Building on a Comment

I wrote about Verb Terminology a couple days ago arguing that it might be better to refer to verbs based on their individual morphemes rather than using a cover term:

Thus λύω becomes Present Imperfective rather than simply Present.

And ἐλύσα becomes Past Perfective rather than Aorist.

Carl Conrad left a comment referencing A.T. Robertson:

ATR has nice comments on the inadequacy of the traditional terms, but he was perhaps too wise to suggest alternatives.
“Tense” is not good, but it’s not the worst of the terms for traditional verbal categories; “voice” doesn’t really convey any meaning at all; “mood” means something different in English from Latin ‘modus’. I have the impression that language reveals its most profound helplessness when it comes to describing the features that make language function.

Here are Robertson’s words on “Tense”:

It has long been clear that the “tense” has been overworked and made to mean much that it did not mean (823).

There is no consistency in the names given the tenses, as has already been explained. Cf. chapter VIII, VII, (b). The terms aorist, imperfect and perfect (past, present, future) are properly named from the point of view of the state of the action, but present and future are named from the standpoint of the time element. There is [Page 826] no time element in the present subjunctive, for instance. But the names cannot now be changed, though very unsatisfactory (825).

“The names cannot be changed…” Can’t they? Had Robertson changed names that needed to be changes, perhaps we wouldn’t still be stuck here 90 years later. Robertson’s grammar had a massive influence on Dana & Mantey and Dana & Mantey have taught the vast majority of American NT students over the past decades until Wallace appeared. And Robertson can be seen throughout Wallace. Had Roberston changed the names, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess today.

Had the names been changed, we might not have needed Stagg to write about the Abused Aorist or McKay, Fanning & Porter to write about Aspect. Had the names been changed, we wouldn’t have had decades of confused students who are confused every time they see a “Present Subjunctive” translated with an English past tense.

But the past is the past, yes? Its no use wishing that Robertson had done things differently. But should we not seek to change the names now? Do we want the students and scholars of 2100 looking back to the present and say, “We sure wish Wallace/Decker/Campbell/Mounce/Fanning/Porter had changed the names…”?

Again, I’m not saying that my specific suggestion should be the one accepted. But something needs to change.

6 thoughts on “Building on a Comment

  1. The difficulty facing terms newly-coined to replace traditional terms is winning acceptance; even if they are transparent and precise, grammatical pedagogy is rooted in traditional language profoundly resistant to deracination. I fear the likeliest reaction even to fine new coinages may be competing alternatives.

      1. Well, even so, I think it might be worth offering serious proposals wth careful explanations of the reasoning underlying the proposals. An SBL panel might be useful, even though it might well expose the lack of consensus on aspectual terminology, functions of voice-makers in morphoparadigms, etc. It might clarify some matters, but I doubt if it would bring any to resolution.

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