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the English simple past is not an aorist

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the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby daivid » Wed Apr 19, 2017 9:34 am

To quote from "Learn to Read Greek" Keller & Russel: "The Aorist indicative has past time and simple aspect and so differs from the imperfect indicative, which has past time but with progressive or repeated aspect."

It is true that the past simple will often be a good translation of the aorist but the English past simple also includes habitual action:
Ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος, καὶ ἐνεδιδύσκετο πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον εὐφραινόμενος καθ᾽ ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς.

Luke 16.19
"There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day." (Good News translation)

That they are quite different should be obvious from the fact that the simple in English can exist in the present:
My neighbor dresses every day in the most expensive clothes ...

A present aorist is impossible because as the present moment is a point in time it has duration. Hence to complete an action in the now is impossible.

Why do so many textbooks muddy the water in this way?
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby mwh » Thu Apr 20, 2017 12:43 am

A present aorist is impossible because as the present moment is a point in time it has duration. Hence to complete an action in the now is impossible.

daivid, I fear your post is a bit muddled. For one thing, a point in time does not have duration. And how about “It’s 1 o’clock”? And how do textbooks “muddy the water”? It’s true that the English simple past is not invariably an aorist (does anyone say it is?), and it sometimes corresponds to the Greek imperfect as well as the Greek aorist. But so what? They’re different languages. It’s not clear if you’re faulting the textbook you quote. Presumably that’s describing Greek, not English.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby daivid » Thu Apr 20, 2017 11:44 am

mwh wrote:
A present aorist is impossible because as the present moment is a point in time it has duration. Hence to complete an action in the now is impossible.

daivid, I fear your post is a bit muddled. For one thing, a point in time does not have duration.

Ouch! That was a typo of course and I did indeed to say a point of time has no duration. :oops: Perhaps it is as well I am not myself writing a textbook. :(

mwh wrote: And how about “It’s 1 o’clock”?

That is an exception that proves the rule. (Given that they didn't have accurate clocks, it isn't something that an Ancient Greek would say.) I guess a pedant say that we should say "It has just struck 1 o'clock." But really isn't the answer that even though it purports to be a point of time and that it is very very much briefer than "the time the market generally opens" but in fact is something that does have duration.

mwh wrote: And how do textbooks “muddy the water”? It’s true that the English simple past is not invariably an aorist (does anyone say it is?), and it sometimes corresponds to the Greek imperfect as well as the Greek aorist. But so what? They’re different languages. It’s not clear if you’re faulting the textbook you quote. Presumably that’s describing Greek, not English.


It comes from the emphasis that textbooks have on teaching their students to translate rather than explain what the Greek means on its own terms.

Textbooks could say the aorist is completed action and stop right there.

Or else they could explain aspect in much greater depth and explain how English handles aspect in a quite different way.

Or else they just give loads of examples so the student gets the idea from context.

But not try and paper over the differences as many textbooks do.


And thanks very much for replying.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby Timothée » Thu Apr 20, 2017 2:26 pm

daivid wrote:That is an exception that proves the rule.

I don’t quite know where this saying originates nor why people use it. However, it’s obviously poppycock. Exceptions don’t prove but break the rule.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby jeidsath » Thu Apr 20, 2017 2:39 pm

Cicero: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

That fact that something is exceptional shows that there must otherwise be a rule (otherwise it would just be normal).
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby mwh » Thu Apr 20, 2017 4:03 pm

Thanks for the comeback daivid. I think you realize that “completed action” is inadequate for the idea of “aorist.” (The perfect is completed action too, after all.) And few newcomers to Greek would welcome a proper explanation of “aspect.” (That could occupy an entire linguistics course.) If you don’t like “It’s one o’clock,” try “Today is Thursday.” But I don't see a beginner having much trouble with the present indicative. Present infinitive is another matter. (Actually it's not, but to a beginner it will seem to be.)

I’m still not clear just what differences you think textbooks try to paper over.

Textbook writers have to make choices. It’s always possible to find fault with any textbook. But little use in griping, and still less if the gripe is ill-founded.

Best, Michael
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby Timothée » Thu Apr 20, 2017 6:08 pm

Thank you, Joel. Even if it’s Cicero, I have to disagree though. I can accept “tendency” but not “rule”. They are different — at least if my English is up to scratch.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby mwh » Fri Apr 21, 2017 2:54 am

On rule-proving exception (to add to the noise on this thread: sorry daivid):
Fowler's Modern English Usage is my bible. He has a characteristically vigorous entry under EXCEPTION, dissecting five uses of the phrase, the last of which, labeled "the serious nonsense," is "unfortunately the commonest use." ("See POPULARIZED TECHNICALITIES.") He quotes Lord Justice Atkin for the original legal sense: "A rule is not proved by exceptions unless the exceptions themselves lead one to infer a rule." The "in casibus non exceptis" is important.

I recommend Fowler (especially the original edition). He's a prescriptivist (not a word in his vocabulary), and dated, but he's my choice of gatekeeper.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby daivid » Fri Apr 21, 2017 8:54 pm

mwh wrote:Thanks for the comeback daivid. I think you realize that “completed action” is inadequate for the idea of “aorist.” (The perfect is completed action too, after all.)

the present perfect in English:

I have chopped up the old tree. (aorist) result: the tree no longer exists but there is a pile of firewood in its place.
I have chopped wood every day this week (habitual) result: you owe me a weeks pay
I have been chopping wood all morning. (continuous) result: I am exhausted.

So in English the perfect is not always about completed action and it does not always have aorist aspect.

In all the Greek examples I have seen the Greek perfect describes a completed action but I haven't read enough Greek to be sure it always does. If you tell me that in Greek the perfect always has completed aspect than I will have learnt something new.

I never intended to say that the aorist was the only tense that has aorist aspect.
Maybe it would be clearer if I used the terms imperfective and perfective instead of imperfect and aorist?

Hence:
In Greek the aorist has perfective aspect.
The present has imperfective aspect.
The imperfect has imperfective aspect.

mwh wrote:And few newcomers to Greek would welcome a proper explanation of “aspect.” (That could occupy an entire linguistics course.) If you don’t like “It’s one o’clock,” try “Today is Thursday.” But I don't see a beginner having much trouble with the present indicative. Present infinitive is another matter. (Actually it's not, but to a beginner it will seem to be.)

I seems I misunderstood your point. “It’s one o’clock,” was a good example that forced me to think.

“Today is Thursday.” is for me easy to give an answer to. This time period has duration. Hence the point in time that is the now can exist and move forward in the uncompleted way that is the essence of the present. It is clearly imperfective.

It to me illustrates how the present is always imperfective and can never be perfective.

This all makes me think I have misunderstood the point you intended.


mwh wrote:I’m still not clear just what differences you think textbooks try to paper over.

Textbook writers have to make choices. It’s always possible to find fault with any textbook. But little use in griping, and still less if the gripe is ill-founded.

Best, Michael


Some textbooks claim the English simple past is an aorist. This is false.
Of course textbooks can't tell the student everything but they shouldn't say something that is untrue.

But this is a symptom of how they focus on teaching on how to translate rather than how to understand because the simple past may not be the equivalent of the aorist but it is often a good translation of the aorist.
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby mwh » Sat Apr 22, 2017 2:34 am

Of your chopping sentences, I think only “I have chopped up the old tree” would be perfect tense in Greek. (I’d use aorist or imperfect tense for the second, and present or imperfect tense for the third, according to context.) I’d say the Greek perfect always indicates a completed action (so there, you have learnt something new!), but one whose effect is understood to continue into the present.

I usually restrict the term “aorist” to the aorist tense in Greek, or occasionally in Latin to distinguish the two uses of the perfect there. This helps avoid confusion. I really don’t care to say what is aorist in English. I’m more comfortable using English than categorizing English usage. The same goes for Greek really.

HTH, Michael
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Re: the English simple past is not an aorist

Postby daivid » Mon Apr 24, 2017 8:10 am

mwh wrote:Of your chopping sentences, I think only “I have chopped up the old tree” would be perfect tense in Greek. (I’d use aorist or imperfect tense for the second, and present or imperfect tense for the third, according to context.) I’d say the Greek perfect always indicates a completed action (so there, you have learnt something new!), but one whose effect is understood to continue into the present.


I have learnt something new and as it has been something I have been wondering about you have my especial thanks.

mwh wrote:I usually restrict the term “aorist” to the aorist tense in Greek, or occasionally in Latin to distinguish the two uses of the perfect there. This helps avoid confusion. I really don’t care to say what is aorist in English. I’m more comfortable using English than categorizing English usage. The same goes for Greek really.

HTH, Michael

I agree that aorist should properly be used just for the forms of the verb which are normally called aorist. I probably should have used perfective -imperfective from the start but I was afraid that might cause confusion because it is so similar to perfect. Or, perhaps better, I could have stuck with completed and uncompleted.

As to an aorist in English isn't it so that English has no aorist. The past simple is what is left when the past continuous has taken out all the "I was chopping wood" situations. Hence it covers both completed actions and habitual actions. You can specify habitual in English: "I used to chop wood every morning" but "I chopped wood every morning" is still perfectly good English. Perhaps in another generation "used to" will take over the habitual but until that should occur the simple past covers more situations than would be covered by a true perfective tense.

As to "the exception proves the rule", it was perhaps a mistake to use a cliché here. A cliché is a ready made ready to hand bundle of meaning which is very convenient to use which is why they are so useful but also why they are so risky as it is so easy to throw them in when they don't really convey what you intend.

I wanted to say the your that your "It's one o'clock" had challenged me and had forced me to think very hard but did not actually refute what I was arguing. On reflection, using that cliché probably came over as dismissive which was not what I intended - it was a good example.

However, "it's the exception that proves the rule" is the established usage of many native speakers.
If when I have written some Ancient Greek you correct me quoting Smyth I take it seriously.
(Actually I take any correction from you seriously, without any further backing, as your feel for Greek seems to me to be as close to that of a native speaker as we are ever likely to encounter).
However, if you were able to quote Smyth at Xenophon to correct him in those cases where his usage does not fit with Smyth, how seriously would he take you?
Likewise for me Fowler.
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