Common questions about Aktionsart

Isn’t lexical aspect roughly equivalent to Aktionsart?

Typically, yes. The problem is that ‘lexical aspect’ is also a misnomer in actual practice. Aktionsart is a category that applies to predicates as communicated in actual sentences rather than merely verb lemmas in a dictionary. Thus, for example, the English clauses in example (1) below are distinct from each other in terms of Aktionsart.

  1. The soldiers marched in the park.
    The soldiers marched to the park.

The first predicate (marched in the park) is an activity predicate because the you have a dynamic/non-static situation with duration, but no defined endpoint. The second (marched to the park) is (depending on the schema of terminology being used) an active achievement. It is dynamic/non-static. It has duration for the marching portion, but has an endpoint that is achieved without duration (i.e. not being in the park vs. being in the park is binary opposition rather than a continuum).

This is Aktionsart as it is used in linguistics. It isn’t a feature of the lexical item, but a feature of the larger predication. However, the term ‘lexical aspect’ continues to be used simply because it is so well established as a term…just like ‘present infinitive’ continues to be used for Greek even though infinitives only has aspect inflectional morphology and no tense inflectional morphology—the infinitive has no augment or secondary endings.

If so, would using the qualifier “verbal” in front of aspect help in differentiation from Aktionsart?

Perhaps, but it is a little more complicated. The difference is that in linguistics we use the term grammatical aspect rather than verbal aspect. This is because the primary point of differentiation isn’t that one is lexical (or better, clausal/syntactic) and one is verbal, but rather because one is marked by syntactic elements in a clause and the other is marked by inflectional morphemes. The differences in the means of formal marking.

Carlota Smith (1997) in her book The Parameter of Aspect takes a slightly different approach. In her view (which I’m on the fence about…still debating internally), but Aktionsart and grammatical aspect are two components of the a larger conceptual category. And she uses the terms situation aspect for Aktionsart and viewpoint aspect for grammatical aspect. She does this because both involve the framing of how an event unfolds.

Role & Reference Grammar (Van Valin 2005) takes another approach. What we call Aktionsart, RRG calls ‘predicate types’ and ‘aspect’, well, ‘aspect.’ Similarly, in Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday & Mattheissen 2014), they are called ‘process types’ in its analysis of ‘clause as representation’. And both frameworks elaborate on them a little differently. One of my favorite accounts of how aspect interacts with categories like Aktionsart/predicate types, as well as other categories of meaning, is Croft’s (2012) Verbs: Aspect and causal structure. The literature is voluminous, though, and only getting larger.

Depending on my audience and topic, I might use any one of these sets of terms. The term ‘verbal aspect’ is generally not used unless it is being contrasted with ‘nominal aspect’…which is a whole other can of worms.

I’ve seen that older grammarians from the 19th and early 20th c. use “kind of action” for both Aktionsart and (verbal) aspect.

This is partially true, yes, but not quite. Robertson in his big grammar wasn’t using Aktionsart in the way that anyone uses it today. At the turn of the 20th century all these terms were in flux. The phrase ‘kind of action’ is a translation of the German term Aktionsart as it was used at the turn of the 20th century by the Neogrammarians (a school of linguistics from that era). When they said ‘Aktionsart ’ their usage is more complicated. In some sense both the phrase, ‘kind of action’ and the word ‘aspect’ are equally sufficient translations of the German term Aktionsart as it was used at the turn of the 20th century. That is to say, for Robertson ‘kind of action’ would be equivalent to ‘aspect’. And that is, in fact precisely what aspect is: the manner (=kind) in which an event or situation (=action) is presented in terms of its internal temporal structure, as in (2).

  1. The manner of an imperfective verb is conceived by the speaker as incomplete or in progress.
    The manner of a perfective verb is conceived by the speaker without reference to internal temporal structure.

To the extent that Robertson uses the term Aktionsart only to refer to the semantic distinction between aorist, present, and perfect verb-forms in Greek, then he uses the term Aktionsart in the same way that we use the term aspect, today. Approaching Robertson from that perspective, for the most part, works fairly well. For example, Robertson states explicitly that Aktionsart is subjective rather than objective–contrary to Porter’s oft repeated claims about the term Aktionsart in old grammars (e.g. 2015, 86). Consider the following statement from Robertson (1923, 1380):

“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.”

If we simple switch out the terms ‘punctiliar’ and ‘linear’ for ‘perfective’ and ‘imperfective’, then we have a sentence that could be readily found in a contemporary, linguistically-informed discussion of Greek aspect.

So what terminology would you prefer for differentiating these concepts?

My general policy for terminology is that it should be:

  • Established in the field
  • Generally transparent in its meaning

With that in mind, getting away from untranslated German words like ‘Aktionsart’ is probably a good idea, though certainly German linguists should continue using them. So we have a few options:

  1. A. Grammatical aspect vs. lexical aspect
    B. Aspect vs. predicate types
    C. Viewpoint aspect vs. situation aspect
    D. Aspect vs. actionality

It’s a sort of pick your poison situation, but if you were to use any of these sets in a linguistics article in a journal or book, they’d be recognized and accepted. I personally prefer Option B. Still, clear and accessible description with copious examples can always make up for weaknesses in terminology.

Works cited

Croft, William. 2012. Verbs: Aspect and causal structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M. A. H. & Christian Mattheissen 2014. Halliday’s introduction to functional grammar. 4th ed. London: Routledge.

Porter, Stanley. 2015. Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in tools, methods, and practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Robertson, A. T. 1923. A Grammar of Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville: Broadman & Holdman Press.

Smith, Carlotta. 1997. The Parameter of Aspect. Dordrecht: Springer.

Van Valin, Robert. 2005. Exploring the syntax-semantics interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.