Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is Time Grammaticalized in New Testament Greek?

A burning question in New Testament Greek studies revolves around the grammaticalization of time and Greek tenses. Scholars use the terms Aktionsart (a German word that can denote "kind of action") and "aspect" to discuss this issue. This paper will explore whether Greek grammaticalizes time in the light of analyses undertaken by David Black and Rolf Furuli.

David Black on Tense and Aktionsart

Black insists that lexemes (minimal units of language having semantic content) possess "inherent aspect": they are intrinsically "durative" or "punctiliar" with regard to their aspect (80). By his use of the word "punctiliar" Black evidently means that lexical units (in some cases) may be aspectually aoristic: "The most important element of tense in the Greek verb system is the kind of action being referred to. This is called aspect or Aktionsart, and it is where the major distinction between the different tenses lies" (84).

Elsewhere, he continues: "A special morpheme indicates that the action of a verb refers to past time. This is a past time morpheme or augment, which is found in Sanskrit, Iranian, Armenian, and Greek, and only in the past tenses of the indicative mood" (Ibid., 81).

However, it's possible to distinguish verbal aspect from verbal Aktionsart. This German term refers to the kind of action being delineated by a Greek verbal tense or relation without necessarily grammaticalizing time. But the indicative mood in Greek probably does grammaticalize time, although this view certainly lends itself to more linguistic abnormalities when actual Greek constructs are studied.

Black argues that the imperfect, the aorist, and pluperfect tense "all refer to the past; the only difference between them is the kind of action, or aspect, that they indicate" (84). Therefore, we see that not every Greek scholar believes the concept of time is wholly absent from the imperfect or aorist tense. Additionally, Black speaks of time and aspect, then links aspect with Aktionsart (kind of action). But other grammarians and linguists make a clear distinction between the two categories; they do not believe that either the aorist, imperfect or pluperfect tense inherently refer to past action. Nonetheless, if Black is correct, then his comments would illuminate some anomalies encountered when reading New Testament Greek.

Rolf Furuli and the Grammaticalization of Time

On the other hand, Furuli observes that the Aktionsart of a particular verb is associated with its meaning. He reasons that the verb's contents (in this case) are not capable of being canceled. He connects Aktionsart to a word's lexical properties. That is, the verb's "kind of action" refers to the objective features conveyed by a determinate action word. The term Aktionsart also signifies that features of a particular verb retain their meaning in almost every contextual situation with hardly any exceptions.

Furuli provides the example of the verb "sing" which he notes is inherently punctiliar regarding its Aktionsart. Whether one thus says "he sang" or "he was singing," how Aktionsart is emphasized remains the same. The word "singing" is no less durative than "he sang" because of each term's intrinsic properties. Furuli defines tense as "the grammaticalization of location in time" (a definition found in Comrie). He accordingly seems to contend that Greek (with the exception of the future tense) may not have "tense" in the relevant sense discussed here. Nonetheless, a question that deserves future exploration is, what does the New Testament evidence reveal about this issue?


I have read the studies on Greek aspect and Aktionsart published by Furuli, Buist Fanning, Kenneth McKay and Stanley Porter. Yet I have been hesitant to concur with the non-temporal view of Greek tenses as a whole. There does not appear to be a good reason for completely removing the notion of time from Greek tenses, even when the future tense is not under consideration. But I do believe that verbal aspect is more prominent than the concept of time when it comes to Greek tenses. Furthermore, Daniel B. Wallace seems to have a point when he contends that a number of factors (i.e. affected and non-affected meaning) provide temporal information where Greek verbal relations are concerned.


Black, David A. Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1988.

Furuli, Rolf. The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation: With a Special Look at the New World Translation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Huntington Beach, Calif: Elihu Books, 1999.

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