Stanley Porter & The Greek Verb: Part IV

This is Part IV 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.

The following is a discussion of Point #4 (for points #1-2, see HERE and for point #3, see HERE).

Point #4: The “Future Tense”

Now I hinted at this topic when I put forth a bit of a rant against Stanley Porter’s definition of the “future form” as semantically conveying expectation, as if that’s at all different from what a true future tense would do.

I also hinted at this topic last week when I asked if anyone knew of any reasonable examples of an imperfective aspect future. In that post, I had only one possible example, which actually disappeared in the comments by Peter Kirk. And the question of Aspect and the Future is the focus of this post specifically, more so than the question of time.

My main frustration about Porter’s discussion itself is that it provides no evidence of the Future being aspectually vague. The extent of his discussion consists of a survey of other people’s opinions followed by his conclusion that the Future doesn’t participate in the perfective/imperfective/stative system. Its entirely possible that there is evidence for his assertion, particularly considering that there are a few other scholars out there who have proposed the same thing. But that is no excuse for his lack of evidence, particularly within the pages of such a dense, massive, and thorough piece of research that is his dissertation/monograph. If or when I have an opportunity to follow up on the other scholars he cites, I will do so. But at present, I would like to present my argument for why the future is not aspectually vague, but is actually perfective.

1) None of the Koine Reference Grammars that argue that the future can be both perfective and imperfective have any reasonable examples of the latter.

2) Morphologically speaking, it is very reasonable to believe that the existence of the ‘σ’ suffix parallels the ‘σ’ of the Aorist.

3) Structurally speaking the whole verbal network parallels that of other related Indo-European Languages, particularly the Slavonic languages. Over the centuries there has been less change in this language subfamily compared to the other Indo-European languages such as the Germanic (German, English, etc.) branch and the Romantic branch (Spanish, French, etc.).

Let us briefly examine the Russian verbal system:

Verbs of the first conjugation are inflected for tense, mood, person, gender, and number in the slot +1. There are two tenses, past and nonpast. In the nonpast tense, verbs agree in person and number and in the past tense, they agree in gender and number. The following chart shows the suffix inflections to the Russian:

Stem

-Tense, Person, Number

-u ‘nonpast.1sg

-ishj ‘nonpast.2sg

-it ‘nonpast.3sg

-om ‘nonpast.1pl

-etje ‘nonpast.2pl

-utj ‘nonpast.3pl

-l ‘past.m.sg’

-la ‘past.f.sg

-lo past.n.sg

-li past.pl

Aspect in Russian is marked by derivational prefixes and is thus not an inflectional category. For example, imperfective verb /zatʲ/ roughly meaning ‘to be squeezing [something]’, becomes perfective by the addition of a prefix: /vizatʲ/ ‘to wring out [something].’ This isn’t the only perfective prefix. They are for the most part unpredictable. In my personal research of the Russian language, I elicited a number of prefixes causing the same aspectual change from a native Russian speaker:

na-, pro-, pri-, po-, za-, vi-, ra-

I am sure they’re are more. In fact, I’ve read about more in Russian grammars.

But where does the future tense come into this verbal system? For imperfective verbs, future meaning is formed by the use of an auxiliary verb, the Russian copula. For perfective verbs, the future form is identical to the the present tense of the imperfective verb with the exception of the addition of the perfective prefix. Thus in the following two sentences, the first conveys present meaning and the second conveys future meaning:

ja             chjiˈta-l
nom.1.sg read-past.m.sg
‘I was reading.’

ja             pra-chjiˈtaj-u
nom.1.sg perfective-read-nonpast.1sg

‘I will read.’

To conclude this discussion, morphologically speaking, there is no obvious “future” morpheme. That is, there is no sound or sounds that express the future, which is why I describe a “past/non-past” distinction in Russian verb morphology.

But I should really turn back to the Greek system. In my studies of Russian which chronologically paralleled the beginnings of my studying of Greek verb morphology, I was struck by a number of cross-linguistic parallels between systems. This is significant because of the historical relationship between Slavonic languages and Greek languages. Putting aside the Greek Perfect forms since Russian lacks such form let us examine the parallels.

Imperfective

Russian:

Past: chjiˈta-l
I was reading [something].

Non-Past: chjiˈtaj-u
I am reading [something].

Greek:

Past: ε-λύ-ον
I was destroying [something].
Non-Past: λύ-ω
I am destroying [something].

Perfective

Russian:

Past: pra-chjiˈta-l
I read [something].
Non-Past: pra-chjiˈtaj-u
I will read [something].

Greek:

Past: ε-λύ-σ-α
I destroyed [something].
Non-Past: λύ-σ-ω
I will destroy [something].

Now I suppose that at this point, I’ve moved beyond simply criticizing Porter’s view of the future form to making my own suggestion about how to understand the future form. And let me suggest that based upon the data I’ve provided above is that the greatest problem for understanding is that perhaps there is no future form.

I would argue that there is no future sigma. What we have is two Aspect morphemes – the perfective sigma and the perfect (or stative) kappa and then an empty slot for the imperfective. What follows each of those morphemes (or lack of morphemes) is not merely a subject agreement suffix. No. Its a Tense/Subject Agreement Circumfix paired with the existence or lack of the ε- augment. I would also hold that this circumfix is also morphologically conditioned, which explains the difference in endings between the aorist and the imperfect forms.

I think this system works very well. Its a much more organized system and I believe it has at least as much explanatory power as any other proposal.

To summarize my criticism of Porter: I believe Porter is wrong in his understanding of the Future as aspectually vague. I would rather suggest that the future is the perfective sister of the imperfective present form.

10 thoughts on “Stanley Porter & The Greek Verb: Part IV

  1. Mike,
    Thanks for the post. For clarification sake, I think the Russian Perfective examples are reversed.

    Non-Past: pra-chjitaj-u
    I will read [something].
    Past: pra-chjita-l
    I read [something].

    Thanks for noting the parallels!

  2. Thanks. You are doing important work here.

    Perhaps an even closer parallel to Greek is the group of Russian verbs which have imperfectives in -atj and perfectives in -itj (or -etj). See section 250 of “A Comprehensive Russian Grammar” by Terence Wade (2nd edition, Blackwell 2000), which I recommend.

    It might be interesting to compare the perfectivising affix right across the Indo-European languages. I found the following in “Indo-European Philology” by W.B. Lockwood (Hutchinson 1969) primarily about Sanskrit and Greek, as part of a discussion that implies that Indo-European had the three Greek aspects: “It is most likely that the rise of the future is post-Common Indo-European. And s-element frequently occurs in its formation. … Closer analysis shows that the aorist stem is ultimately a modification of the present. The most characteristic formation contains an obscure s-element added to the root (‘sigmatic aorist’).” There seems to be no suggestion that these two s-elements might be the same thing.

    In your example glossed “I was reading” the morphology line should be “nom.1.sg read-past.m.sg”. Also you should have superscripted j’s and the Russian stress is wrong I think, but those details don’t affect the argument.

  3. Peter: I had hoped to check out from Trinity’s library A Comprehensive Russian Grammar, but it was already on loan and checking online, its also the 1st edition from 92′. But I still might have to put in a request for it later on…

    I thought about superscripting the palatalization, but I figured a grammar discussion didn’t necessarily need to be IPA phonemic – particularly since most people wouldn’t be able to read the IPA voiceless alveolar palatalized affricate [tʃʲ] anyway. Call it “Ortho-lite” if you like.

    On the stress: you’re right. I just double check my data notebook: tʃʲiˈtal. I’ll fix that. And also consider my grammatical gloss corrected.

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