On Porter’s View of the Greek Verb, Part II

This is Part II of a four part series discussing my view of Stanley Port’er work on Verbal Aspect in Greek. The following are my four posts. Points #1 & #2 are related and thus treated together here in part II. The following are my four points (which are also here with a little more information):

  1. His thesis that Greek verbs are not temporal is far from being as extreme and as revolutionary as many think (probably including Porter).
  2. If Porter had formed and articulated his thesis in a different manner, more people would have accepted it.
  3. I think Porter’s major monograph is incredibly inconsistent in its use of terminology such as Aspect and Aktionsart.
  4. I think that he’s wrong about the aspectual vagueness of the “Future tense-form.” It should be viewed as Perfective.

What does this mean? It basically means that while there is more to be said for old grammars than Porter appears to suggest, there is also still much to do and Koine Linguistics still must get past Comparative Philology as its linguistic model. Porter and Moulton have much in common, particularly that they are/were both linguists. 100 years ago, nearly everyone who wrote Greek grammar had studied linguistics we need to get back to that point today. Not all the questions have been answered and some of them need to be asked again.

What follows is an elaboration of points 1-2 (For Part III’s discussion of point #3, see HERE and Part IV’s discussion of point #4, see HERE).

Points #1 & #2

So why is his thesis not that revolutionary? Simply because of the augment. While many have argued that the existence of the augment as a part of the verbal system is obvious proof of the temporal nature of the verb, I don’t think that such people really have understood the implications of his argument or the arguments of others who have followed him.

The problem is that Porter didn’t express himself as well as he could have. He argued (and other have followed, such as Rodney Decker, and Constantine Campbell) that the augment, instead of expressing past time, denotes the semantic category of Spacial Remoteness. But in his monograph, Porter spends very little time actually referring to Remoteness as an important category for the Greek verb. That’s where he failed. I say that because, past time is essentially subsumed under remoteness. If you pick up a book on language and semantic typology (e.g. Language Typology and Syntactic Description: Vol 3, Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon) and read the chapter on tense, aspect, & modality (often abbreviated as TAM) you see that many linguists consider tense to be spacial. Think about the terminology we used: “Well, way back when…” or “We must move forward toward the future.” “Don’t dwell in the past.” Is that not spacial terminology?

Of course the implication is that if we take remoteness to be the basic category for the augment that we must accept that there are going to be times where that remoteness won’t be temporal remoteness. And is that not exactly what we see with the usage of the aorist and the imperfect forms? Is that not the nature of the so-called “exceptions” that we so often have seen in the traditional descriptions of Greek verb usage? I think so.

If Porter had taken the time to emphasize that point more rather than just saying that the Greek verbal system is atemporal every other page, he may very well have convinced more of his skeptics.

His claim should not have been seen as extreme or outlandish, it actually fits rather well with the evidence and deserves to be reexamined more closely by those who have rejected it. I would especially suggest reading Constantine Campbell’s discussion in Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament (Studies in Biblical Greek), which also happens to be one of the most clear discussions and explanations of aspect (and also one of the very few affordable monographs at $31 through Amazon). Campbell does disagree with Porter a bit on the function of the “(plu)perfect form.”

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7 thoughts on “On Porter’s View of the Greek Verb, Part II”

  1. Mike,

    I believe I have seen you recommend Rijksbaron’s book on the Greek verb as the best book on the subject. In fact, you influenced me toward getting the book! But Rijksbaron’s view is fundamentally at odds with Porter, and here you *seem* to *basically* agree with Porter that Greek tenses don’t indicate time (in the indicative). Who do you really side with here?

  2. Hi Brian,
    I can understand your confusion here. There are few points to the answer of this question.

    First of all, I think the key point to emphasize in this post is that I’m not overtly saying that Porter is right. I’m saying that his view isn’t particularly revolutionary–that “remoteness” and past tense are not terribly different. In fact, 9 times out of 10 you could likely simply use the terms interchangeably without any noticeable difference in a given grammatical discussion. What makes Porter’s view not particularly revolutionary is something called the localist hypothesis, a conception of language that goes back to the 19th century linguists, particularly with reference to semantics. The idea is simple. Spacial meaning is more basic than non-spacial meaning and that non-spacial meaning (in this case “tense”) is always derivative from spacial meaning. Applied here, it means that tense systems are grounded in the human conception of space. There’s nothing controversial about this. It’s widely accepted today and has a long and good pedigree as a linguistic hypothesis. Similar claims about proximity and remoteness have been made for English—for my own discussion of the, see this post: Remoteness & Tense in English and Greek. That post also gives some more explanation for why I would ultimately reject remoteness as the correct analysis—it isn’t that remoteness cannot deal with all the data—it can—its that remoteness is so broad a category as to be nearly meaningless. I find polysemy in grammatical categories to be a superior approach.

    Secondly, you should note that this particular post is dated from nearly three years ago. I don’t think I would word what I said above in this post in the same way I did in 2008. Specifically, I still hold that Porter isn’t particularly revolutionary. In some sense the question of whether we say the aorist and imperfect are remote or past tense is merely a question of terminology. And to that extent, I’m perfectly fine with a supposed “tenseless” view of Greek. However, the bigger problem begins when we start thinking diachronically: If Hellenistic Greek didn’t have tense, then surely Classical and Homeric Greek did not have it either. And this leads us to a big question: How likely is it that the augment prefix (ε-) and the so-called “secondary endings” lasted for roughly one thousand years as spatial remoteness markers and never during that period grammaticalized into a tense marker? I find it incredibly improbable that such a freeze in language change could take place. Incredibly improbably indeed.

    Lastly, even were ( English non-temporal use of the past tense) we to accept remoteness as both valid and useful category for Hellenistic Greek, there are still huge issues with Porter’s broader theoretical framework and also his secondary claims about the effects of aspect on the broader discourse context of a given text. To the extent that I wasn’t entirely aware of all these issues three years ago, this fact is closely related to point #2. Steve Runge’s recent paper at ETS last year (Nov 2010) deals with this additional problems well and also Buist Fanning’s review of a recent collection of essays edited by Porter on RBL (which is probably more accessible). Both Runge and Fanning covered the same ground independently of one another.

    I should probably go back and revise this post to bring it more clearly in line with my current thinking, but at the very least, I hope that this “little” comment explains my current perspective in light of this post.

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