Against Verbal Aspect Theory

“Verbal Aspect Theory” and its companion “Aktionsart Theory” are both phrases in need of reconsideration. The way they are used by NT grammarians today is anachronistic and leads to misreadings of the grammatical literature.

One central problem with this particular collocation of words stems from historical concerns. (Another problem is the manner in which the word ‘theory’ is normally used in linguistics, but that’s another topic.) Generally, the phrase “Verbal Aspect Theory” occurs in articles, grammars, and monographs in relation to what is presented as its opposite: “Aktionsart Theory.” In turn, the definitions involve appeal to the categories of subjective (aspect) and objective (Aktionsart). And generally the following definitions are involved:

  • Aspect is the subjective choice of how the author wanted to describe the action.
  • Aktionsart objectively conveys how the action actually took place.

We could spend substantial time and space talking about the substantive difficulties with these definitions, such as how they are a byproduct of a linguistic structuralism that uncritically relies on the philosophical assumptions of logical positivism, but the relevant issue here is simpler. While it is popular for NT scholars to group the history of research into two eras (Aktionsart Theory followed by Aspect Theory), the additional attribution of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ categories to these respective eras is demonstrably contrary to the writings of these eras. Nevertheless, the introduction of this anachronism is pervasive in work that follows the contemporary tradition of aspect research.

This position is arguably most common in Dr. Porter’s work, going back to his published dissertation (Porter 1989). For example, he writes in the Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament:

One of the most important of these grammarians was Karl Brugmann, who elucidated the theory of Aktionsart. . . . This theory was adapted for New Testament study first by Friedrich Blass in his grammar, which, expanded by Albert Debrunner, has been translated into English and continues to be the most widely-cited New Testament Greek reference grammar, and then by James Hope Moulton, the first to introduce Aktionsart terminology into New Testament study. Aktionsart theory made a distinctive contribution to Greek grammatical study in that it frees the tense-forms from strict reference to time, especially promoting the recognition by most grammarians that non-indicative verb forms did not refer to time. However, this theory also had severe limitations. The first was in its attempt to objectify a conception of how events transpire, and then to equate these conceptions with particular grammatical forms.

The third and final stage in discussion of Greek verbal structure is a logical continuation from that of Aktionsart theory, and recognizes that verbs are not primarily concerned either with time or with objectified action, but with a subjective perspective on action. This has come to be called aspect theory (Porter 1997, 116, my emphasis).

Here Porter delineates between “Aktionsart theory” as a framework from the era of Comparative Philology and “aspect theory” as its modern improved alternative. This point is made explicit in his intermediate grammar, Idioms of the Greek New Testament.

The second significant period is characterized by reliance on the concept of Aktionsart (a German word apparently invented around 1885 by Brugmann and introduced into English in 1906 by Moulton in his Prolegomena). It is perhaps best described and defended in the classic grammar by Brugmann, although many standard reference grammars use this approach. This framework was developed in the flush of discovery in the nineteenth century of the genetic relations among many Indo-European languages. The theory of Aktionsart is the supposition that the verb tenses of Greek are used to convey how an action objectively occurs.

A recognizable shortcoming of this perspective is its ambivalence toward the relation between tense-forms and their abilities to characterize action objectively. For example, Greek does not have an iterative tense-form, and often aorist action is not punctiliar. The result is frequent, major alterations in the system to accommodate deviations, often explained in terms not of a given tense-form but of the underlying root of the verb as either punctiliar or durative. (The perfect tense-form was always problematic.) This analysis has difficulty explaining description of the same event using, for example, the aorist and the present tenses, since the objective measurement of kind of action cannot be defined solely in terms of verbal usage. Furthermore, it is arbitrary to characterize all action as fitting into only three objective categories, punctiliar, linear and resultive. This view is promoted widely in many of the standard advanced Greek reference grammars (e.g. Robertson, BDF, Moulton), most of these tools being written at least fifty years ago.
(Porter 1999, 27-28; my emphasis).

Though I have not yet searched through all the grammars of the so-called Aktionsart period, I have read at least a dozen. I am yet to find one that makes an assertion that remotely sounds like Aktionsart should be defined as “how an action objectively occurs.” The comparative philologists certainly struggled to distinguish between elements of clause and verb semantics that are derivational (e.g. pre-verbs) vs. those that are inflectional (aspectual stem morphology). For example, Moulton discusses pre-verbs in terms of having a perfectivizing effect in his Prolegomena.

In all the Indo-Germanic languages, most conspicuously and systematically in the Slavonic but clearly enough in our own, this function of verb compounds may be seen. The choice of the preposition which is to produce this perfective action2 depends upon conditions which vary with the meaning of the verbal root. Most of them are capable of “perfectivising” an imperfective verb, when the original adverb’s local sense has been sufficiently obscured. … The separateness of adverb and verb in English, as in Homeric Greek, helps the adverb to retain its force longer than it did in Latin and later Greek. In both these languages many of the compound verbs have completely lost consciousness of the meaning originally borne by the prepositional element, which is accordingly confined to its perfectivising function. This is especially the case with com (con) and ex (e) in Latin, as in consequi “follow out, attain,” efficere “work out”; and with ἀπό, διά, κατά and σύν in Greek, as in ἀποθανεῖν “die” (θνῄσκειν “be dying”), διαφυγεῖν “escape” (φεύγειν = “flee”), καταδιώκειν “hunt down” (διώκω = “pursue”), κατεργάζεσθαι “work out,” συντηρεῖν “keep safe” (τηρεῖν = “watch”) (Moulton 1908, 111-113).

Without an explicit statement about “objective action”, it seems to me that Moulton is at worst merely conflating the modern categories of aspect (=viewpoint) and Aktionsart (=event structure). This was the position of my friend, the late Rod Decker, for example. Still, even that position is fairly complicated. Moulton himself is conscious of keeping the terminology separate: He uses the terms ‘imperfective’ and ‘perfective’ only when he discusses derivation and uses ‘punctiliar’ and ‘durative’ when he is talking about the aspectual contrast between the aorist and the present. This suggests that Moulton is not conflating aspect and Aktionsart, but is instead using the terminology in the reverse manner of how we use them today.

Such terminological usage is, of course, highly confusing for the modern reader, but Moulton is consistent here and he makes no assumption about objectivity vs. subjectivity with regard to the nature of the action.

If anything, grammarians of this so-called Aktionsart era, realized the need to make sure their audience understood that claims about durativity and punctiliarity were not objective at all. Indeed, A. T. Robertson took pains to emphasize this fact in his own grammar.

Perhaps a word more should be said as to the point of view of the speaker or writer. The same action can be viewed as punctiliar or linear. The same writer may look at it now one way, now the other. Different writers often vary in the presentation of the same action (Robertson 1923, 1380).

This statement by Robertson, if one has read John Lyon’s Semantics, likely sounds familiar.

It is important to realize that, in languages in which the distinction between events and processes is grammaticalized in the aspectual system, whether a situation is represented as the one or the other does not depend upon some absolute measure of duration. What is, both objectively and as perceived by the speaker, the same situation may be represented as either a process or an event according to whether the speaker is concerned with its internal temporal structure or not (Lyons 1977, 709).

There are differences not only in terminology, but also in substance when we consider the manner in which aspect is discussed today as compared with how it was discussed at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, I have not come across evidence that what these old Greek grammarians said about Aktionsart was ever about events as they objectively occurred in a manner that contrasts with the speaker-oriented subjectivity of “Aspect Theory.” Even Karl Brugmann’s discussion of Aktionsart seems more ambiguous on this topic than we might otherwise be led to believe.

I do not want to suggest that the concept of aspect as subjective and Aktionsart as objective is novel to Porter. It represents a major train of thought and research over the course of many decades. But I am yet to find a thread that links it to the Greek grammarians themselves. With this in mind, I would like to expand this discussion by surveying the history of describing aspect as subjective and Aktionsart as objective. In a future post, perhaps we can trace the origin of this distinction without reading it into grammars unnecessarily.

Works cited

Lyons, John. 1977. Semantics. 2 Volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moulton, James Hope. 1908. Grammar of New Testament Greek: Prolegomena. Edinburg: T&T Clark.
Porter, Stanley E. 1997. Handbook to exegesis of the New Testament. Leiden: Brill.
Porter, Stanley E. 1999. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Robertson, A.T. 1923. A grammar of the Greek New Testament in light of historical research. Nashville: Broadman & Holdman.

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