Verbal aspect: what is it, and why does it matter?
The study of verbal aspect has been around for a long time. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, verbal aspect has been an interest of language scholars, including those who were working with Ancient Greek. So, it’s no recent fad. But if that’s the case, it seems odd that verbal aspect is not more widely understood and appreciated by students of Greek. There does seem to be a kind of general awareness within the community of informed Greek teachers and students of something ‘out there’ called verbal aspect. But it’s tricky, unknown, and a bit scary.
Well, allow me to introduce verbal aspect. It’s not as scary as you may think.
What is it?
The simplest definition of verbal aspect is viewpoint. An author or speaker views an action from the outside or from the inside. The view from the outside is called perfective aspect, while the view from the inside is called imperfective aspect.
A well-known illustration for describing verbal aspect involves a reporter who is to report on a street parade. If the reporter views the street parade from a helicopter, he sees the whole parade from a distance. He can describe the parade in a general way because he sees the whole thing, rather than seeing its details up close. This viewpoint, from the helicopter, represents what we call perfective aspect. It is the view from the outside—the external viewpoint. If, however, that same reporter views the same street parade from the level of the street, rather from up in a helicopter, his view of the parade is quite different. This time the reporter is up close to the parade, and watches as it unfolds before him. Rather than seeing the parade from a distance and as a whole, the parade is now seen from within. This viewpoint, from the street, represents what we call imperfective aspect. It is the view from the inside—the internal viewpoint.
Verbal aspect represents a subjective choice. An author chooses which aspect to use when portraying a particular action. So, to use some English examples, to say I was walking down the street when a man began talking to me is no different in reality to I walked down the street. A man talked to me. In both cases, I walked down the street, and a man talked to me. Both examples describe the same events. But each describes these events differently. When I’m telling the story, I decide which way I will tell it. Neither choice affects what really happened; the choice simply reflects my story-telling preference. This is what it means when we say that aspect represents a subjective choice.
In Greek, verbal aspect is encoded in the tense-forms. That means that each tense-form has aspect ‘built in’. The aorist and future have perfective aspect built in. The present and imperfect have imperfective aspect built in. We’ll explore what this means a little further down the track.
Why does it matter?
From a negative point of view, a good understanding of verbal aspect will help us to assess and critique some of the scholarly conclusions reached about various Greek passages. New Testament commentaries frequently engage with the Greek text as a matter of course, and often build the case for their conclusions using arguments arising from their understanding of Greek verbs. But what if their conclusions hinge on a misinformed understanding of the Greek verbal system? What if our understanding of God’s word has been distorted, even just a little, by incorrect handling of Greek verbs?
From a positive point of view, a good understanding of verbal aspect will help us to see how narratives are shaped by verbs, and to see new possibilities for exegesis that were previously hidden from view. We will be able to describe verbal usage in a manner that is accurate, coherent, and neither too much nor too little. All these things represent a useful advance.
That’s probably enough to take in for now. Later this week, we’ll be looking at how verbal aspect functions in Greek, and the difference it makes in reading and understanding Greek. So stay tuned!
Constantine Campbell (Ph.D., Macquarie University) is lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Moore Theological college in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia.