Greek Verbal Aspect: Interpretation Vs. Evidence

I realized today that I’ve never seen any actual evidence that the imperfective aspect (traditionally, the Present “tense” and the Imperfect “tense”) are used in states of affairs involving customary/habitual action. Now, I have never doubted that this is the case. Definitely not. It is merely that all of the discussion that I can think of discussing such usage of the imperfective involve interpretive (and thus language external) evidence: habitual meaning makes sense in translation. Most grammars don’t really see the need to give any sort of language internal evidence of this fact. Wallace, for example, simply says: “The customary present is used to signal either an action that regularly occurs or an ongoing state.20 The action is usually iterative, or repeated, but not without interruption. This usage is quite common” (1997: 521). That’s actually not too bad, all considering. Robertson merely includes “customary” as a heading followed by a handful of examples with no actual discussion at all (1923: 881). Apparently, he thinks that the usage is so blatantly obvious that it doesn’t need explanation. BDF has no section for habituality, which they seem to subsume under the iterative—which at least they have a sentence of prose description for (BDF §325). Turner does nothing more than tell his reading what habitual/iterative meaning is (1963: 67).

Now, the lack of evidence in a teaching grammar like Wallace, definitive evidence of the validity of the category is perhaps not necessary. But one would expect that reference grammars would go the extra yard. That they did not, is telling—particularly with Robertson whose 1500+ pages of grammar tended to go that extra year on just about every other grammatical point you could imagine.

But as I said, that the Greek imperfective aspect can be used to refer to habitual or customary action is so obvious that I had never noticed this lack of evidence. At least, I didn’t until today while I was reading Peter Stork’s The Aspectual Use of the Dynamic Infinitive in Herodotus. It hit me that I had never before seen evidence for the validity of the usage because Stork gave extremely clear evidence for it. The habitual is not merely a convenient label for translation. It’s alive and well language internally, too.

What’s Stork’s evidence? In his discussion of the infinitive, Stork breaks down infinitive usage into a variety of construction on the basis of the lexical semantics of their governing verbs. Thus the ABILITY construction involves matrix verbs like δύνομαι +infinitive, for example. His CUSTOM construction involves verbs like νομίζω or νομός ἐστί +infinitive. The other constructions follow the same pattern. The lexical semantics of the governing verb determine the name of the construction. Follow a brief survey of his various constructions, he charts out the statistics. How do various constructions divide according to aspect? How often does a given construction take an imperfective (present) infinitive compared to a perfective (aorist) infinitive? And the numbers don’t lie. Here are some of his stats from Herodotus (Stork 1982: 41):

Construction εἰμί+Pres.Inf Pres.Inf Only Pres.Inf / Aor.Inf Aor.Inf Only Totals
CUSTOM 12 32 78 / 2 98% / 3%
BEGIN 7 60 123 / 18 6 87% / 13%
ORDER 24 148 270 / 87 51 76% / 24%
DECIDE 9 54 98 / 32 31 75% / 25%
ALLOW 2 24 32 / 16 18 66% / 34%
OBLIGATION 7 48 128 / 66 30 66% / 34%
WISH 28 74 138 / 195 57 41% / 59%
EFFECT 25 43 58 / 110 50 35% / 65%
REQUEST 10 22 / 44 14 34% / 66%
ABILITY 4 64 97 / 189 86 34% / 66%
HAPPEN 1 6 7 / 32 10 18% / 82%

The data shows a clear correlation between imperfective aspect and habitual/customary meaning in Herodotus’ infinitive usage and I wouldn’t doubt that they numbers would be similar for the Koine period. It’s particularly striking that there are no verbs that only take a perfective infinitive that appear in the CUSTOM construction. Similar comments can be made about the BEGIN construction and it’s relationship with the inchoative usage of the imperfective. With the aorist, note great difference in the HAPPEN construction, where 82% of the infinitive involved are perfective (aorist).

Now, whether there’s much value in proving the obvious—that the imperfective is used for habitual actions, but then, if Greek were an understudied minority language, you have to start somewhere and this is extremely good evidence of how aspect functions in the language.

Works Cited:

Blass, F. et al. 1961. A Greek grammar of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Robertson, A. T. 1923. A grammar of the Greek New Testament in light of historical usage. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Stork, Peter. 1982. Aspectual usage of the dynamic infinitive in Herodotus. Groningen: Bouma’s Boekhuis.

Tuner, Nigel. 1963. Grammar of New Testament Greek: Syntax. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Wallace, Daniel. 1997. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

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