Passing Grammar Notes: Perfects & Persistent Situations

As I begin working on examining data for the Greek perfect in preparation for my presentation at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary NT Greek Linguistics Conference, one thing that I hadn’t looked at before was cross-linguistic differences between the Greek and English perfects.

It is sort of taken as a given in grammars that the perfects in these two languages are different, but there is surprisingly little discussion of exactly what that means or how they are different.

We have a limited capacity to do this semi-computationally. While teachers love railing again interlinears for language learning, a good one, that is, a digital one, is an excellent sort of precisely this sort of cross-linguistic information. The Lexham Greek-English New Testament (SBLGNT), in particular, has not only a lexical gloss for a given word, but also contextual glosses.

Persistent Situation Perfect

And that means, it’s possible to search against context glosses for divergent tense/aspect translations across the two languages. Specifically, I searched for all the places where the English text, translated the Greek with have/has/had and then filtered out the possessives.

Persistent Situation Perfect 2

Now I have a large pile of fascinating data to work through, but one early thing that stood out was the instances of εἰμί translated into English with a perfect. Many of these were other things. The majority of them were tied to a perfect participle in the Greek text, for example.

But there was this consistent subset of what are called persistent situation perfects or universal perfects in English (Cf. WALS.info or the SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms). These are things like:

  1. John has been with us for a week
  2. I have lived here for five years
  3. You have been drinking, haven’t you?

One factor of these is that in English, they are commonly formed with the perfect progressive, as (3) above.

But Greek does not like to express these sorts of events with the perfect. This is something I already knew from the deep dive into the perfect data for my thesis several years ago, but I hadn’t looked at the reverse, non-perfect Greek constructions for conveying this these events. But my interlinear search gave me just such a set of data. Here are a few:

  • λέγει ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἄρατε τὸν λίθον. λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ ἀδελφὴ τοῦ τετελευτηκότος Μάρθα· Κύριε, ἤδη ὄζει, τεταρταῖος γάρ ἐστιν
    For it has been four days (John 11:39).
  • καὶ ὑμεῖς δὲ μαρτυρεῖτε, ὅτι ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς μετʼ ἐμοῦ ἐστε.
    From the beginning you have been with me (John 15:27).
  • Ἀπεκρίθη τε ὁ Παῦλος νεύσαντος αὐτῷ τοῦ ἡγεμόνος λέγειν· Ἐκ πολλῶν ἐτῶν ὄντα σε κριτὴν τῷ ἔθνει τούτῳ ἐπιστάμενος εὐθύμως τὰ περὶ ἐμαυτοῦ ἀπολογοῦμαι
    For many years you have been a judge over this nation.

Persistent situations prefer a present form of εἰμί, rather than a Greek perfect form and that is for a very simple reason: The persistent situations prefers an imperfective or progressive aspect.

But the Greek perfect is neither.

So maybe don’t try to learn Greek with an interlinear. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something else from it.

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