Basics of Verbal Aspect (2)

30 11 2008



Well, it was great fun to blog at Zondervan’s Koinonia site a couple of weeks ago about Greek verbal aspect (check out the posts to get up to speed). Following that, I enjoyed meeting and talking to a number of Greek professors and teachers at the SBL conference in Boston. Most of the responses to my new book, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek, have been positive, and it was great to learn that several teachers in the US and UK will be using the book with their students. I hope this all goes towards bringing verbal aspect into the mainstream of Greek teaching and learning. 

There has, however, been some resistance to a “primer” on verbal aspect. The main reason seems to be that the “dust has not settled” on various aspect issues within academia, and so, it is claimed, a textbook that takes a particular “line” may be premature. Below I include one of my (slightly edited) responses to this kind of objection (see here for the original review and reply).

While some are concerned that the “dust has not settled” on verbal aspect, it has been pointed out that there a number of areas where a good consensus has been reached. These include a definition of verbal aspect, the role of Aktionsart categories, and the fact that aorist, present, and imperfect tense-forms are aspectually perfective and imperfective respectively. Yes, there is still some debate about the perfect and pluperfect, but all the aspect theorists agree that aspect provides a much more robust analysis than the old Aktionsart approach to the perfect, of a past action with present consequences. So even for the perfect there is agreement that aspect offers a better approach.
This leads me to my next observation, which is that the standard grammars that we all use (and, by the way, for which I have great respect) were all based on the new theories of their day. Aspect and Aktionsart studies had not “settled” when Robertson wrote his masterful tome. There was not a consensus at that time, and yet he dared to author an authoritative work, drawing on theories he believed to be best at the time. Nowadays some Greek users are so committed to the “traditional” way of understanding Greek, that they are reluctant to adopt the new theories of our day, even though that’s exactly what the earlier grammarians did. The heart of the problem is that waiting for all the answers is not the solution. Curtius didn’t have all the answers. Robertson didn’t have the answers. Chantraine didn’t have all the answers. But they were not claiming perfection; rather they were interested in improvement; in advancing our understanding. And so, in my humble opinion, waiting till “all the dust has settled” is a vain hope, and is expecting more than we’ve ever had before. We should be interested in advancing our understanding, and there is no doubt whatsoever that verbal aspect offers a genuine advance, even while some issues remain unresolved. My books are not intended to be the last word, neither are Porter’s, Fanning’s, Olsen’s, or Decker’s. But we need to listen carefully to each voice as each one offers enhanced understanding, continuing the legacy of the great ones before, who transformed the understanding of their day.

Con Campbell