Aspect, imperatives, and distributive plurals

I want to pick up a series of short discussions from a few years ago on aspectual choice in the imperative mood.

First, you are probably wondering: what in the world is a distributive plural? And we will get to answering that, but first we need to talk about death. It is Halloween, after all.

The verb θανατόω makes for some fascinating language data for exploring aspect in the imperative. There are only a handful of examples of imperatives across the usual set of post-Classical Greek texts that I use for searching (LXX, NT, Apostolic Fathers, Philo, and Josephus). Imperatives of this lemma fall into two larger groups, each with its own aspect-outliers. There is one group of imperatives, all 2nd person, that are nearly all perfective (i.e. aorists), outside of a single instance. In a separate discussion, we will examine the second group, 3rd person imperatives of θανατόω.

  1. Σπάσον τὴν ῥομφαίαν μου καὶ θανάτωσόν με, μή ποτε εἴπωσιν Γυνὴ ἀπέκτεινεν αὐτόν.
    Draw my sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him’ (LXX Judges 9:54).
  2. καὶ εἰ ἔστιν ἀδικία ἐν τῷ δούλῳ σου, θανάτωσόν με σύ· καὶ ἕως τοῦ πατρός σου ἵνα τί οὕτως εἰσάγεις με;
    But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself; why should you bring me to your father? (LXX 1 Kingdoms 20:8).
  3. Στῆθι δὴ ἐπάνω μου καὶ θανάτωσόν με, ὅτι κατέσχεν με σκότος δεινόν, ὅτι πᾶσα ἡ ψυχή μου ἐν ἐμοί. Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers (LXX 2 Kingdoms 1:9).
  4. πατάξατε τὸν Ἀμνὼν καὶ θανατώσατε αὐτόν· μὴ φοβηθῆτε, ὅτι οὐχὶ ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἐντελλόμενος ὑμῖν; ἀνδρίζεσθε καὶ γίνεσθε εἰς υἱοὺς δυνάμεως
    Strike Amnon, then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant (LXX 2 Kingdoms 13:28).
  5. καὶ νῦν ἰδοὺ τὸ πρόσωπον τοῦ βασιλέως οὐκ εἶδον· εἰ δέ ἐστιν ἐν ἐμοὶ ἀδικία, καὶ θανάτωσόν με. Now let me go into the king’s presence; if there is guilt in me, execute me! (LXX 2 Kingdoms 14:32).
  6. Προσαγάγετε καὶ θανατοῦτε τοὺς ἱερεῖς τοῦ κυρίου, ὅτι ἡ χεὶρ αὐτῶν μετὰ Δαυείδ
    Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David (LXX 1 Kingdoms 22:17)

What’s the difference between examples 1-5 and example 6? If the grammatical number of the object τοὺς ἱερεῖς τοῦ κυρίου caught your attention, then you are on the right track. Grammatical categories and their meanings do not exist in a vacuum and aspect does not function autonomously from the rest of grammar. In the case of the plural marking on the object, plurality plays a role in the structure of the event expressed by this clause just like aspect does. In certain grammatical contexts, they affect each other and influence how the language user communicates.

In this case, the event, kill, is distributed across each of the priests, as commanded by the speaker, Saul. Some languages grammaticalize this distributive function within their verbal systems. For example, Russian has an aspect morpheme that can function distributively, the prefix po- (Comrie 1985).

  1. On po-zapiral dveri.
    ‘He locked the doors one at a time.’

In Greek, the imperfective aspect can serve this function as well. My earlier discussion of imperfective imperatives in iterative contexts parallels this Russian example. Now consider the conceptual parallels between the two examples above (the killing of priests in LXX 1 Kingdoms 22:17 and the Russian example of locking a sequence of doors) and 3 John 15 below. See an earlier discussion of this verse here: Iterative usage of aspect in the imperative mood.

  1. Εἰρήνη σοι. ἀσπάζονταί σε οἱ φίλοι. ἀσπάζου τοὺς φίλους κατʼ ὄνομα.
    Peace be yours. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name (3 John 15).

Retrospectively, I would prefer to describe this type of event as distributive rather than iterative as I did in the earlier essay.

Of course, not all events with plural objects (semantic patients) activate a distributive reading. The alternative would be a collective reading, where the plural is construed as a unified group and the event applies to the group rather than distributed across each member (Surányi & Madarász 2018, 142).

This is precisely why the aspect choice of the imperfective over the perfective matters. The imperfective functions as a signal to the audience that the plural should be read distributively rather than collectively. The latter reading can be signaled by the perfective aspect.

This communicative use of aspect is more readily available in the non-indicative moods like the imperative here. Why is that? The answer is fairly straightforward. In the indicative mood, aspect is essential for distinguishing between the background (imperfective) and foreground (perfective) for narrative text. Non-indicative moods tend not to appear in narrative texts. Instead they occur in non-narrative forms like monologue, dialogue and other kinds of direct and indirect discourse. When this more common function of aspect in discourse is unavailable, the perfective and imperfective aspects with their respective semantics may be effectively leveraged by speakers to signal other meaningful distinctions and pragmatic effects.

  1. Προσαγάγετε καὶ θανατοῦτε τοὺς ἱερεῖς τοῦ κυρίου, ὅτι ἡ χεὶρ αὐτῶν μετὰ Δαυείδ
    “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David (LXX 1 Kingdoms 22:17).
  2. Εἰρήνη σοι. ἀσπάζονταί σε οἱ φίλοι. ἀσπάζου τοὺς φίλους κατʼ ὄνομα.
    Peace be yours. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name (3 John 15).

In these two examples, our respective speakers, Saul and the Elder, leverage aspect choice for communicating the distributive structure of their respective commands: kill and greet.

A larger lesson around all of this is that language is for communication. Grammatical categories like aspect and number have specific, inherent meanings, certainly. But those meanings are subservient to the communication goals of the speaker. And often times, the end result is more than the sum of the of individual grammatical and lexical parts. That is certainly the case here, where these individual elements, where aspect and number together signal the distribution of how the event impacts the object of the clause.

Works Cited:

Balázs Surányi and Levente Madarász 2018. The Distributive–Collective Ambiguity and Information Structure. In Katalin É. Kiss, Ed. Linguistic and Cognitive Aspects of Quantification. Dordrecht: Springer.

Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Causative verb formation and other verb-deriving morphology. In Timothy Shopen, Ed. Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University.