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 http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/test-archives/html4/1997-05/18811.html.

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.

Levinsohn's, "Toward a Unified Description of οὗτος and ἐκεῖνος”

Steve Runge notified me a few days ago that Levinsohn’s paper, “Towards a Unified Linguistic Description of οὗτος and ἐκεῖνος,” is now out in print. You can find it in The Linguist as Pedagogue, a volume from Sheffield, edited by Porter and O’Donnell, 2009. I have not seen the volume, but Steve assures me that it contains a number of good papers, including Pennington’s chapter on deponency.

Thanks Steve.

More Additions to the Bibliography

Here are two more books that I have recently added to my Greek Linguistics bibliography at Greek-Language.com:

Runge, Steven E. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009. Price and purchase information

Danove, Paul. Grammatical and Exegetical Study of New Testament Verbs of Transference: A Case Frame Guide to Interpretation and Translation (Library of New Testament Studies). T & T Clark International, August 18, 2009. Price and purchase information

Additions to Bibliography

Two new additions to A Comprehensive Bibliography of Hellenistic Greek Linguistics

I added two items to my Comprehensive Bibliography of Hellenistic Greek Linguistics today. Both address the use of Greek demonstratives. The paper by Runge is available online (as a PDF download).

Levinsohn, Stephen H. “Towards a Unified Linguistic Description of οὗτος and ἐκεῖνος.” Paper presented at Biblical Greek and Linguistics Section of the SBL Annual Meeting, Atlanta, GA. 2003.

Runge, S. E. “The Exegetical Significance of Cataphoric Pronouns in Luke’s Gospel.” Paper presented at the ETS Northwest Regional Meeting, Salem, OR. 2007.

Argument Structure of ἀγαπάω

Simon Wong’s A Classification of Semanti Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistles lists the Case Frame (Argument Structure) of ἀγαπάω as [Event: EXPERIENCER, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. I think this argument structure is quite appropriate for the English word “love,” but I’m not sure it really fits ἀγαπάω.

My disagreement is with the designation of first argument as EXPERIENCER. In English we think of love as an emotion, in which case it is quite appropriate to think of the first agument (the subject of an active verb) as EXPERIENCER rather than AGENT. Love is something we experience more than do.

In Hellenistic Greek, though, ἀγαπάω represents a way of acting more than an emotion. Jesus commands his disciples ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27 and 35). He is not commanding them to feel warm and fuzzy toward their enemies, but to treat their enemies with good will.

Does it even make sense to command an emotion? If I tell you, “Be angry!” will you be able to simply decide to do so? In Hellenistic Greek, ἀγαπάω represents something that can be commanded. It represents something that a person can decide to do.

I propose the following revision to Wong’s case frame (argument structure) for ἀγαπάω: [Event: AGENT, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. The verb implies an actor/AGENT (the person who acts with good will) and a PATIENT (the person who is treated with good will).

Feel free to disagree. Please offer examples that you think demonstrate whether the first argument (the subject of ἀγαπάω when it is active voice) represents a person who experiences the emotion we call love or a person who acts in a way characterized by good will. Does ἀγαπάω function like the English word “love,” or do you also think it is different?

Delay of Online Grammar

I regret that I have not been able to add to the online grammar for some time now. Responsibilities at work have made it impossible to make the kind of progress I would like. Unfortunately, it will probably be late spring before I am able to make significant progress on it. I regret the delay.

Currently there are 18 lessons up and running. The complete grammar has over 30. I hope to complete converting the remaining lessons from paper to HTML this summer.


Lesson 9 (First Aorist)

I have redesigned lesson nine (First Aorist) to provide a more complete, yet clearer discussion of the first aorist forms. If you have already read that lesson, I suggest you read the new version to review and to gain a clearer understanding of some of the forms you are seeing in the later lessons.

Lesson 9: First Aorist