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.

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