Greek Verb Aspect

Paul Bell & William S. Annis
Scholiastae.org

February 21, 2012
The technical literature concerning aspect is vast and difficult. The goal of this tutorial
is to present, as gently as possible, a few more or less commonly held opinions about aspect.
Although these opinions may be championed by one academic quarter and denied by another,
at the very least they should shed some light on an abstruse matter.
Introduction
The word “aspect” has its roots in the Latin verb specere meaning “to look at.” Aspect is concerned
with how we view a particular situation. Hence aspect is subjective – different people will view
the same situation differently; the same person can view a situation differently at different times.
There is little doubt that how we see things depends on our psychological state at the mo-
ment of seeing. The ‘choice’ to bring some parts of a situation into close, foreground relief while
relegating others to an almost non-descript background happens unconsciously. But for one who
must describe a situation to others, this choice may indeed operate consciously and deliberately.
Hence aspect concerns not only how one views a situation, but how he chooses to relate, to
re-present, a situation.
A Definition of Aspect
But we still haven’t really said what aspect is. So here’s a working definition – aspect is the dis-
closure of a situation from the perspective of internal temporal structure. To put it another way,
when an author makes an aspectual choice in relating a situation, he is choosing to reveal or
conceal the situation’s internal temporal structure.
This definition raises the question “What does ‘internal temporal structure’ mean?” The sim-
plest answer is that while some verbs and verbal expressions reveal a situation as whole, others
reveal it as composite - consisting of parts.

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visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. Originally written in 2004 as a tutorial for
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When a verb reveals a situation as consisting of parts, making explicit reference to some of
those parts, we say it has imperfective aspect.
When a verb reveals a situation as whole, without explicit reference to its parts, we say it has
perfective aspect.
Example 1: I was walking.
Example 2: I walked
The verb “walking” in the first example, by making explicit reference to a part of the walking
— the middle part that occurs after starting to walk but before stopping to walk — reveals walking
as composite. The verb “walking” here reveals the internal temporal structure of the walking
activity; it has imperfective aspect.
The verb “walked” in the second example subsumes the activity of walking into a single, in-
divisible whole. The verb “walked” here conceals the internal temporal structure of the walking
activity; it has perfective aspect. You could say that it conceals the composite nature of the ac-
tivity.
It is important to realize that situations disclosed by means of perfective aspect do not nec-
essarily lack internal temporal structure. Rather the perfective aspect forbids explicit reference
to this structure. Other words and phrases that describe how imperfective aspect discloses a sit-
uation include: iterative, durative, in progress, continuous, habitual, internal view, transparent
(you can “see inside” the situation). Other words that describe how perfective aspect discloses a
situation include: complete, punctual, external view, opaque (you cannot “see inside” the situa-
tion).
Historical Foundations
The aspectual system of ancient Greek has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) parent
language. The PIE verbal system recognized two functional classes of verbs: eventive and stative.
Eventive verbs describe things that happen. Examples of eventive verbs are “strike,” “kill,” and
“find.” The much smaller class of stative verbs describe states or conditions. Examples include
“know,” “hate,” and “be dead.”
PIE’s eventive verbs were further divided into two categories called punctual and durative.
Membership in one or the other category was largely determined by the meaning of the verb
— specifically whether or not the verb’s action requires a lapse of time. “strike” is inherently
punctual; “walk” is inherently durative.
Aspect in Ancient Greek
In ancient Greek this division – durative, punctual, stative – gave rise respectively to the present,
aorist, and perfect “tenses.”
These ‘tense’ stems – present, aorist, and perfect – are nicely exhibited in the Greek verb
λείπω:
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Present λείπ-ω
Aorist ἔ-λιπ-ον
Perfect λέ-λοιπ-α
It must be stressed that the primary force of these stems is aspectual, not temporal: the
present tense denotes imperfective aspect, and the aorist tense denotes perfective aspect.
What About the Perfect Tenses?
As noted above, the perfect tenses have their origin in PIE’s stative verbs. Despite the unhappy
similarity between the terms perfective and perfect, please bear in mind that the perfect tenses
do not denote aspect. Unlike the perfective and imperfective aspects, the perfect tenses are not
concerned with the disclosure of a situation’s internal temporal structure. Rather, they describe
a state persisting in the past, present, or future. Moreover, unlike the perfective and imperfective
aspects, the perfect tenses relate the time of these states to a prior point in time when the state
did or does not exist. These relations are depicted in this table:
T-2 T-1 Now T+1 T+2
Pluperfect (“he had died”) t S
Perfect (“he has died”) t S
Future Perfect (“he will have died”) t S
Each tense relates the time of some state (S) to a time (t) prior to that state. In the pluperfect
the time of S is in the past. In the perfect the time of S is the present. In the future perfect the
time of S is in the future.
Even though the perfect tenses do not denote aspect, it is nonetheless customary to treat
them as having perfective aspect.
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We will follow this convention so as to simplify our presenta-
tion.
What About the Future Tense?
Although there is good reason to think that the future tense was originally perfective, it is now
generally considered aspect neutral. This means that a given form, e.g., gra/yw, can be rightly
translated – context notwithstanding – imperfectively (I will be writing) or perfectively (I will
write).
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Note from Wm (2012): Actually, the perfect is a strange enough thing that linguists still argue about what exactly
is going on with it. Know that plenty of them would object to considering them perfective. It’s also worth noting that
the perfect has subtly different meanings in different periods of Greek. Homer’s use of the perfect is quite different
from Plato’s, which in turn is quite different from that in the Koiné. Consult your favorite period grammar.
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The Aspects of the Greek Tenses
Without regard, then, to notions of temporality, we can arrange these “tenses” by their aspectual
force into two lists (note again that for a simplified presentation, we reluctantly group the perfect
tenses in the perfective column):
Perfective Imperfective
Aorist Present
Future Future
Perfect Imperfect
Pluperfect
Future Perfect
Please note that we have so far presented a “radical” view of tense because we have largely
ignored its temporal significance. (There are indeed a few authorities who deny Greek tense any
temporal force.) Note also that many traditional grammars fail to clearly distinguish aspect from
tense. By deliberately ignoring the temporal force of tense, we have been better able to clarify
what we mean by aspect.
But if we again grant tense its familiar temporal force, we can produce a table of the several
Greek tenses that relates aspect to time:
Perfective Imperfective
Past Aorist (“I walked”) Imperfect (“I was walking”)
Pluperfect (“I had walked”)
Present Perfect (“I have walked”) Present (“I am walking”)
Future Future (“I will walk”) Future (“I will be walking”)
Future Perfect (“I will have walked”)
On To Greek
Now that we’ve covered some of the theory of aspect, we turn to examples. We’ll touch only
briefly on aspect in simple sentences since it is in the relationship between main and subordinate
clauses that aspect is most likely to be confusing to beginners. Traditional Greek instruction, in
particular, is apt to cause problems. When you’ve been told the aorist is primarily a past tense,
the aorist imperative is going to seem puzzling: “raised the sails” doesn’t make much sense.
We are going to omit conditional sentences from our examples. What we have to say about
aspect applies to these, too, and in fact simplifies the usual inventory of conditional types. But
explaining the additional role of tense and mood would distract from our focus on aspect.
In the discussion below the most important thing to keep in mind - and which we’ll repeat
a few times for good measure - is that only the indicative verb forms of the present, aorist and
perfect may have tense. All the rest do not.
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Durative (Present) Stem
Verb forms made from the durative stem (traditionally known as the ”present” stem) show im-
perfective aspect. In the indicative this includes the present and imperfect conjugations: βλέπω
“I see, I am seeing,” ἔβλεπον “I was seeing.”
Above we said that the imperfective aspect shows an action in progress, in the middle of going
on. So, in non-indicative clauses the present forms view the action as on-going, generally at the
same time as the main verb. For example, βαδίζων λέγει “(while) walking, he speaks.” Here the
present form λέγει does indicate tense, but βαδίζων indicates aspect, namely, that the walking is
seen as ongoing at the time of the speaking.
If we change the tense of the main verb: βαδίζων ἔλεγεν, “(while) walking he was speaking.”
Again, the main verb indicates tense, the participle aspect.
Infinitives and imperatives formed from the present stem also indicate aspect rather than
tense. οὔ φησιν οὕτω λέγειν “he denies that he is saying so.” The semantics of the various imper-
atives, positive and negative, can get a little complex, but when when a speaker gives a command
in the present imperative he sees the action as on-going, possibly taking a while: ταῦτα ποιεῖτε
“do these things!”
Punctual (Aorist) Stem
Verb forms made from the punctual (or aorist) stem show perfective aspect. Most of the time
the aorist indicative definitely has both tense (past) and aspect (perfective). ἀπῆλθον “they went
away.” One exception is the gnomic aorist which is used to express general truths, ὅς κε θεοῖς
ἐπιπείθηται, μάλα τ’ ἔκλυον αὐτοῦ, “whoever obeys the gods, him they listen to especially.” Here
the aspect comes to the fore and seems to emphasize the singularity of the truth uttered.
The rest of the non-indicative forms from the aorist stem indicate punctual aspect only. In
practice this nearly always means the action of the aorist form occurred before the main verb
action.
ταῦτα λέγουσα ἀπῆλθεν (while) saying these things, she went away
ταῦτα εἰποῦσα ἀπῆλθεν having said these things, she went away
To give a command for a single action, or an action viewed as a single event, Greek uses the
aorist imperative: tou=to poih/sate do this!
Further Examples
Here are some more examples, adding subjunctives and optatives. Note the difference in mean-
ing.
εἶπεν ὅτι γράφοι he said that he was writing
εἶπεν ὅτι γράψειε he said that he had written
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βούλομαι πέμψαι I wish to send
βούλομαι πέμπειν I wish to keep sending
ἔρχομαι ἵνα ἕπωμαι I come in order to keep following
ἔρχομαι ἵνα ἑσπώμην I come in order to follow
ἦλθον ἵνα ἑποίμην I came in order to keep following
ἦλθον ἵνα ἑσποίμην I came in order to follow
For a fuller example, here is the first line and a half of Babrius 78 (according to the 1986 Teubner),
which has four verb forms:
κόραξ νοσήσας ἔλεγε μητρὶ κλαιούσῃ·
μὴ κλαῖε, μῆτερ, ...
A crow that had gotten sick was saying to his crying mother,
“don’t cry, mother ...”
The first, νοσήσας, a masculine nominative singular aorist particple, is from νοσέω “to be sick,”
and agrees with the subject, the crow. ἔλεγεν is imperfect, “was saying.” From κλαίω “to cry”
we have two forms, a feminine dative singular present participle, and a third person present
imperative. In my translation for μὴ κλαῖε I used idiomatic English in my translation, but as a
present-stem imperative, it really means more “don’t keep on crying, mother.”
The Future
As noted above, the future tense forms in Greek have no fixed aspect. It can be imperfective
or perfective as context requires. Nonetheless the non-indicative forms of the future can also
have particular meanings which differ from the indicative in a manner similar to the present and
aorist. Similar enough, at any rate, that a few comments for completeness seem in order.
In simple clauses, the future simply indicates the action will happen in the future with respect
to the tense of the main verb. In English we use “would” in this sense in the example, “he said he
would go away.” In Greek this is εἶπεν ἀποπρεύσεσθαι. This is simply a matter of tense.
But the future participle and infinitive also show the idea of purpose. Now, if you say you will
do something there is a sense of purpose in that, so this isn’t too strange. Future participles have
this meaning fairly often:
ἦλθε λυσόμενος τὴν θύγατρα
he came (in order) to free his daughter
ἦλθον ἐγὼ παύσουσα τὸ σὸν μένος
I came to stop this rage of yours
(Iliad A.207., Athena speaking, so feminine participle)
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