Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Concerning the Greek Verb

As a student of the Greek language, I read and am taught things that make sense, but I often wonder: Was this really how the original speakers thought about their language? For instance, I am reading Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek by Constantine Campbell. He argues that Greek verbs do not have tense (past, present, future, perfect) contained in the words themselves. Only when the verbs are in a context that calls for tense do the verbs show tense. What the verbs do have is aspect, i.e. how the action is viewed, and remoteness, i.e. how close the viewer is to the action. While I am not trying to reproduce his book here and so this might not make much sense, it really does make a lot of linguistic sense to me. The scheme fits well.

However, is this how the Greeks viewed their verbs? Well, at least according to one of their grammarians, Dionysios Thrax, not really. He says (my translation), "There are three times: present, past (having gone by), and future (about to be). The past has four different sections: imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, and aorist. There are three relationships between these: present to imperfect, perfect to pluperfect, aorist to future" (the original). He views the verbs more in terms of time (though, that last line is interesting...I might return to that sometime).

The next question is whether or not the Greeks' own view is important. If someone calls all trees trees without recognizing the distinction between the different types of trees, he isn't completely wrong but he lacks the botanical sophistication to point the distinctions out. Or maybe a better example might be the difference between an interior decorator and a normal guy. To the normal guy there is just green, maybe a dark and a light green, but green nonetheless. To the interior decorator, though, there is forest green, jade green, emerald green, sea green (I am a normal guy; those were the only crayons I could think of). The interior decorator has an increased sophistication when dealing with colors.

So maybe, the Ancient Greek grammarians lacked the needed sophistication to recognize what was truly occuring in their language. Maybe they only saw the verbs in context and, therefore, drew conclusions only from the context, which usually showed tense, but they did not have the linguistic sophistication that we have now to look at unaffected meanings.

We have two views (there are other views out there as well). One uses modern linguistic tools to examine what authors have written and considers what might be occurring in the text. The other is looking at the language from within but without the current linguistic tools and discussions.

Which is correct?


Wickiser said...

Silly Kyle, of course the Greeks broke down their language and made it way too complex. I think both may be on to something, just in different ways. I will leave it at that.

Con Campbell said...

Thanks for your thoughts Kyle. I think I would say that the fact of the matter is that we are not natural speakers of Ancient Greek. Of course, to a natural speaker, language is used intuitively and without self-conscious examination of what they're doing (except for the grammarians). But the point is that, unless we all start speaking Ancient Greek and become absolutely intuitive in that, then we need to be somewhat aware of what's going on in the language. Whether a natural speaker realizes it or not, every language is complex.

matthew r malcolm said...

Campbell makes a point that languages seem to have moved from spatial to temporal forms - so that, for example, modern Greek has true tenses (and in Koine Greek, the future tense-form appears to have genuinely encoded future temporal reference). Anyway, this seems like an interesting thought to me - and I was reminded of it this morning, when my daughter indicated "yesterday" by pointing backwards... This made me wonder: Are spatial concepts generally more fundamental than temporal concepts?