Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament

I’m way behind on using this website to record and document ongoing publications that interface Greek and linguistics. This post is part of my renewed efforts for correct that.

This morning in the mail I received a copy of Douglas Huffman’s Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament, volume 16 in the Studies in Biblical Greek series published by Peter Lang. Beyond perusing the table of contents, I haven’t had a chance to really dig into it yet.

I’m going to try to give the book a fair hearing, though I need to say that any publication on Koine Greek that uses the phrase “Verbal Aspect Theory” in its title has already raises my suspicions. In linguistics, we don’t normally say “verbal aspect theory.” The phrase “verbal aspect” is fine, but normally we really just say, “Aspect.” Typically, unless we’re contrasting it with nominal aspect (yes, that’s a thing), that it is verbal goes without saying. And it isn’t a theory. It’s semantic/conceptual category that languages simply have. That isn’t to say there are no theories of aspect. Verkuyl (A Theory of Aspectuality) has his own theory of aspectuality that differs from, say, Carlota Smith’s theory (The Parameter of Aspect)–they didn’t agree. Anyway, it isn’t at all clear clear that that’s how the phrase “verbal aspect theory” is being used by New Testament people. The vast majority of the time, they seem to be just talking about the semantic category…which isn’t a theory, as I said. Occasionally, the phrase seems to be used to refer to Porter’s view of the Greek verb, but technically that isn’t a theory of aspect either. That’s actually a theory of tense (or rather, a theory of the supposed lack of tense). But now I’m rambling…

To get back on topic, we’ll see how it goes. I hope to crack it open at some point in the next week. You’ll probably hear from me again on the subject. Amazon links below:

Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament (Hardcover)
Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament (Paperback)

Now if only Peter Lang will improve the quality of their bindings…

7 thoughts on “Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament

  1. Looking forward to your review. Would also be interested to hear you talk more about “Verbal Aspect Theory” in terms of how it’s being (mis)used in NT Koine contexts, and how those in a ‘Koine only’ field might get a better grasp of the broader linguistics field.

    1. I probably won’t be doing a formal review of the book. I’ll probably just be posting thoughts as a I read.

      As for aspect, if it were up to me, we’d simply stop using the phrase ‘verbal aspect theory.’ Just say, ‘aspect.’ When linguists use the term ‘theory’ in relation to aspect, they’re talking about a comprehensive framework for understanding aspectual temporality in language (e.g. there is conceptual category called ‘aspect’ and this is my model for its structure and interaction with other linguistic categories). In contrast to that, typically, NT scholarship uses the phrase “verbal aspect theory” to refer to the conceptual category itself. I think ‘theory’ here for NT people is that the category of aspect itself is some kind of new alternative way of thinking about the Greek verb. But that’s as much a misunderstanding of the history of Greek grammar as it is a misunderstanding of how the term ‘aspect’ is used in linguistics.

  2. Mike,

    First a caveat: I’ve no real background in linguistics, and I’ve read mainly about (verbal) aspect from Porter, Decker, Campbell, etc. (I’m now ducking :)). Having stated that, isn’t lexical aspect roughly equivalent to Aktionsart? If so, it would seem that using the qualifier “verbal” in front of aspect would help in differentiation. I’ve seen – and I think I may have read here on your site somewhere, as well – that Robertson, e.g. uses “kind of action” for both Aktionsart and (verbal) aspect. With all that in mind, would you suggest using simply aspect for what Porter et. al. call ‘verbal aspect,’ and Aktionsart for ‘lexical aspect’ (kind of action), as a means by which to differentiate? That is, is this correct from a strictly linguistics point of view?

    1. Hey Craig. Thanks for stopping by. Let me see if I can take this in pieces. This is going to be long…

      I should say at the beginning of this that my criticisms of the term ‘verbal aspect theory’ is primarily about the word ‘theory’. My opinions about simply ‘verbal aspect’ are primarily pedantry more than anything else. It just that usually nobody says that. Anyway…the terminology problem independent of that is still worth commenting on.

      Isn’t lexical aspect roughly equivalent to Aktionsart? If so, it would seem that using the qualifier “verbal” in front of aspect would help in differentiation.

      Typically, yes. The problem is that ‘lexical aspect’ is also a misnomer. Aktionsart is a category that applies to predicates rather than lexemes. Thus, for example, the English clauses below are distinction in their aktionsartal values.

      The soldiers marched in the park.
      The soldiers marched to the park.

      The first predicate (marched in the park) is an activity predicate because the you have a dynamic/non-static situation with duration, but no defined endpoint. The second (marched to the park) is (depending on the schema being used) an active achievement. It is dynamic/non-static. It has duration for the marching portion, but has an endpoint that is achieved without duration (i.e. not being in the park vs. not being in the park is binary opposition rather than a continuum).

      This is aktionsart as it is used in linguistics. It isn’t a feature of the lexical item, but a feature of the larger syntactic predicate. However, the term ‘lexical aspect’ continues to be used simply because it is so well established as a term…just like ‘present infinitive’ continues to be used for Greek even though infinitives only has aspect morphology and no tense morphology.

      If so, it would seem that using the qualifier “verbal” in front of aspect would help in differentiation.

      That is partially correct. The difference is that in linguistics we use the term grammatical aspect rather than verbal aspect. This is because the primary point of differentiation isn’t that one is lexical (or better, clausal/syntactic) and one is verbal, but rather because one is marked by syntactic elements in a clause and the other is marked by inflectional morphemes. The differences in the means of formal marking.

      Carlota Smith in his book The Parameter of Aspect takes a slightly different approach. In her view (which I’m on the fence about…still debating internally), but aktionsart and grammatical aspect are two forms of the same thing. And she uses the terms situation aspect for aktionsart and viewpoint aspect for grammatical aspect.

      Role & Reference Grammar (RRG–one of the handful of frameworks that I am literate in) takes a third approach. What we call aktionsart, RRG calls ‘predicate types’ and ‘aspect’, well, ‘aspect.’

      Depending on my audience and topic, I might use any one of these sets of terms. However, the term ‘verbal aspect’ is generally not used unless it is being contrasted with ‘nominal aspect’…which is a whole other can of worms.

      I’ve seen – and I think I may have read here on your site somewhere, as well – that Robertson, e.g. uses “kind of action” for both Aktionsart and (verbal) aspect.

      I’ve said something similar, yes. But not quite the same. Robertson in his big grammar wasn’t using aktionsart in the way that anyone uses it today. At the turn of the 20th century all these terms were in flux. The phrase ‘kind of action’ is a translation of the German term aktionsart as it was used at the turn of the 20th century by the Neogrammarians (a school of linguistics from that era). When they said ‘aktionsart’ their usage is more complicated. In some sense both the phrase, ‘kind of action’ and the word ‘aspect’ are equally sufficient translations of the German term aktionsart as it was used at the turn of the 20th century. That is to say, for Robertson ‘kind of action’ would be equivalent to ‘aspect’. And that is, in fact precisely what aspect is: the manner (=kind) in which an event or situation (=action) is presented in terms of its internal temporal structure:

      The manner of an imperfective verb is conceived by the speaker as incomplete or in progress.
      The manner of a perfective verb is conceived by the speaker without reference to internal temporal structure.

      To the extent that Robertson uses the term aktionsart only to refer to the semantic distinction between aorist, present, and perfect verb-forms in Greek, then he uses the term aktionsart in the ]same way that we use the term aspect, today. Approaching Robertson from that perspective, for the most part, works fairly well. For example, Robertson states explicitly that aktionsart is subjective rather than objective–contrary to Porter’s claims. Consider the following statement from Robertson (1919, 1380):

      “Perhaps a word more should be said as to the point of view of the speaker or writer. The same action can be viewed as punctiliar or linear. The same writer may look at it now one way, now the other. Different writers often vary in the presentation of the same action.”

      Just switch out the terms ‘punctiliar’ and ‘linear’ for ‘perfective’ and ‘imperfective’ and you have a sentence that could be just as easily found in a contemporary discussion of Greek aspect.

      ith all that in mind, would you suggest using simply aspect for what Porter et. al. call ‘verbal aspect,’ and Aktionsart for ‘lexical aspect’ (kind of action), as a means by which to differentiate? That is, is this correct from a strictly linguistics point of view?

      My general policy for terminology is that it should be:

      (1) Established in the field
      (2) Generally transparent in its meaning

      With that in mind, getting away from untranslated German words like ‘aktionsart’ is probably a good idea. So we have a few options:

      A. Grammatical Aspect vs. Lexical Aspect
      B. Aspect vs. Predicate types
      C. Viewpoint aspect vs. Situation aspect
      D. Aspect vs. Actionality

      It’s a sort of pick your poison situation, but if you were to use any of these sets in a linguistics article in a journal or book, they’d be recognized and accepted. ‘Verbal aspect’ would probably be okay, but sound a little odd perhaps. But ‘verbal aspect theory’ would get a lot of questions and puzzled looks.

      1. Mike,

        Thanks so much for taking the time for a detailed response. Since I’ve personally started this whole subject of aspect from Porter’s conception, I’m fairly familiar with his work. Besides other issues you’ve noted elsewhere on your blog and Runge on his blog have noted with regard to the linguistic basis for his conception, I think there are times when Porter is just a bit unclear. And your criticism that Porter’s criticism of Robertson (and others) is noted (I’d read that earlier on your site).

        But, to Porter’s credit, he uses option A specifically in his Peter Lang work Studies in the Greek New Testament (pp 66-67).

        In any case, your position of being opposed to “verbal aspect theory” is well taken, as it is best pedagogically to standardize terminology, to the extent possible. And, I think ‘grammatical aspect’ as opposed to ‘lexical aspect’ (and I like ‘situation aspect,’ as well, perhaps better) is a good way to differentiate the two concepts.

        If I understand your distinction between Aktionsart and lexical aspect, lexical aspect is a part (sub-category) of Aktionsart in that lexis is determined at clause level.

      2. I’ve also seen “outer aspect” vs. “inner aspect.”

        Sasse has a great review article on this in Linguistic Typology 6 (2002), which I recommend strongly, but after pointing out the issue he basically gives up and talks about ASPECT1 and ASPECT2.

        I would love to retire “Aktionsart” as well, but I feel that people in NT wouldn’t really recognize the alternatives. (Given Porter’s characterization of Aktionsart, perhaps that’s to the good.)

        1. I would love to retire “Aktionsart” as well, but I feel that people in NT wouldn’t really recognize the alternatives. (Given Porter’s characterization of Aktionsart, perhaps that’s to the good.)

          That’s a really good point. I’ve already made the switch elsewhere. It’s time I made the switch on this blog, too.

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