Iterative usage of aspect in the imperative mood

When we look at aspectual choice in the indicative mood, we find that there are a number of usage-based factors that influence the speaker/writers decision to prefer the imperfective aspect or the perfective aspect. In narrative, the major driver of aspect choice is, of course, grounding (cf. Hopper 1981), but in non-narrative, that becomes less a factor (Runge 2016). Other facets of the aspects the come to the forefront for linguistic choice, such as contextual realizations of internal temporal structure for the imperfective aspect: progressivity, habituality, iterativity, etc. Each of these can be relevant for aspectual choice.

In the previous post on this topic (Aspect, imperatives, and event conceptualization), we saw instances where the choice of a perspectival progressive ‘in the midst of it’ viewpoint was the motivator for aspect choice. I framed that discussion in terms of event conceptualization. And the same is true for other “usages” of the imperfective aspect. In this discussion, ἀσπάζομαι provides an example of how iterativity may affect aspect choice. This is a verb that, in the imperative, the perfective aspect dominates. In the NT alone, there are 26 instances of the perfective imperative. Outside the New Testament, Josephus, Philo, and the OT Pseudepigrapha provide an additional four instances. These contrast with a single instance of the imperfective imperative in the New Testament and contemporary texts:

  1. Εἰρήνη σοι. ἀσπάζονταί σε οἱ φίλοι. ἀσπάζου τοὺς φίλους κατʼ ὄνομα (3 John 15).

Of course, there are a few more instances of this imperative beyond this example. Consider this one from Plato’s epistles, for example:

  1. καὶ τοὺς συσφαιριστὰς ἀσπάζου ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ (Plat. Letters 13.363d)

But the perfective imperative is, by a substantial margin, the preferred grammatical form. So it seems worthwhile to ask what motivates the imperfective form ἀσπάζου as an option? The 3 John example is probably the clearer example in this regard. Clauses like this are sort of like the imperfective imperative equivalent of the iterativity in the indicative. John wants his audience to Greek the friends by name, i.e. individually. He’s commanding a repetition/iteration of greetings. Imagine the scene where you enter a home with a dinner party and you repeat your greeting to each person in the room. That is an event that can be readily construed by a speaker or writer as having an iterative internal structure.

Now, could John have used the perfective imperative here? Yes. He could have made that choice since the perfective imperative communicates no specific internal temporal structure at all, whether iterative or not. The choice of the imperfective, then, is a more explicit option that likely felt natural to the context, even if it wasn’t grammatically necessary. This is a case where the difference in form does not inherently communicate a difference in meaning, but rather just more meaning than otherwise would have been communicated.

The same interpretation likely applies to the Plato example, the object of the imperative (i.e. the recipient of the greeting) is also grammatically plural, which suggests multiple people to greet. The context of the event motivates the subconscious grammatical choices of the writer/speaker.