Aspect, imperatives, and event conceptualization

(Note: if you have the font SBL Greek installed, the Greek will look great. Otherwise…I don’t know.)

A couple weeks ago, I noted that the speaker/author’s perspectival choices could affect the selection of aspect both in the indicative (see Bentein on Aspectual Perspective) and in the imperative (see Perspectival uses of Aspect in the Imperative).

What I have done here for this is collate data where we have contrastive examples of the same verb used in both the imperfective and perfective aspects. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be examining a variety of different kinds of contrastive sets where the aspectual choice is conditioned by various linguistic elements. I’m going to be aiming for two to three posts each week. These are all short, so it shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll see what happens.

Event conceptualization can often affect aspectual choice. A speaker has the choice to present a given situation with a variety of different predicate types. There’s a tendency among many scholars studying the grammar of Koine Greek to assume that predicate types / actionality / aktionsart is somehow “objective” in relation to what happens in the real world. But that is not actually the case. Predicate types can certainly be constrained by the world. Just because an event has duration, for example, doesn’t mean that speaker/writer needs to present it as having duration. There are larger and more important choices and constraints on language use, particularly in discourse, than “objective” real-world factors. States and activities, for example, get avoided in the mainline of narrative material where accomplishments and achievements are the preferred (perhaps even necessary) means of moving the narrative forward (cf.  Foley and Van Valin 1984, 367-74). And that means in many cases, predicate type selection is necessarily subjective, grounded first and foremost in the narrative that the speaker desires to communicate.

In turn, this also means that predicate type selection as a factor that influences aspectual choice does not contradict the subjective nature of aspect as a category. This is even more true in the case of aspect in conjunction with the non-indicative moods. Being necessarily irrealis, non-indicative moods like the imperative involve the expression of a desired actionality for the recipient. Thus, in Colossians 4:17, the author uses the imperfective aspect because he wants the recipient of the command (Ἀρχίππῳ) to volitionally enter into a particular sustained and durational state of watchfulness for the ministry:

Βλέπε τὴν διακονίαν ἣν παρέλαβες ἐν κυρίῳ, ἵνα αὐτὴν πληροῖς (Col 4:17)

The aspect choice cannot be attributed to any sort of ‘imperfective = general’ vs. ‘perfective = specific’ distinction here—the command is clearly specific. Instead, the aspect choice is predicate on (<—that’s a pun) the event type desired by the speaker.

Likewise, when Peter gives a similar command to a lame beggar in Acts 3:4, the perfective imperative is used because durationality isn’t relevant to the event structure that Peter

Βλέψον εἰς ἡμᾶς (Acts 3:4)

The complete lack of internal temporal structure expressed by the meaning of the perfective aspect helps contribute to the desired event structure where the priority is on the instantaneous change of state.

A similar contrast occurs with the verb εὐφραίνω.

καὶ ἐρῶ τῇ ψυχῇ μου· Ψυχή, ἔχεις πολλὰ ἀγαθὰ κείμενα εἰς ἔτη πολλά· ἀναπαύου, φάγε, πίε, εὐφραίνου (Luke 12:19).

Εὐφράνθητι, στεῖρα ἡ οὐ τίκτουσα, ῥῆξον καὶ βόησον, ἡ οὐκ ὠδίνουσα (Gal 4:27).

Once again, the speaker’s interest in duration as an essential aspect of the commanded event prioritizes one aspect over the other.

Now, do imperfective imperatives and perfective imperatives mean these things? No. Certainly not. These are merely factors that come into play. Scholars, grammarians, and exegetes looking for a nice one-size-fits all glove for aspect of imperatives are going about the entire endeavor wrongly. And they end up with results that can be applied to the text in a piecemeal or inconsistent fashion.

8 thoughts on “Aspect, imperatives, and event conceptualization

Add yours

  1. Thanks, Carl! I’m try to write more again. I thought smaller bits rather than massive pieces would be easier. Hopefully, I’ll have a journal article on aspect and imperatives to publish by the end.

  2. Mike,

    I wonder if maybe Bakker isn’t onto something about the present impv. meaning do it now, and the aorist being a more polite version. It might be worth your while to reread it.

    Yes, I’m skeptical of some of his conclusions, but I’m starting to see some sense to many of them…


    1. I’ll need to find a copy. Off the top of my head, there are some places where that makes sense. I don’t think the meaning could be entirely reduced to that, but it’s quite a believable proposal. From what I see, there are a number of ways something as abstract as internal temporal structure can be realized with the imperative.

  3. The problem with “general” and “specific” is that they can mean anything you want them to mean. They are useless unless there’s an agreed upon exact definition. For example, I can easily find a way to understand your examples consistently to be specific for aorists and general for presents, although it’s impossible for me to explain it. And actually I dont’ understand what you mean by “the command is clearly specific” in its context. It seems to be general, characterizing a person, rather that e.g. limited to some situation or time.

    1. I’ll be getting to this generalization soon. It’s a couple posts out. The good news is that the definitions used are sufficiently nuanced to avoid the issue and can be tied to actual semantic factors related to aspect.

      While I don’t really have time to go into that here, broadly speaking, specificity is tied to the referentiality of the event commanded and its participants. In the case of the Colossians 4:17 example, the command is directed to a specific person to do a specific thing. The end of an ancient letter is place where greetings and instructions to others not recipient of the letter are laid out that the author feels is important to communicate. Placing this command here implies that Paul knows that Archippus has been neglecting his ministry and Paul wants him to change that.

      This is fundamentally distinct from, say, a command in a proverb, where there is no specific audience in mind or contextual situation assumed. It’s the difference between a dentist saying to every child in the dentist chair, “Brush your teeth twice a day” and a parent saying to their daughter, “Brush your teeth and go to bed.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: