Confusion of Form and Function in Tense-Aspect

Fundamentally different approaches have been taken [in the past century of research on tense and aspect] … so that definitions have been based on (a) formal, (b) cognitive (c) functional or (d) real world categories. A variety of different analyses therefore becomes possible, each with its own justification. Some might want to label as future tense any verb that represents future time, so that the verb in I leave for Montreal on Saturday would then be considered future tense. For similar reasons I have read that book is considered by some to be a paste tense, e.g., Huddleston 1995:102ff, in spite of the fact that the only tense marked in the form is the present or non-past tense of the auxiliary. Here we have a confusion between what is presented (the event taking place in time) and the means of representation (the linguistic category). It is also a confusion between systemic entity and function: if I take a kitchen knife to tighten a screw, must I consequently call it a screwdriver, and refuse to call it a kitchen knife? To rely on function alone, and ignore the morphological and systemic evidence, inevitably leads to a certain amount of error and confusion.

–John Hewson, 1997. Tense and aspect: description and theory, in Tense and aspect in Indo-European languages: theory, typology, diachrony, John Hewson and Vit Bubenik (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), 1-2.

If I’m going to take these words seriously, why in the world should I reject the category of tense in Ancient Greek?

9 thoughts on “Confusion of Form and Function in Tense-Aspect

  1. Please explain a bit. What do you mean by “the category of tense”? (I haven’t heard that anyone would reject the category of tense in Ancient Greek – only that some question whether tense forms grammaticalize time). What means rejecting a category? And this is especially unclear to me: on what part of the quoted text you base your question? I guess “To rely on function alone, and ignore the morphological and systemic evidence, inevitably leads to a certain amount of error” is the crux, but it’s not self-evident what the author means. Please shed some light on that.

  2. Exactly what is “tense” if not the grammaticalization of time (a better way of saying it would be “temporal reference”)? By separating them, you’ve created a bifurcation. The category of tense is precisely this kind of grammaticalization. To reject one is to reject the other. I’m curious as to whether you have read on the subject to think that they’re different. Consider Campbell:

    “The traditional view that the Greek verbal system grammaticalizaes temporal reference (i.e. contains tense) in the indicative mood has come under serious attack, most notably from McKay, Porter, and Decker. … McKay … suggested that aspect was the dominant value expressed by the verb, rather than tense, and Porter has built upon this thesis, concluding that tense does not exist at all” (Verbal Aspect, 14).

    For those who reject the grammaticalization of temporal reference (i.e. Porter & co.) the cover term for the Greek verbal stems, “tense-form,” is just that: a cover time. Its a useful label that maintains some continuity with the past grammatical tradition while still generally allowing for the rejection of actual grammatical category.

    I’d encourage you to try to find a definition of the term tense that does not somehow involve the grammaticalization time/temporality/temporal reference.

    Beyond that, the point is that those who do reject tense as a viable semantic category of the Greek verb, do so on the basis of such phenomena of usage like the historical present, non-past referring aorists, etc. But this is precisely the confusion Hewson is talking about: a confusion of function an systemic entity. A historical present is merely the using of a knife to tighten a screw. It doesn’t mean that the Greek verb does not grammaticalize present tense (i.e. present temporal reference) any more that it means that there are no kitchen knives in the house.

    1. Sorry if created confusion about the word ‘tense’; IANAL (I am not a linguist) and I wrote from memory. I’ve read some literature, but not e.g. Porter. But your reply, especially the last paragraph, answers my question.

      1. No problem. I didn’t really help make things clear in the post. I left a lot for the reader to figure out on their own, which wasn’t particularly useful. Sorry about that.

  3. I haven’t really paid much attention to the tense-aspect wars over the past decade, but I wonder if you can take a prototype approach to tense. E.g., these grammatical forms prototypically represent time (in the indicative), but there are some specific non-prototypical usages.

  4. It’s questionable as to whether even in the languages which have tense or aspect, if those categories grammaticalise the same things. I’m seeing more and more use for Natural Semantic Metalanguage all the time. Do you know if anyone has approach the Greek verbal system with NSM before?

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