Perspectival uses of Aspect in the Imperative

This is my Good Friday post. Linguistics and Greek grammar about Good Friday on Good Friday.

I mentioned in my previous post about  Klaas Bentein article on academia.edu (Aspectual choice and the presentation of Narrative. An application to Herodotus’ Histories. Glotta 92 [2016]) that Bentein’s insight has relevance to the Greek data about aspect in imperatives–if you still haven’t examined it, I would encourage you to take a look. It’s an excellent paper.

Now the basic claim is clearly laid out in the abstract:

The writer makes a linguistic choice either to use the aspect to convey his own perspective of the narrative or to use the aspect to convey the perspective of the characters/narrative participants.

But more specifically, Bentein (2016, 52) makes the suggestion:

To be more specific, I have argued that by choosing the aorist or the imperfect for foregrounded events, Herodotus can create a‘perspectival effect’: while the aorist conveys an external perspective (the  perspective of the author), the imperfect creates the illusion of an internal perspective, of a character witnessing the events. As I have shown, Herodotus often adopts an internal perspective at particularly dramatic moments, supporting the thematics of the story (compare de Jong van den Berg 2000). Examples of such dramatic moments from the eighth book of the Histories would be the violent storm, the capture of Athens, the battles at Artemisium and Salamis, reactions on the impending battle, the suffering of Xerxes’ army etc. The use of the aorist, on the other hand, seems to be more suitable for contexts where such ‘heightened witnessing’ (Toolan 1990:95-96) is not thematically required (according to the author/narrator, that is).

The evidence that he puts forward is pretty solid, I would say. Unfortunately, it isn’t directly relatable to imperatives for a couple reasons:

  • It’s rare that an imperative is ever used in the narrative material. If they do occur in narrative material, they’re going to be backgrounded, by default. I cannot think of any situation where an imperative would appear in the foreground of a narrative–you can’t move forward a story via an imperative.
  • Imperatives are more likely to appear in direct speech, where the relationship between aspect and grounding is inherently more complicated.

Still, the more general claim, the one we see in the abstract, I would argue still works as one possible function of aspect in imperative verbs. Let’s consider some examples.

The first, from Mark 15:14 uses perfective imperatives, marked in bold:

ὁ δὲ Πιλᾶτος ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς· Τί γὰρ ἐποίησεν κακόν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραξαν· Σταύρωσον αὐτόν.
Pilate said to them, “What evil has he done?” But the crowd shouted even louder, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Mark 15:14, cf. also vs 13)

This is what we would normally expect for an imperative where internal temporal structure is not viewed as a relevant element for the the speaker of the command. Here, Mark presents the actions and words of the crowd from the perspective of the crowd. Here the crowd speaks in precisely the manner we would expect.

But what does Luke do?

πάλιν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος προσεφώνησεν, θέλων ἀπολῦσαι τὸν Ἰησοῦν. οἱ δὲ ἐπεφώνουν λέγοντες· Σταύρου σταύρου αὐτόν
Again Pilate addressed them, wanting to release Jesus, but they continued to cry out, saying, Crucify! Crucify him! (Luke 23:20-21)

In the same setting as Mark, Luke has shifted the aspect of the imperatives from perfective to imperfective and the change represents a choice of perspective for Luke. In this instance, Luke uses the crowd’s own words to communicate to his audience the repetition of the crowd’s demand over and over again. Would the individuals in the crowd have chosen such an aspect? No. In this context, rather than the audience’s perspective on the command–a perspective that would lack internal temporal structure–we instead get Luke’s perspective. Luke’s perspective is one where the choice of the imperfective imperative represents the continuous and repetitive shouting of the crowd. His choice here makes the scene more (for a lack of a better term) vivid* for the reader, as Bentein said it in the quote above, “the imperfect creates the illusion of an internal perspective, of a character witnessing the events” (2016, 52). He is using aspect to add an additional layer of detail about how the crowds in the courtyard are shouting and yelling and demanding the crucifixion of Jesus and the release of Barabbas.

Mark made a perspectival choice in his presentation of this scene. Luke made a different perspectival choice in his presentation of the scene. Each conveys the same content, but Luke’s choice adds a degree of drama by his use of the imperfective aspect to convey the crowds behavior.

Luke’s narrative is, quite frankly, more interesting. Mark is more of a barebones, “just the facts,” sort of  writer a lot of the time. And that’s visible here. Luke puts more effort in to actually telling a story. In that regard, his foreground narrative brings us full circle back to Bentein’s article. Notice, first, that the verb of speech in verse 21 is also imperfective: ἐπεφώνουν. Additionally, when we get to verse 23, Luke’s narrative foreground is nearly all imperfective:

οἱ δὲ ἐπέκειντο φωναῖς μεγάλαις αἰτούμενοι αὐτὸν σταυρωθῆναι, καὶ κατίσχυον αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν
But they were urging with loud cries, demanding that he be crucified, and their cries were succeeding (Luke 23:23).

Here, the past imperfective verbs parallel Bentein’s analysis of Herodotus, wherein, “Herodotus often adopts an internal perspective at particularly dramatic moments, supporting the thematics of the story” (2016, 52). Perhaps Luke does the same. I haven’t spent enough time examining Luke on this front to know. My current focus in imperatives. Nevertheless, it most certainly does fit the facts and it seems highly plausible, but I’ll let someone else take up that analysis.

One final comment: This isn’t the meaning of the imperfective or perfective imperative. This is simply one way that speakers/authors are able to use aspect manipulate the elaboration of events. There are others that we’ll discuss in the coming week.

*Don’t read too much into that. I’m not talking about “vividness” in the way some scholars have talked about the historical present. Certainly not. I’m simply talking about the amount of detail about the scene that he’s conveying to the audience. Perfective’s simply don’t communicate internal temporal structure at all. So the choice of an imperfective inherently communicates something extra in terms of some kind of incomplete, ongoing, progressive action.

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