Distinguishing Perfects

There are a variety of reasons why the English Perfect and the Greek Perfect must be distinguished in spite of their shared name and similarities.

Greek students are generally taught to use their intuition in terms of deciding whether to translate a Greek perfect with an English perfect or with an English present. But rarely (ever?) is there any discussion of how these two grammatical forms differ in their usage in a cross-linguistic sense. That is, the English Perfect can be used in the context X where the Greek Perfect would be infelicitous or ungrammatical.

Well today, I’m going to give you at least one way that I found about two weeks ago (I had to search for it to find it again). This assumes that the Greek of Joshua is relatively close enough to natural Greek that this is a valid usage. I haven’t had time to check other texts.

Joshua 13:8: ταῖς δὲ δύο φυλαῖς καὶ τῷ ἡμίσει φυλῆς Μανασση, τῷ Ρουβην καὶ τῷ Γαδ, ἔδωκεν Μωυσῆς ἐν τῷ πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου κατ̓ ἀνατολὰς ἡλίου, δέδωκεν αὐτὴν Μωυσῆς ὁ παῖς κυρίου…
But to the two tribes and the half tribe of Manasseh, Reuben and Gad, Moses gave (an inheritance to them) in the land beyond the Jordan eastward. Moses the servant of the Lord gave them …

From there, it goes on to list the lands they received. What’s striking about this. Well for one, we see the Perfect’s move toward the Aorist, but we also see a significant way in which the Greek Perfect is very, very different from the English Perfect.

Moses is dead. Moses was dead when the book was written and Moses was dead when the events described here in chapter 13 transpired (assuming for the sake of argument they did – this is a linguistics blog not a history blog). The English perfect cannot be used with a subject the speaker knows to be deceased. The sentence:

*Moses the Lord’s servant gave them X.

is not felicitous in English.

And that, my friends, is one way in which the Greek and English Perfects are different. This sort of example is relatively easy to recognize intuitively when dong translation, but it is still helpful to recognize and understand the reason why you’ve used the English past perfective verb “gave” instead of the perfect. And that’s what I’m interested in here. The why of things.

UPDATE:

There is a pragmatic felicity condition on the use of the perfect: the subject of a Perfect sentence must be in a position to receive the participant property. Perfect sentences are infelicitous when this is not met. In the following well-known example the person referred to by the subject NP is not alive at the RT [Reference Time]. Consider (20), uttered in 1989.

(20) Einstein has lived in Princeton.

This sentence is grammatical but infelicitous when uttered at a time after the death of Eisten (Jespersen 1931:60), Chomsky (1970:85). We explain this in terms of the participant property. Einstein cannot bear the participant property in 1989, the time of the utterance of (20), and so it is pragmatically impossible to ascribe it to him. this is the force of the example. The felicity requirement, then, is reoughly as in (21):

(21) Felicity condition for the present Perfect
The person to which the subject nounphrase [sic] refers must be pragmatically able to bear the property ascribed to them.

The notion of ‘Current Relevant’ is sometimes invoked to explain the infelicity of sentences like this. (Jesphersen 1931: 47, 57, et seq; McCoard 1978, ch. 2).

Carlota Smith, The Parameter of Aspect (2nd ed.; Studies in Linguistics & Philosphy 43; Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1997), 108.

Also, I should note that an English Past Perfect, which is traditionally associated with the Greek Pluperfect would also be acceptable here: Moses had given…

15 thoughts on “Distinguishing Perfects

  1. I guess I’m a little confused. Wouldn’t the English past perfective be “had given” and the perfective “has given”? Am I missing some nuance of your logic or a linguistic concept? I would have called English “gave” a simple past.

      1. Can you explain…. I became lost between your answer and George’s post. “That’s a Past Perfect” What does “That” refer to? “Had given” or “Gave”?

        1. Mike, would it be that:
          “have given” = present perfect perfective
          “had given” = past perfect perfective
          “gave” = simple past perfective ?

          Since perfective is aspect, and the verb forms above are not in continuous form and no context as well to imply the actions as ongoing, then they must all be perfective? Cheers.

  2. “Moses is dead. Moses was dead when the book was written.” Indeed: Moses has been dead for perhaps 3,400 years. And your principle “The English perfect cannot be used with a subject the speaker knows to be deceased” has (at least in this unqualified form) been dead nearly as long.

    1. “There is a pragmatic felicity condition on the use of the perfect: the subject of a Perfect sentence must be in a position to receive the participant property. Perfect sentences are infelicitous when this is not met. In the following well-known example the person referred to by the subject NP is not alive at the RT [Reference Time]. Consider (20), uttered in 1989.

      (20) Einstein has lived in Princeton.

      This sentence is grammatical but infelicitous when uttered at a time after the death of Eisten (Jespersen 1931:60), Chomsky (1970:85). We explain this in terms of the participant property. Einstein cannot bear the participant property in 1989, the time of the utterance of (20), and so it is pragmatically impossible to ascribe it to him. this is the force of the example. The felicity requirement, then, is reoughly as in (21):

      (21) Felicity condition for the present Perfect
      The person to which the subject nounphrase [sic] refers must be pragmatically able to bear the property ascribed to them.

      The notion of ‘Current Relevant’ is sometimes invoked to explain the infelicity of sentences like this. (Jesphersen 1931: 47, 57, et seq; McCoard 1978, ch. 2).”

      Carlota Smith, The Parameter of Aspect (2nd ed.; Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1997), 108.

      1. Thanks for the qualifications and the congratulations.

        There is indeed an interesting issue of what properties a dead person is pragmatically able to bear. Obviously being dead is one of them. Are there others? Clearly nothing active, but maybe other states? Can we say “Einstein has been famous since he came up with the theory of relativity”? Or “Einstein has lain in his grave for more than 50 years”?

        1. Yeah we can. Perhaps we can say that “being famous” & “being buried” are low enough on the scale of agency that the condition does not apply. “To live” (Einstein lived in Princeton) is far more agentative than “be buried” (<– which is also passive), as is "to give" (Moses gave…) even more so.

          Can you think of a passive that would be acceptable for a dead guy?

  3. How about “I was inspired by Einstein to study physics” (more or less true)? I wasn’t born until (just) after Einstein died. Or would one have to argue that Einstein did the action while he was alive and I became the patient of it after I was born? For that matter “Einstein has inspired me all my life” – not so true, but grammatical.

    1. Are your first two sentences Perfects?

      I wasn’t born until (just) after Einstein had / *has died.

      Inspired would be Subject/Stimulus & Object/Experiencer, since inspiration is a mental state.

      Peter, I’m going to update my post again and insert some of this. Thanks for the help.

  4. @vagabonddrifter:

    The problem with that is nobody agrees on whether “perfect” is a tense or an aspect. You clearly fall on the tense side of things based on your suggestion, but that doesn’t solve the problem. If “perfect” is a tense, then yes. But I’m not particularly confident that is the case.

    Let’s complicate things a bit:

    παρῳχειμένος παρατατικός
    παρῳχειμένος συντελικός
    ἀόριστος

    Which one of these Greek grammatical terms refers to perfective aspect?

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