Rethinking Transitivity and the Greek Perfect

In preparing for the SEBTS conference, Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate, I ended up rehashing some of my old analysis of the prefect, revolving around transitivity and event structure. In my early work, the main pattern that stood out to me was that a huge number of state verbs simply never co-occur in the perfect.

But up until this past month, it never occurred to me that there might be a similar pattern on the far other end of the transitivity scale. As a result, I’ve been making assumptions about the transitivity scale and the perfect for dynamic predicates that are mostly right, but still fundamentally flawed. In terms of basic linguistic concepts: transitivity, force dynamics and event construal need to be accounted for in our analysis of the category of perfect in Ancient Greek. On the less transitive side of scale (and setting aside states for our purposes here), activity predicates don’t form a perfect: things like “sing.” They are dynamic, but low on the transitivity scale—particularly, they do not denote a change of state. The same is true for semelfactive predicates, things like ‘clap’ or ‘flash’, which like activity predicates express no change of state (see Van Valin 2005 for these categories).

But what I did not expect was that highly transitive caused state predicates like ‘break’, the so-called “prototypical transitive event,” also do not form perfect, at least, not until the event is reconstrued toward the patient. Now, I would expect this for certain really old verbs κατάγνυμι (κατέαγε: ‘is shattered’), but I had expected that, especially, in the post-classical period, this pattern would be limited entirely to these old perfect like κατάγνυμι or ἵστημι (perfect: ἕστηκεν: ‘is standing’) and that their semantics were basically fossilized.

That expectation is not entirely false. But is also not an accurate account of the perfect with highly transitive verbs during this period of history either. High transitive verbs haven’t caught up with the slightly lower transitive caused motion verbs like ἀποσελλω, ‘I send’, or caused cognition state verbs like γράφω, ‘I write’. Rather the highest transitivity verbs, verbs like ‘break’ and ‘shatter’ continue the same pattern as the old perfects like κατέαγε, except that they have allowed the now fully-developed Greek voice system to play a larger role in the perfect. Thus, the transitive verb κλάω ‘break x’ has no perfect active form at all. It only has a perfect middle form. It’s perfect is a media tantum; there is no perfect transitive κλάω “I have broken x.” The perfect middle form has the same paradigmatic semantic function as the perfect active form of κατάγνυμι or ἵστημι.

κλάω ‘break x’ <—> κέκλασται: ‘is broken’.
κατάγνυμι ‘shatter x’ <—> κατέαγε: ‘is shattered’

All of this raising more complicated questions regarding the nature of the perfect and its diachronic trajectory in the coming centuries. How does the perfect interact with Ancient Greek voice patterns at a more fine-grained level? So far as I know, these questions have not been engaged with by anyone yet.

That looks like a thesis topic if anyone is in need of one.


Shibatani, Masayoshi. 2006. “On the conceptual framework for voice phenomena.” Linguistics 44.2, 217-269.

Van valin, Robert D. Jr. 2005. Exploring the syntax-semantics interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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