Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: Raphael Kühner & William Jelf (1866)

The translation of Raphael Kühner’s German grammar into English by William Jelf marks the closest we get to a comprehensive grammar of Classical and Hellenistic Greek.[1] And while it does not provide a distinct discussion of New Testament Greek by itself, it does provide references to New Testament usage as it relates to broader usage. The grammar marks a substantial change from the previous grammars examined thus far in that it seeks a comprehensive description rather than assuming that basic knowledge is already known to the reader.[2]

The section on the verb begins at §394 and continues through §409 with nearly thirty pages of discussion. Kühner-Jelf also appears to be the first English grammarian to provide a meta-theory of tense-aspect applicable to all language before attempting to deal with Greek itself.[3] This system is grounded primarily upon Aristotle’s On Interpretation.

Ῥῆμα δέ ἐστι τὸ προσσημαῖνον χρόνον, […] λέγω δὲ ὅτι προσσημαίνει χρόνον, οἷον ὑγίεια μὲν ὄνομα, τὸ δὲ ὑγιαίναι ῥῆμα. Προσσημαίνει γὰρ τὸ νῦν ὑπάρχειν.[4]

A verb is that which connotes temporality. … Now I say it connotes temporality [and this is what I mean]: Ὑγίεια (healthy) is a noun, but ὑγιαίναι (be healthy) is a verb; for it connotes the present [νῦν] existence of the state [in question].[5]

For Kühner-Jelf, time is involved in verbal semantics in two ways. There is what Kühner-Jelf terms the “definition notion of time,” which takes the speaker as the temporal reference point (Absolute tenses). This stands in contrast with tenses which express some other relationship relative to another point:

An action may not only be thus defined by its reference, whether as past, present, or future, to the time present to the speaker, but may also have a reference to some other action expressed by some other predicate, whether it be antecedent to, coincident with, or consequent on this action; that is, whether it be ended before this other action is going on, finished, or intended; whether it is not yet begun, but only conceived as about to happen when the other shall be going on, or finished, or intended. For these also the Greek has forms, which are called the Relative Tenses.[6]

Today when we talk about absolute tense and relative tense, we limit ourselves to tenses such as the English perfect.[7] The term relative tense does not tend to refer to all of the categories that Kühner-Jelf seeks to place in it. We have both the idea of temporal location established by a point other than that of the speaker (the modern definition of relative tense), but we also have the idea of telicity (“action going on, finish, or intended”) that was visible in the ancient grammarians. The modern definition of relative tense is involved here in that the present may function either with reference to the speaker or another reference point within the discourse. The imperfect differs from it in that it is consistently used primarily for the latter of these. As Winer and Levinsohn noted above, the imperfect is used for subsidiary or secondary events connected to the main narrative. In this sense, being a relative tense versus being an absolute tense also involves the modern concepts of backgrounding and foregrounding of information in a discourse.[8]

If this understanding of Kühner-Jelf’s view is accurate, we are left with the lingering question of why he would organize it in this manner with three modern categorical distinctions merged into one bipartite division. Is there a relationship between telicity, temporal reference points, and backgrounded and foregrounded information that has becomes less than clear today than it might have been in the mid-19th century? Or is Kühner-Jelf simply making the system far more complicated than it needs to be? There does not seem to be an easy answer to these questions.

John Lyons provides a potential connection, though it is nothing more than that, “It has been pointed out … that the distinction between tense and aspect is hard to draw with respect to what is sometimes described as relative, or secondary, tense. We will say no more about this.”[9] Rather frustratingly, Lyons provides no reference as to who it was that pointed this fact out. Without any citation, we are prevented from following up the observation elsewhere. Lyon’s refusal to say more on the subject leaves us floundering without any direction as to where this connection might lead.

Porter deals with Kühner-Jelf in a rather different manner than what we have done here. Kühner-Jelf functions as representative evidence of two threads: those who follow the Stoics and those who follow Dionysius Thrax. For Porter, Kühner-Jelf is one of the latter.[10] For reference, figure 2 provides Kühner-Jelf’s chart of the tense-aspect categories.[11]

Present. Past. Future.
I. Absolute γράφω ἔγραψα. γράψω.
II. Relative
a. Coincidence.Action yet going on.Imperfect.
γράφω. ἔγραφον. γράψω.
b. Antecedence.Action past.


Γέγραφα ἐγεγράφειν γεγραφὼς ἔσομαι.
c. Consequence.Action yet to come.


Μέλλω γράφειν. ἔμελλον γράφειν. μελλήσω γράφειν.

If we interpret the words “action past” as not merely have the sense of action in the past, but also the sense of completed, we find Kühner-Jelf has a system virtually identical to that of Dionysius Thrax.[12] Thus, despite the fact Porter does not think Dionysius had a concept of aspect, he is still generally accurate in saying that Kühner-Jelf’s grammar follows Dionysius in this conception of the verbal system, but the problem is that Kühner-Jelf is also very much like the Stoics as well.[13] That Porter wants Kühner-Jelf to stand with Dionysius in contrast with the Stoics is problematic since the defining line in his view is their conception of “kind of action” (again, refusing to call their conceptualization “aspect).”[14] And we have already seen that both tense and aspect are central to the Stoics and Dionysius.

The irony here comes to view when Porter looks at the German edition of Kühner. Porter used the 2nd edition of Jelf,[15] but the 4rd German edition of Kühner, edited by Blass and Gerth after Kühner’s death.[16] He then describes Kühner more positively as if the observations about aktionsart and what he terms a “neo-Stoic scheme” were original to Kühner. But when we look at the German edition that Jelf translated from, we find that the Absolute/Relative distinction with its complex temporal-aspectual framework is taken from it entirely, including the chart above.[17]

This is not to say that the conception of verbal semantics put forward by Kühner-Jelf is necessarily ideal or should be preferred. There are clear problems with it. In some sense, we could say that the problems more involve issues of elegance and simplicity than they do problems of description, though whether the perfect is best described as a past tense can be (and still is) debated. Likewise, if it is correct that Jelf begins this section talking about the nature of language in general, then there are even more problems, since it is clear that the system could only go so far in explaining tense and aspect beyond a small set of Indo-European languages. Despite these problems, the description put forward in Kühner-Jelf is extremely important in the develop of our understanding of the Greek verb and holds great influence over grammatical description from 1835 when Kühner’s first edition was published through the turn of the century. Even more importantly, potentially valuable elements of his description have been disregarded concerning telicity, temporal reference, and backgrounding and foregrounding of information in narrative.

[1] William Jelf, A Grammar of the Greek Language, 4th ed. (Oxford: James Parker, 1866), vol. 2. By the time Jelf edited the fourth edition, he apparently viewed the work as sufficiently his own to remove Kühner’s name from the title and even the fact that the text was originally a translation. However, the discussion here still refers to the work as Kühner-Jelf because there is little change between the views of Kühner and those of Jelf, even in this fourth edition.

[2] In this sense, this is the first true English reference grammar of the modern era, providing the broader coverage not found in Winer or Buttmann.

[3] This is clear from the fact that Kühner-Jelf uses two distinct sets of terminology: the standard set for Greek verbal forms (present, aorist, imperfect, etc.) and an additional set representing temporal relationships in a given predication. Porter views Kühner-Jelf’s description as only relevant to Greek, criticizing the grammar for using English-only examples for explaining a number of points

[4] Cited in Jelf, Grammar, 54-5. Kühner-Jelf cut a section out of this quote. The ellipsis is mine. See H. Tredennick, ed., Aristotle: The Categories, On Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 118.

[5] My translation.

[6] Jelf, Grammar, 55. Note that the final statement, “For these also the Greek has forms…” also suggests our understanding of Jelf is correct as having a broader theory tense not limited to Greek, but (ideally) applicable to language in general.

[7] E.g. D. N. S. Bhat, The Prominence of Tense, Aspect, and Mood (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999).

[8] See section 3.3 above on Georg Benedikt Winer for discussion.

[9] John Lyons, Semantics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 2:705.

[10] It should be noted that Porter treats Kühner-Jelf as primarily Jelf’s grammatical work, but even a cursory examination of the German edition Jelf translated from makes it clear that these ideas are first and foremost Kühner. It is only to the extent that Jelf has not revised the discussion—and he does take liberty to do so on a number of occasions—that we can talk about Jelf’s view of the verbal system. This situation is complicated since later on in Porter’s survey, he talks about Kühner views as very different from those of Jelf, but in that case he is referring to Gerth and Blass’ revision of Kühner’s German edition, which drastically changes the discussion of tense-aspect so that it is essentially unrecognizable as Kühner’s. What Porter describes as Kühner’s views are more accurately described as those of Gerth and Blass (see esp. Porter, Verbal Aspect, 25). This fact complicates the situation of Porter’s discussion of Jelf, as we will see below.

[11] Jelf, Grammar, 56.

[12] That this is the correct interpretation of “action past” is made explicitly clear in the section that follows where Kühner-Jelf provides examples of relative tenses, as well as the discussion above.

[13] There is actually a second problem as well. Does Kühner-Jelf truly rely on Dionysius for his view or do they share a common source? We know for a fact that Kühner-Jelf , to some degree, relies Aristotle for the basic nature of the verb. And according to Robins (Byzantine Grammarians, 228), the ancient grammarians, including Dionysius, also took Aristotle as their starting point. For that reasons, there is really no way of conclusively determining the nature of the \relationship between Kühner-Jelf and Dionysius Thrax.

[14] He goes on to critique Kühner-Jelf’s view of individual uses of the tenses, stating, for example, “[C]oncerning Present verbs with Perfect meaning h dismisses this as arising from the ‘sense of the verb’ rather than the ‘force of the tense…’” (Verbal Aspect, 23). This seems an incredible objection. Does Porter truly believe that the sense of the verb has no impact at all on the temporal semantics of a situation?

[15] William Jelf, A Grammar of the Greek Language, 2nd ed. (London: James Parker, 1855).

[16] Raphael Kühner, Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache: Satzlehre., ed. B. Gerth and F. Blass, 4th ed. (Leverkusen: Gottschalksche, 1955).

[17] Raphael Kühner, Ausführliche Grammatik der greicheischen Sprache (Hannover: Hahnschen Hofbuchhandlung, 1835), 62.