The Greek Verbal System and Aspect Prominence

A new article by Nicholas J. Ellis, Michael G. Aubrey, and Mark Dubis has recently appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society discussing the need for revising the terms we use to discuss the Greek verbal system. You can download the article from

Their proposals have grown out of the work they have done with BibleMesh and are influenced by the work of other scholars such as Stephen H. Levinsohn and Randall Buth as well as conversations with Christopher Fresch and Steve Runge.

Here is the abstract:

Verbal systems can give prominence to tense, aspect, or mood. The morphology of the verbal system within biblical Greek provides important evidence to suggest that Greek is an aspect-prominent language, though one that also incorporates tense within the indicative mood. Certain traditional grammatical labels inappropriately treat Greek as though it were instead a tense-prominent language like English (e.g. the use of “present” or “tense formative” outside of the indicative mood). We need to reform our descriptive labels and general conception of Greek accordingly. In doing so, the simplicity and beauty of the Greek verbal system emerges, offering pedagogical advantages for teachers of Greek and challenging exegetes to properly account for Greek’s particular configuration of tense, aspect, and mood.

The well-informed discussion Ellis, Aubrey, and Dubis provide is long overdue. The terminology we use to label particular forms and their usage play a large role in informing interpretation of those forms. More accurate nomenclature will lead to better understanding and greater efficiency in describing the language.

I have added this article to the bibliography here at with notes to the names of each of the authors.

Mike Aubrey's Masters Thesis

Mike Aubrey has uploaded his anxiously awaited thesis to

The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect: Toward a descriptive apparatus for operators in Role and Reference Grammar

Click on the title to download a copy or read it online.

Mike has posted two reflections on his blog that you will find very helpful as you read his thesis. I’ve included links to those reflections below along with what he says about their value:

If you’re a Greek student/scholar. I would encourage you to read the two posts dedicated to discussing my thesis. This is because it’s not a work that’s oriented toward biblical scholars [or] to classicists. It’s a work by a linguist for linguists. The two posts I’ve put up […] on my blog are designed to provide some orientation for people whose primary interest is Greek rather than linguistics proper.

Part I: Challenges in language analysis: thesis prefatory material

Part II: Thesis Prefatory Material: A Narrative Account

Here’s the abstract that Mike included on

This thesis attempts to expand the theoretical and methodological basis for operators within Role and Reference Grammar for purposes of language description, using the Greek perfect as a test case. This requires first examining the current theoretical and methodological approach to tense and aspect in RRG and its strengths and weaknesses. Here I demonstrate that while some areas of RRG have a well-developed and robust set of theoretical and descriptive tools for language description, operators such as tense and aspect are distinctly lacking in this regard. To that end, I propose a model for tense and aspect operators that attempts to fill in the gaps that exist in RRG while also maintaining the integrity and spirit of the linguistic theory. This involves three steps. I begin with a survey of the broader typological literature on tense and aspect in order to establish a set of morphosyntactic tests for the evaluation and categorization of operators. This is followed by an application of the proposed morphosyntactic tests to a particular grammatical problem: the Greek Perfect in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the tests. I then concluded with a synthetic model for tense and aspect operators that both satisfies the theoretical and typological claims of the broader literature and also validates the existing structure of the Role and Reference Grammar framework, thereby furthering the goals of RRG as a useful theoretical model for language description.

I encourage you to take the time to look at Mike’s work.

Rijksbaron: Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek

On March 1, Mike Aubrey commented about Rijksbaron’s book, “And this is just one book that should be on the shelf of every student of Ancient Greek.” It wasn’t on mine. So I bought a copy.

What a nice overview of the Classical Greek verbal system! I will have more to say about it later, but for now I’d just like to comment that I really like Rijksbaron’s integration of syntax and semantics, his clear discussion of how the semantic content of individual verbs influences the way such issues as verbal aspect play out in given contexts. He is conversant with current theory in both semantics, discourse theory, and syntax. He also has a very solid grasp of more traditional Greek grammar.

I second Mike’s recommendation.

See the book at Barnes and Noble.

Randall Buth on Greek Lexicography

Today I had the pleasure of reading Randall Buth’s article, “Verbs Perception and Aspect: Greek Lexicography and Grammar.” It’s refreshing to read a Biblical Scholar talking about the work of Stephen Krashen on language acquisition.

While I did not find Buth’s argument about the aspect of Greek perfects convincing, his arguments for using the infinitival forms as the lemma in a lexicon is well informed and well presented. He argues for listing both the aorist and present infinitives, giving the aorist first place.

In the early part of the article he gives an insightful and challenging account of what happens in Biblical Greek classrooms and an honest acknowledgment of the results. This account forms the background for his proposal of a different type of lexicon. I would like to propose, though, that his critique has more far reaching implications. For the good of the field, we need major changes in the way Hellenistic Greek is taught. The methods currently employed do not produce fluent readers who can “think in Greek.”

I’ll try to find time later to write a post on the implications of Krashen’s work for the way we teach Greek. I have struggled with this issue for many years.

Aktionsart and Aspect

A number of years ago–May 4, 1997 to be exact–I offered a clarification of the terms Aktionsart and Aspect on the b-Greek discussion list. I have decided to post here the essence of that discussion because even this late, both terms are still being used in Biblical Studies, often without a clear distinction between their meanings.

The original post to b-Greek can be found at

Here’s a very slightly edited version of what I had to say then. My additions are included in square brackets [ ]. Deletions are indicated by elipsis (…).

The older grammars use the term ‘Aktionsart’ in a way that is not synonymous with its use in modern linguistics. As Mari [Olsen] stated in her recent note, many linguists use the term as a synonym for ‘lexical aspect.’ Others (especially in the study of Slavic languages) use it to mean ‘aspect which is expressed explicitly through derivational morphology (See R.L. Trask’s A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics for examples.)

A.T. Robertson and company use the term in neither of these senses. They use it in a very broad sense covering both lexical and grammatical aspect as well as both the writer’s *perception* of an action and the writer’s *portrayal* of that action.
. . .
We can distinguish between (1) the way an action really is (out there in the real world, independent of the way we talk about that action), (2) the way that action is perceived by a language user, and (3) the way that same language user decides to portray that action.

In the traditional grammars the term ‘Aktionsart’ is used for a bewildering mixture of these three.

In modern linguistics, those linguists who use the term at all (It is interesting that the term did not even appear in David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Blackwell, 1991.), tend not to ever use it to represent (1). Many use it to cover both (2) and (3) when they are tied to *lexical aspect* (as Mari stated).

We might also distinguish between ‘Aktionsart’ and ‘lexical aspect’ taking ‘Aktionsart’ to refer to (2) while ‘lexical aspect’ represents only (3). On this view, however, we may want to reject Aktionsart, seeing it as beyond the scope of what we can legitimately know. In biblical studies, for example, I might argue that all we can know is how Paul [or any other writer] chose to portray an action (3), and that we can never know for sure how he perceived that action (2). If I take Aktionsart to refer only to (2), I would then reject the term, and say that linguistics is legitimately concerned only with aspect–not aktionsart. Much of the discussion in the traditional grammars does take ‘Aktionsart’ as referring to (2).

Linguists who see ‘Aktionsart’ as Mari does, clearly have no reason to reject the term. Since in our context (biblical Greek studies), however, the term ‘Aktionsart’ carries the baggage of the confused discussion in the traditional grammars where it often covers (2) and even sometimes (1), I do not use the term ‘Aktionsart’ as Mari does when talking about biblical Greek. I prefer the term ‘lexical aspect’ for what she means by ‘Aktionsart.’ When I do use the term ‘Aktionsart’ I try to stick as closely as possible to what the Greek grammars mean by the term–where it is usually identified as ‘type of action’ ((1) and possibly (2)), not ‘type of presentation’ (3), though I doubt the authors of those grammars seriously considered the distinction between type of action and type of presentation).

I hope this old post proves useful to some of you. Feel free to comment, challenge, ask questions as you like.