Verbal Aspect: what it is and what it isn’t In yesterday’s post, I began to describe what verbal aspect is, and why it matters. Before we can launch straight into its practical application for reading Greek text, however, I think it’s important to talk a little more about what aspect is, and what it isn’t. There is a lot of confusion out there about verbal aspect, and especially how it relates to ‘tense’ and a thing called Aktionsart. Tense
Verbal Aspect: what it is and what it isn’t
In yesterday’s post, I began to describe what verbal aspect is, and why it matters. Before we can launch straight into its practical application for reading Greek text, however, I think it’s important to talk a little more about what aspect is, and what it isn’t. There is a lot of confusion out there about verbal aspect, and especially how it relates to ‘tense’ and a thing called Aktionsart.
When most of us first learn Greek, the verbs are labeled as tenses. The aorist is a past tense, the present is a present tense, the future is a future tense. Calling the verbs ‘tenses’ usually implies that temporal meaning is built into the Greek forms. Past meaning is built into the aorist; present meaning is built into the present.
It doesn’t take long when reading the Greek New Testament, however, to discover that tense is not the whole story. We soon discover verbs in the present tense that refer to the past. There are also past tenses that refer to the present. Is time really built into the Greek verbs? If so, why do there seem to be so many exceptions?
A small but growing number of scholars (myself included) do not think that tense is built into Greek verbs (yes, even in the indicative mood). Each verb has a strong temporal tendency (aorists normally refer to the past, etc.), but this is due to what each verb ‘does’ in the context, rather than being built into the verb itself. But even if you do think that tense is built into Greek verbs, you still need to understand that aspect is at work too. In fact, those scholars who do believe that tense exists also acknowledge that aspect is more important.
Besides that issue, what’s the difference between two past tenses in Greek? Tense can’t be the whole story with Greek verbs, since there is a difference in meaning between the aorist and imperfect, which are both past tenses. The nineteenth century answer to this question—the difference between two past tenses in Greek—is the type of action, or Aktionsart.
Aktionsart literally means "type of action". There are lots of types of action. There are punctiliar actions, iterative actions, ingressive actions, and others too. If an action happened as a once-off, instantaneous event, it is called punctiliar. If the action was repeated over and over, it is called iterative. If the action is seen as beginning, it is called ingressive.
Aktionsart refers to how an action actually takes place—what sort of action it is. Aspect refers to viewpoint—how the action is viewed. They are two different categories, though occasionally the terms get mixed up, or are even used interchangeably in grammars and commentaries. Sometimes we need to work out whether an author means Aktionsart when they use the term ‘aspect’ and vice-versa.
We can see the difference between aspect and Aktionsart through a favourite example of mine, found in Romans 5:14. In that verse we are told that Death reigned from the time of Adam to Moses. The verb "reigned" expresses perfective aspect—the view from the helicopter. We are given a summary of what happened; we are told simply that it happened. This is the external viewpoint. But when we ask what actually happened, we are able to say a range of other things. For starters, this action took a long time! There were many years between Adam and Moses. Death’s reign between Adam and Moses was an ongoing event. This was not a once-off, instantaneous type of action. With this example, we can appreciate that there is a clear difference between aspect and Aktionsart. Aspect refers to how the action is viewed: it is viewed externally as a whole. Aktionsart refers to what actually happened: it was an ongoing event that spanned many years.
Finally, I should mention another distinction between aspect and Aktionsart. Most Greek scholars now agree that aspect is built into the verb (it is semantic), while Aktionsart is not built into the verb (it is pragmatic). This means that whenever you see an aorist, it will convey perfective aspect, because perfective aspect is built in. But only some aorists will be punctiliar. Others will be iterative. And others still will be ingressive. These Aktionsart descriptions are not built into the aorist, but are worked out from what the aorist is ‘doing’ in the context.
So, before we actually look at some Greek text in tomorrow’s post, we should understand these things.
1. Verbal aspect is viewpoint. Perfective aspect conveys an external view of an action. Imperfective aspect conveys an internal view of an action. Aspect is built into Greek verbs.
2. Time (or temporal reference) is not necessarily built into Greek verbs (though this is debated). However, each verb has a characteristic temporal ‘tendency’.
3. Aktionsart refers to what ‘actually happened’. It is not built into the verb, but is a product of the verb in context.
Constantine Campbell (Ph.D., Macquarie University) is lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological college in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia.