Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Tense Discussion: Rethinking the Grammaticalization of Time in Greek Indicative Verbs

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Tense Discussion: Rethinking the Grammaticalization of Time in Greek Indicative Verbs

Article excerpt

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In 1992, classicist K. L. McKay opened an article with the declaration that "the inflexions of the ancient Greek verb signal aspect (as well as voice and mood) but not time."1 McKay's declaration represented not only the conclusion of decades of his own research into Greek verbs but also the conclusion reached three years earlier by biblical scholar Stanley E. Porter in what became a seminal book for research in this area, Verbal Aspect in the Greek New Testament (1989).2 While linguists have long recognized that Greek verb forms do not encode time outside the indicative mood,3 the claim propounded by McKay and Porter was that in the Hellenistic period (ca. 330 BCE-400 CE) the Greek verbal system did not encode time at all. The chief problem with the "time" position, as this new perspective sees it, is that the time indicated by the context often disagrees with what is expected, under the traditional view,4 given the tense forms provided. That is, present-tense forms do not always indicate present time (as with the "historical present") nor aorist-tense forms past time (as with the "epistolary aorist"); Hellenistic Greek exhibits numerous examples of this kind.5 These anomalies or "exceptions," advocates of the new perspective argue, help prove that time is not grammaticalized by a verb's morphological features.

Despite sustaining widespread criticism over the last quarter century, including a number of recent critiques,6 the "no-time" positon has continued to win over advocates, including Rodney Decker, Constantine Campbell, and a number of others.7

I make a case here for a different position: the cognitive-linguistic theories of perspective, mental space, and conceptual blending are able to account for the selection of verb forms more convincingly than both the no-time position and the conventional tense position, in the one case because these theories expose the socalled exceptions as being nothing of the kind and, in the other case, because they provide a theoretical framework that offers the qualifications the conventional explanation has lacked. In the first part of the article, I summarize in greater detail the new-perspective, or McKay-Porter-Campbell, account of indicative verbs and explain the linguistic frameworks within which each of us is working; here I identify my emphasis on cognitive linguistics as a pivotal difference between our perspectives. I then argue that spatiality does not, as Campbell and others have proposed, serve as an adequate substitute for temporality as an encoded value in Greek verb morphology. This theoretical discussion sets the stage for my argument that we need to understand Greek indicative verbs in relation to the "construal" phenomena of perspective, mental space, and conceptual blending as formulated in recent cognitive-linguistic studies and that in so doing we find that indicative verb morphology does, in fact, grammaticalize time.

I.The No-Time Position

Hellenistic Greek attests to six morphologically distinct indicative tense forms: the present, imperfect, future, aorist, perfect, and pluperfect. What semantic values are encoded in these tense forms, if not time? Advocates of the new perspective generally identify two such values. Indicative tense forms encode (1) aspect, or the speaker's subjective viewpoint of an action. Since Greek, however, attests to only two or three different aspects and six different tenses,8 to account adequately for the differences among the latter a second value must also inhere. Advocates of the new perspective generally locate this value in (2) spatiality. Campbell, who takes this view, proposes that the present tense grammaticalizes "proximity" and the imperfect tense "remoteness" and, similarly, the perfect tense "heightened proximity" and the pluperfect "heightened remoteness."9 Porter admits a "limited role" for spatiality as a grammaticalized feature, particularly as a means of distinguishing between the present (-remoteness) and imperfect (+remoteness) and between the perfect (-remoteness) and pluperfect (+remoteness). …

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