Conclusion to “Greek Prohibitions” in GVR

With the great success from publication the The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis now a couple years behind us and the great labor of writing, editing, rewriting and more editing all, but happy distant memory, it seems worthwhile to share the conclusion to the article I contributed to the volume.

I examined the question of Greek prohibitions and the much argued about expressions: stop doing X (imperfective aspect) and do not start X (perfective aspect). Traditionally these expressions are wholly associated their respective aspect verb form as motivation for their meanings, going back to journal articles from over 100 years ago. In my article, I put forward an alternative approach, suggesting that not also aspect, but also the nature of the negation itself plays a role in the how and why of these expressions.

So without further ado, enjoy:

Prohibitions as Complex Constructions

Language is fundamentally constructional in nature. Individual formal elements involve their own semantic expression and when multiple forms come together, more complex meanings arise, meanings that are greater than the constituent pieces. That is precisely what we have seen with Greek prohibitions. Neither the stop doing x meaning nor the do not start x meaning is a defining characteristic of what an imperfective or perfective prohibition is. Instead in both cases, aspect, negation, modality, and referentiality all come together in formation of each of them.

On the basis of my analysis, I propose the following formal criteria for expression.

The stop doing x construction requires:

  • Imperfective aspect
  • Imperative mood
  • Nuclear-scope negation*
  • A specific, referential event*

The do not start x construction requires

  • Perfective aspect
  • Subjunctive mood
  • Negation of any scope*
  • A nonspecific, nonreferential event (?)

The criteria marked by asterisks are proposals that I have argued for in the analysis presented above. The idea of nuclear scope negation being a prerequisite for the stop doing x construction is, perhaps, the most novel proposal here. However, I view the idea as compelling because of how well it fits with the nature of the imperfective aspect and also because of the lack of clear data evincing alternative negation scopes, particularly core negation.[1] The fact that my data only consisted of instances of the stop doing x construction with referential events suggests that the construction is a particular type of divergence from the standard usage of the imperfective imperative for general commands and prohibitions.

The do not start x construction was more ambiguous in its usage. Its semantics in particular contexts were clear, however. For one, there is clear evidence that negation scope does not play a role in its formation. Clear instances of both clause and core negation are quite common. Additionally, the larger textual contexts in which the construction appears tends to involve nonreferential events. This almost feels like a logical necessity, since referentiality tends to be tied to existence either in the world or, at the very least, in the discourse for the mental representation of the audience. My data, at best, demonstrates a preference for nonreferential events. This preference could be related to the fact that this construction often seems to function prospectively, where the speaker is desiring to prevent a potential event from occurring.[2] Still, this relationship between the do not start x construction and referentiality is the most tenuous in terms of its relationship to the language data. It represents an opportunity for future research moving forward.

[1] It deserves to be emphasized that the claim does not mean that it would be impossible for a Koine Greek speaker to say, with core negation, perhaps “Stop going to Tarsus” with negation scope over the core argument, but rather that such a meaning would be expressed with a periphrastic construction rather than with a single imperfective prohibition.

[2] This might suggest that Jo Willmott’s analysis of such clauses as preventative rather than prohibitive is correct (The Moods of Homeric Greek, CCS [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008], 96).