than that they exist.

    To use Natural Semantic Metalanguage (crudely), pure tense is something like:

    I am thinking of a time;
    I am thinking of an event;
    This event happened before/at the same time/after this time.

    Pure aspect is something like:

    I am thinking of an event;
    I am thinking of the whole/part/beginning/middle/end of the event.

    But probably few languages have completely pure tense or aspect.

      1. It may be verbose, but it’s precise too. And user friendly – I don’t think any students would misunderstand a text book when its terms were accompanied by semantic paraphrases.

        1. The NSM homepage lists many books and articles, but I think I’d recommend this article as a good thorough example of how NSM can be used to study the semantics of one particular grammatical phenomenon:
          Wierzbicka, Anna. 2009. “Reciprocity”. Studies in Language, 33:1.

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