A Terminological Question: Aspect & Aktionsart

These are some thoughts that have been passing through my head for some time now. And I think they’re ready to be expressed.

In the past two decades the trend in NT Greek grammar has been to use the following definitions:

  • Aspect is the author’s subjective viewpoint of a given verb.
  • Aktionsart is the pragmatic result of the interaction of semantics in a given clause complex.

Now I’ve mentioned in passing the problem with these definitions and the way we use them in my discussion of Aspect & Stanley Porter’s use of the terms HERE. To summarize, the problem is that in the past the term Aktionsart was used to refer both to what now call Aspect and Aktionsart. Now, the specialists know this. Porter, in spite of confusion I describe previously, knows this and I believe that others do as well, including Campbell, Decker, Fanning, and the rest – at least that’s my impression in reading them.

But what does this terminological difference do when those who are advancing into intermediate and advanced Greek study are reading Moulton, Robertson or Moule (who actually uses both, see the additional notes of the second edition) and they come across the term aktionsart based on the definitions now used. Will these new definitions that make a distinction where there was not one previously be read back into the old grammars?

You can bet they will. They already have. We already see it in many places, including the RBL review of Rodney Decker’s volume.

Even my oversimplification of the thesis here should show that there are indeed some interesting new ideas in the study of Greek; if Porter is correct, standard works such as A. T. Robertson or Blass, de Brunner, and Funk will become of relevance mostly to scholars of the history of New Testament criticism.

I’m not saying that the past two decades of work on Aspect have not been needed because they have. At some point between1919 when the last truly “new” edition of of Robertson’s “big grammar” came out and the 1970’s, those studying the New Testament began miss reading the old books, turning Moulton’s “Punctiliar Aorst” into the “Once and for All Aorist” and the technical term aktionsart began being interpreted based on its literal translation into English. The past two decades have brought us back on track and have pointed a way forward too. Decker’s work on deixis as well as the augument was very important and more needs to be done. Campbell’s application of discourse analysis to aspect studies have also drastically improved our understanding of usage. And the new distinctions and clarifications on terminology such as aspect and aktionsart is incredibly valuable.

But who is going to tell the new students that Blass, Moulton, Robertson, and many others were not complete fools in their examination of the Greek verb? Who is going to tell them that they were using one word where we now use two?

I fear that Robert Paul Seesengood’s words in his review of Decker quoted above will become true simply because the next generation of scholars will be unaware of past terminology.

So then (salient development marker), what should be done about this problem?

2 thoughts on “A Terminological Question: Aspect & Aktionsart

  1. I fear you are right, Mike. It is easy to dismiss older scholarship when the terminology changes. This would be an enormous mistake, of course.

    With the focus on aspect in the last decade, the many other contributions of the older grammars are easy to overlook. Even if we conclude that the authors misunderstood aspect, or had a faulty model for examining it, we should not dismiss the massive investment of scholarship it took to produce these works and the huge contribution they make to understanding other facets of Greek syntax besides verbal aspect.

    In the immediate future, I hope we can clearly and consistently make the argument you have stated so well: recent work on aspect makes a distinction between aspect and aktionsart that was not made by the authors of our traditional reference grammars. This should not stop us from using those volumes as long as we recognize that their discussion of verbal aktionsart/aspect is no longer current.

  2. You’re taking me back, today, Micheal. This is an old post.

    I’ve wanted to expand this into a journal article with the hope of providing a sort of guide to the terminological differences between the old grammars and the modern research, but have not yet had the time to do so.

    Hopefully someday…

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