Can Semantic Values be Neutralized?

The argument of those who claim that Greek is tenseless basically says that because there are times where “presents” are in past and future contexts and then there are times where “aorists” are used in present and future contexts.

My question is this: Why cannot semantic values be neutralized by pragmatics?

Campbell is the most clear on this in his glossary (under “P” and “S”) for Basics of Verbal Aspect:

Pragmatics: The cancelable outcome of all textual/lexical/deictic factors in combination. What a verb ends up “doing” in the context.

Semantics: The uncancelable core value/s of a verb form. With respect to verbs (verbal semantics, grammatical semantics), the semantic values are aspect and remoteness or proximity (or tense).

I’m not picking on Campbell specifically, its just that as far as I have read, makes this distinction the most clear. The way Porter formulates his arguments, I can only assume that he believes the same thing.

But why is this necessary? Why can’t the pragmatic outcome of factors in a phrase/clause/discourse result in the neutralization of a semantic value – whether tense or aspect?

I would especially be interested what those of you who hold such a view of the Greek verb think of this question.

6 thoughts on “Can Semantic Values be Neutralized?

  1. You’d have to redefine semantics to make that work. That’s the whole point of distinguishing semantics and pragmatics.

    And BTW, I thought you promised fewer posts for awhile?🙂 Your production rate does not seem to have changed at all since you made that announcement. Or was that a New Year’s resolution?🙂

  2. Well, I only made the announcement a few days ago. If it means anything, I don’t have any posts planned for tomorrow.

    As to my question, I think you can distinguish between pragmatics and semantics without making this particular distinction. Pragmatics are the resulting appearance of a given clause or phrase in context while semantics are the base values that get us there – I just don’t understand why maintaining the base values as always there is a requirement. Its not a distinction that I see in Crystal’s dictionary or SIL’s glossary.

    So I suppose my more general question is where you could point me toward a discussion, article or book are perhaps deals with this in more detail.

  3. I have had long discussions on this matter in the past, in the context of the Hebrew verbal system but there are rather similar considerations with Greek, indeed also with English, Russian and probably every other verbal system.

    There are certain schools of linguistics which insist on a strict distinction between semantics and pragmatics, and that anything which is not 100% uncancellable belongs in the latter. Unfortunately this type of linguistics does not match how real languages work, because there is very little in language which is 100% uncancellable – as is clearly taught for example by Relevance Theory.

    Especially in verbal systems there is rarely anything uncancellable. This has led to arguments that in certain languages, including Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew, there is no such thing as tense, which is a semantic category. But this argument can in fact be applied to just about any language. After all, most languages in certain contexts allow constructions like the historic present (in English as well as Greek), or the Russian Poshli!, literally meaning “gone”, morphologically past, but in context meaning “let’s go now!” This leads inescapably to the conclusion that there is no such thing as tense.

    A more sensible approach is to loosen the strict requirement of uncancellability and find an alternative, perhaps not quite so clear cut, way of distinguishing between semantics and pragmatics.

  4. I agree with Peter that rarely is anything 100% uncancellable, though (obviously) I still regard uncancellability as a useful category. In the book you mention, I provide a little nuance on p.22: semantics are unchanging and uncancellable “allowing for exceptional circumstances such as anomalous expressions and certain fixed idioms”. In other words, we must allow for the humanity of language to have its way. There will be fossilized forms, and idiomatic expressions, as well as language use that contravenes the “rules” as determined by the community of language-users. But I’m still prepared to use the term uncancellable, even if in reality the statistics are more like 95%. So when it comes to “tenselessness” in Greek, I would be happy for an “uncancellable” value to occasionally go rogue, but to say that the present is a present tense while 30% of them do not refer to the present just won’t cut it.

  5. Hi Con, thanks so much for the comment. I had been hoping you might say something (since it was your book, I quoted). I think your explanation is quite reasonable, though the vote is still out on the tense question in my mind. I feel like every time I move toward a specific view, someone says something that makes me unsure again. You’ve been that someone a couple times, as has Randall Buth and a few others.

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