Remoteness & Tense in English and Greek

I was reading an English grammar today and came across a discussion of Remoteness with regard to English verbs. His discussion maybe helpful for discuss here as it relates to how the category has recently been proposed for Greek:

One secondary use of the past tense was illustrated [previously] above in connection with the syntactic properties of the modals; it is repeated in (37) together with the contrasting present tense:

(37) i. If Ed came tomorrow, we could play bridge.

ii. If Ed comes tomorrow, we can play bridge.

Clearly the came in (i) does not serve to indicate that the time of Ed’s coming is past. The semantic difference between (i) and (ii) is not a temporal one: as we have said, (ii) presents Ed’s coming as less likely, as a more remote possibility than (i) does. In what we are calling the ‘unreal’ condition construction exemplified in (i) , it may be pragmatically clear that the hypothetical situation does not obtain, [it] is counterfactual: If you were me, wouldn’t you do exactly the same?. But counterfactuality is not part of the meaning of the past tense itself: (37) does not altogether rule out hte possibility of Ed’s coming tomorrow. For this reason this use of the past tense is better described as indicating ‘factual remoteness’: counterfactuality is just a special case, subsumed under that more general notion. Notice however, that where the condition is known to be counterfactual, the ‘read’ conditional construction is out of place: I realise he’s not here, but if he is, what will he be able to do about it? is semantically anomalous.

It has been proposed that the concept of remoteness is sufficiently general to cover both the primary use of the past tense and the one we are concerned with here. According to this view, the inflection itself would simply indicate remoteness, and it would depend on other features of the sentence or context whether this is interpreted more specifically as remoteness in time or remoteness in factuality. The problem that faces us here is of atype which common arises in semantic analysis. As we try to bring more and more uses of a category or item within the scope of our semantic analysis of it, the meaning proposed will become more and more general, with less and less content – and the burden of accounting for the more specific features of the interpretation of sentences containing it will fall elsewhere, on other linguistic elements in the sentence or on pragmatics. The alternative to giving a single very general meaning, which may be fairly empty, is to allow for polysemy, recognising a range of related senses (some of which may be more central than others): different writers may take quite widely varying positions on this issue. As far as the particular case of it that we have raised here is concerned, my own view would be that we do need to recognise distinct senses of the past tense, for it is not clear why remoteness as such should select past time as opposed to future time when interpreted temporally (we do not say He was here yesterday, is here now and was here tomorrow). Nevertheless, the proposal is certainly useful in showing a relation between the past time and factual remoteness uses [of the past tense].

Introduction to the Grammar of English (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics) by Rodney Huddleston*, pages 147-8; my emphasis (the bold).

Okay a couple of notes here:

  1. Huddleston’s discussion of the term “remoteness” does not appear in his discussion of the English “Historical Present.”  In fact on the previous page, he clearly considers the English HP in terms of tense – the distinction he makes is between Absolute Tense (i.e. the tense directly corresponds to the time of the utterance) and Relative Tense (the tense corresponds to a particular reference point not necessarily the utterance) – not proximate and remote. Personally, I think this is a better route to follow for describing Greek tenses as well.
    More importantly, the entire discussion of “remoteness” connects with conditionals and the factuality of conditionals. Significantly, if I’m understanding Huddleston correctly (his writing is a little dense here), then what he describes for sentence (i) is roughly parallel to Greek’s 2nd  & 3rd Class conditions (and the fourth?). This is significant because the 2nd class always uses a secondary “tense” (i.e. past tense, whether imperfect or aorist) and the 3rd class always has the Subjunctive, which does not mark tense at all, only Aspect.
  2. But more importantly, Huddleston makes some essential points about the terminology of “remoteness,” both in terms of how its used and why its used, including the term’s strengths and weaknesses. I think that if we want to move forward in the discussion of tense/remoteness in Greek, we need to recognize the strengths of the other side and accept them as saying something helpful about Greek: i.e. “remoteness/proximate” emphasizes the unity of the uses of the tenses where those who use the terminology of “tense” tend to emphasize the differences in senses that exist in the morphology (polysemy). Basically, I would argue that instead of debating what is the best terminology to use for the issue of time in the Greek verb, we need to start recognizing and accepting the other view as saying something beneficial about the meaning of the verb. What we need to start seeing in the tense discussion is what Steve Runge describe in an SBL session on word order in Hebrew: “The hallmark that made the Buth/Holmstedt presentations work was each of them understanding the other’s theoretical framework” (his emphasis). The unfortunate irony here, is that Dr. Buth has been one of the more vocal speakers (at least on B-Greek) against the terminology of remoteness/proximity and has not seemed to have recognized the difference in perspectives from which Dr. Decker or Con Campbell have approached the issue. I would be curious as to why that is. Personally, I lean toward the tense terminology, partially because of the reasons delineated in point #1 above – with the caveat that I would prefer to separate Tense terminology from Aspect terminolgy instead of conflating them together (see HERE and HERE).

* The book is a bit old (1984), but is still quite good and has a lot of great information – ignore the two star Amazon review; the review basically complains about how the author writes about, “subordinate clauses and what not with no explanation of them.” Yeah…those subordinate clauses…what are those anyway…? A more recent (2005) introductory grammar to English by the same author is here: A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey Pullum. All things being equal, I would probably perfer the newer one, but you whould have to decide whether the extra $10 is worth the newer content. The Student’s Introduction is 180 pages shorter, but is based on a much larger analysis of English (the nearly 1900 page The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language).

7 thoughts on “Remoteness & Tense in English and Greek

  1. Is this transcription correct?

    The alternative to giving a single very general meaning, which maybe failure empty, is to allow for polysemy, recognising a range of related senses…

    Esp. the 2d clause makes no sense to me–or is this some linguistic gobbledygook? The quote is interesting and I’d like to understand it.

    1. Again, my typing error. The correct text reads: “…which may [space] be fairly empty…”

      So yes, its not linguistic gobbledygood, just Mike Aubrey gobbledygook.

  2. I’m surprised to see no mention, either by Huddleston or by you, that his sentence (i) is a subjunctive in English, as it would be in Greek and indeed in most Indo-European languages. To see this, change the aspect to continuous: in correct English as I learned it the sentence would become “If Ed were coming…”, not “If Ed was coming…”. I know the latter form is creeping into use, but that is because of a general loss of the subjunctive in English. I accept that this is a past subjunctive, as in such sentences in many other languages which are not closely related (not sure about Greek, but certainly Russian and Italian). The pastness needs to be explained, but that is somewhere deep in the Indo-European heritage of English and Greek.

    1. I mentioned it. Kind of. Indirectly.

      (i) is roughly parallel to Greek’s 2nd & 3rd Class conditions

      3rd Class conditions are always in the Subjunctive. I actually had meant to say more about it when I first began thinking about writing this post, but I decided not to after I looked up a discussion of Greek conditionals and realized it was unclear whether (i) is closer to the 2nd Class, which is in the indicative or the 3rd Class in the Subjective.

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