Challenges in language analysis: thesis prefatory material

I have put a lot of thought into how language analysis in Greek is normally done, especially with reference to the Greek perfect on which I wrote my thesis I wanted to provide some context for what I did and why I did it. That’s the purpose of this article and the next.

There have been a number of ways that the Greek perfect has been approached, with a variety of terminology and methods (or lack of methods). Usually, there’s a supposed ‘traditional’ approach to the Greek perfect. But this is a bit of a misnomer because there’s actually a good amount of variation in the old grammars in terms of how the perfect is described. In any case, beyond what is supposedly ‘traditional’, there are a couple distinct perspectives that exist in current approaches to the tense and aspect in Greek in general and with the Greek perfect in particular. I’m not talking about Porter’s ideas about tense (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament) or Campbell’s ideas about the perfect as involving ‘heightened remoteness’ & ‘heightened proximity’ (Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative). Those approaches are worth talking about, but the purpose of my thesis was such that they were not strictly relevant (more on that later).

The distinct perspectives that I’m talking about are those that exist within the larger linguistic literature itself and have been picked up by a group of us (Steve Runge, Randall Buth, Stephen Carlson, and myself along with a few others who don’t have websites to link to) who have been talking about the Greek verb for about five years now. The most prominent (heh.) piece of secondary literature in that respect is a book by D. N. S. Bhat entitled The Prominence of Tense, Aspect and Mood. Bhat’s book is typologically oriented. He’s interested making generalizations about tense, aspect, and mood across a wide variety of language for the purpose of (among others) being able to write more accurate grammatical descriptions of individual languages. Knowledge of how language works in general with respect to particular phenomenon informs us on individual languages and helps us avoid reading the structure of our own language into the language we’re analyzing*. Bhat’s primary thesis is that there are (at least) three language types.

“Prominence in Bhat’s typology is solely about the structure of the grammatical system, not it’s informational content.”

There are languages that are tense prominent. There are languages that are aspect prominent. There are languages that are mood prominent. The prominence of the given category in the language is determined by a number of factors presented in the table below (Aubrey 2014, 66):

Criteria Some possible realizations
Degree of grammaticalization Auxiliaries vs. Affixes? Inflectional vs. Derivational?
Degree of paradigmaticity Extent to which a category is systematically organized in the morphosyntax.
Degree of Obligatoriness Extent to which a category is grammatically necessary.
Pervasiveness Extent to which a category exists across a given set of forms.

Table 1. Criteria for Grammatical Prominence (summarized from Bhat 1999, 96-7)

Also on the basis of these criteria, I can emphatically say that the word “prominence” here does not refer to any sort of discourse prominence, emphasis, to vague exegetical or theological concept. Rather, prominence in Bhat’s typology is solely about the structure of the grammatical system, not its informational content.

From these criteria and Greek data, we can conclude that Greek is aspect prominent. Aspect morphology is more grammaticalized than tense & mood, it is more systematic in its paradigmaticity, it is more obligatory, and it is more pervasive across the verbal system than either tense or mood. Tense morphology is limited to the indicative mood only and we only find mood morphology in finite clauses. This is a summary, of course, each of these could be looked at in detail for Greek and demonstrated (I do that in my thesis), but for our purposes the summary is sufficient. So Greek is aspect prominent and English is tense prominent. That’s the first piece.

As for the second piece, My thesis was not strictly on Greek grammar. It is actually first and foremost focused on a problem within a linguistic framework called Role and Reference Grammar (RRG). RRG is a quite useful framework for approach questions of language description and analysis. It isn’t the best. I’m not sure there can be a “best.” Nevertheless, RRG is good for a couple of reasons. First, it takes seriously, the fact that there is significant language variation across human languages. And secondly, it take seriously the fact that all languages, despite that variation, a communicative and cognitive foundation. This is akin to something Steve says it his Discourse Grammar:

“[T]here is a common set of tasks that need to be accomplished across all languages, the task list can inform our description of what the different grammatical choices accomplish. The tasks provide an organizational framework to help us understand the meaningful difference between choosing X versus Y or Z” (Runge 2010, 7).

And that’s what cross-linguistic research and language typology are all about. All languages are different, certainly. And there is always the possibility that we might find something in a language that we have never seen before. No linguist denies that. Nevertheless, that does not mean language analysis is a free for all. In biology, there are certain properties that contribute to classifying a given animal as a mammal or as a bird. The fact that the platypus exists doesn’t mean the biological typology is wrong. It just means we have new data. We do not get to pretend that the platypus doesn’t exist and continue as if that never happened. But nor do we just throw typology out the window simply because an animal did not totally fit our expectations for what a mammal is. But I’m getting off track, this post isn’t an apologetic for the importance of language typology.** Back on topic: Role and Reference Grammar is a framework that takes language description (grammar writing) very seriously. And it challenges the traditional paradigms of how linguistics has traditionally been done, beginning with two questions:

“(1) what would linguistic theory look like if it were based on the analysis of languages with diverse structures such as Lakhota, Tagalog and Dyirbal, rather than on the analysis of English?, and (2) how can the interaction of syntax, semantics and pragmatics in different grammatical systems best be captured and explained?” (Van Valin 2005, 1).

That first question is an extremely important one to ask. The vast majority of linguistic frameworks/theories—including both Chomskyan ones and (more importantly for the world of NT Greek grammar) Systemic Functional Linguistics—are thoroughly dependent upon English for the majority of their structure. That’s right many of the theoretical concepts put forward in linguistics arise from the study of English rather than the study of other languages. The SFL practitioners in NT Greek might protest at this point and point out that SFL has been used to study a wide variety of languages.

And yes, that is true to an extent. But it also misses the point. The point is that the original starting point of most frameworks, including SFL, is English. There are only a handful of frameworks that took from the very beginning of their development a broad coverage of language data. RRG is one. Functional (Discourse) Grammar is another. Basic Linguistic Theory is a third(-ish).*** There are a few others. I’d say these are the most well known three, however. Because of its broad, foundational focus on a wide variety of languages and language structures, it is one of a handful of frameworks that I really enjoy using. RRG makes is possible to easily examine and compare different languages and it’s terminology is, generally speaking, fairly transparent. So back to tense and aspect. This is where things are slightly more complicated with RRG. While the terminology and framework is in place for the general categories of tense and aspect, the more specific subcategories (e.g. past tense, future tense, perfective aspect, imperfective aspect, progressive aspect, etc.) tend to get the short end of the stick. RRG does not have descriptive apparatus for accounting for the subcategories. RRG deals with the broader, general categories only. Nevertheless, what they do, they do well. So that was the problem I attempted to solve in my thesis. I aimed to fill in the gap: provide an account of the specific realization of tense and aspect within Role and Reference Grammar. And I did so with data from Hellenistic and Early Roman Koine Greek. I think Christopher summarizes the problem with RRG in its current state best:

“So far, there has been little work, in RRG, on the detailed semantics of distinctions within the areas of temporality, aspectuality, modality, and polarity. Rather, a number of fairly broad and quite traditional categories have been proposed, and the main focus has been on showing how these categories behave in relation to the operator projection of the clause and to matters of clause linkage” (Butler 2003, 2:484).

Detailed semantic distinctions. That’s what my thesis is about. At least, for one very, very tiny piece of temporality. Sigh. Well, theses are supposed to be narrow, right? So what does RRG actually do with categories like tense and aspect in its current state? For one, it assume that the detailed semantic distinctions have already been determined. It take those and makes predictions about their realization of the morphosyntax of a given language. RRG takes the position that there is an iconic relationship between morphosyntactic position and meaning. Grammatical categories that affect the semantics of entire clauses are realized the furthest away from the predicate (usually, but not always, the verb), whereas grammatical categories that affect only the predicate itself are realized the closest to the predicate. For RRG, there are three semantic groups: grammatical categories that modify predicates alone, grammatical categories that modify the predicate and its arguments, and grammatical categories that modify the predicate, its arguments, and its non-arguments (i.e. adjuncts/adverbials). This is illustrated in the table below (Aubrey 2014, 10):

Semantic Unit RRG Layer Operator (Grammatical category)
Predicate Nucleus Aspect

Negation (of the predicate)


Predicate +Arguments Core Directionals

Deontic modality

Negation (of an argument)

Predicate +Arguments (+Non-arguments) Clause Status (Epistemic modality)

Tense Negation (of a proposition)


Illocutionary Force

Table 2. Operators and the Layered Structure of the Clause (for a larger discussion of these concepts, I would refer to to Van Valin’s “Summary of Role and Reference Grammar.”

Not all language have all these categories. The only two that we can say are universal with any confidence are Illocutionary Force and Negation. That’s because of the basic communicative tasks that all languages need to perform. All languages need to be able to ask questions (illocutionary force) and all languages need to answer those questions either positively or negatively (negation). And for the most part, these predictions about the relationship between meaning and structure work really well. Thus, for example, in Greek, aspectual marking appears the closest to the root of a given verb (the suffixes: -σ, –κ and the reduplication prefixes: [C]ε-, [C]ι-). And tense marking appears farther away: (the primary and secondary endings and the prefix augment ε- both marking the past vs. non-past tense distinction). The prediction is interesting, especially to linguists who are interested in comparing multiple languages to each other.

The problem is that for a given language, you need to know what is tense and what is aspect and what is modality and so forth. If you’re doing language analysis, you need to figure that out first. What morphology refers to what? So my purpose was to suggest a framework and method for doing that. But I wanted to make a proposal that fit RRG, one that maintained the integrity of its design and fit within its stated goals. In the RRG tradition, theoretical claims about the nature of language are always built upon the existing cross-linguistic and typological literature. RRG takes very seriously the existing linguistic tradition when it is grounded in broad-coverage linguistic analysis.

For example, clausal semantics are based on the Vendler-Dowty typology of semantic predicate classes (a. k. a. Aktionsart types). RRG’s approach to information structure is derived directly from Lambrecht (1994). It’s approach to complex constructions (e.g. coordination & subordination) comes from Olsen (1991). And it’s explanation of noun phrase syntax & semantics is based on Rijkoff (1990, 2002). For this reason, my own analysis, in order to respect the spirit of RRG, needed to do the same. Now there’s a lot of published literature on tense, aspect, and related categories. However, the vast majority of it is not large scale typological work. I worked through a massive amount of literature, but the approaches that stood out as most important for this project (typological, with detailed semantic distinctions) in addition to the work of Bhat mentioned above is primarily what has become known as the Bybee-Dhal approach (Bybee 1985; Dahl 1985; Bybee & Dahl 1989; Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca 1994; Dahl 2000). As you can see, they have been working on these issues for decades now. Their work epitomizes the concept of detailed semantic distinctions in a manner that few others do.  Dahl summarizes their the approach they take in the following manner:

“The B&D [Bybee & Dahl] approach differs from most other treatments of tense and aspect in that the basic units of description are not ‘the category of tense’ and ‘the category of aspect’ but rather what we call grams, i.e., things like Progressive in English, the Passésimple in French etc. Notions like tense, aspect, and mood are seen as ways of characterizing the semantic content of grams, or domains for which their meanings are chosen, but do not, in a typical case, represent structurally significant entities in grammatical systems” (2000, 7).

But here we have a problem: Bybee & Dahl’s approach disregards the braoder concepts of tense, aspect, and modality (we’ll call them metacategories to distinguish them from individual grams). But Bhat and RRG both place an extremely high value on these metacategories. For RRG, the metacategories are of central importance for the interface between syntax and semantics. And for Bhat, the metacategories define his conception of prototypical language types: aspect prominent, tense prominent, and mood prominent. So that’s an additional problem that I needed to solve. All of this represents my introduction to the theoretical issues of my thesis. In the following post, I will look specifically at the more Greek-oriented challenges.

My thesis is available for download at

Aubrey (2014) The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect: Toward a descriptive apparatus for operators in Role and Reference Grammar


*Or for that matter any individual language or language family—Robertson, for example, was fairly heavy handed in his reliance on Sanskrit and its affected his analysis. As such, the importance of typology for avoiding reading the structure of one language into another language demonstrates precisely the opposite of what Porter says about the accomplishments of “modern linguistics”:

“If modern linguistics has accomplished anything in its brief tenure in this century, it has made those who discuss language aware of the facts that a language must first of all be understood on its own terms, without recourse to any other language, no matter how closely related” (Porter 1993, 85).

Understanding a language on its own terms is, in and of its self, insufficient. In the first place, if the language in question is not your native tongue, then you always have the influences of your own language to contend with. That can happen in two ways. On the one hand, you might not at all be thinking of how your own language could influence your analysis and you subconsciously interpret your language data through the lens of your native language’s grammatical structure—that’s how things like ‘deponency’ come into being when they have no place in the language’s actual structure. On the other hand, you might be conscious of the fact that your native language can influence the analysis in the other direction. Emphasizing that the language being analyzed is distinct from the language of analysis can cause the opposite to happen. The linguist/grammarian presents the language as being more different from the native tongue than it actually is. In this case the foreignness of the language is given preeminence over and against the shared humanness of the language. Because of both these tendencies, language typology is necessary, holding in tension these two extremes. Yes, languages are all distinct from each other. But they’re not alien to each other. They share a commonality in the same way that trees, whether oaks, or maples, or douglas firs, share commonalities. Even trees of the same species are both extremely similar and also unpredictably different from every other.

**If anyone is interested in that, I’ve written about it in chapter 6 of a forthcoming volume from Lexham Press (Aubrey 2016).

***BLT is more complicated because it’s essentially a grab bag of whatever any given linguist doing the analysis thinks is best from the larger tradition of grammatical analysis. Obviously the founders have their specific ideas, but the basic deal of the approach does not lend itself to uniformity across practitioners. Even still. It sounds nice as an idea (cf. Dryer’s essay, “What is Basic Linguistic Theory?” Anyway, there are things about BLT that make me ever so slightly uncomfortable.

For Part II, see: Thesis Prefatory Material: A Narrative Account

Works Cited:

Aubrey, Michael G. 2014. The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect: Toward a descriptive apparatus for operators in Role and Reference Grammar. M.A. Thesis. Trinity Western University.

Aubrey, Michael G. 2016. The value of linguistically informed exegesis. Linguistics and biblical exegesis (LINK). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press.

Bhat, D. N. S. 1999. The prominence of tense, aspect, and mood. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Butler, Christopher S. 2003. Structure and function: A guide to three major structural-functional theories. 2 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan, and Osten Dahl. 1989. “The creation of tense and aspect systems in the languages of the world.” Studies in language 13: 51-103.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, Constantine. 2007. Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative. New York: Peter Lang.

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Dahl, Östen, ed. 2000. Tense and aspect in the languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, Michael L. 1981. Barai clause junctures: Toward a function theory of interclausal relations. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University.

Porter, Stanley E. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with reference to tense and mood. New York: Peter Lang.

Porter, Stanley E. 1993. An introduction to other topics in Biblical Greek language and linguistics. Biblical Greek language and linguistics: open questions in current research. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Rijkoff, Jan. 2002. The noun phrase. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Runge, Steven E. 2010. Discourse grammar of the Greek New Testament: A practical introduction for teaching and exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Van Valin Jr. Robert D. 2005. Exploring the syntax-semantics interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valin Valin Jr. Robert D. n. d.  Summary of Role and Reference Grammar.