A Note on the Semantics of the Aorist and Perfect

Here you can discuss all things Ancient Greek. Use this board to ask questions about grammar, discuss learning strategies, get help with a difficult passage of Greek, and more.
Post Reply
User avatar
Paul
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 700
Joined: Sun Jun 15, 2003 4:47 pm
Location: New York
Contact:

A Note on the Semantics of the Aorist and Perfect

Post by Paul » Sat Apr 01, 2006 8:30 pm

I recently discovered some interesting observations concerning the interpretation of the aorist and perfect tenses. Among linguists these observations are well-known. But I don't recall any discussion of them within our forums.

Yet now and then arises here the question, "What is the semantic difference between the aorist and the perfect?" We all (should) know the (more or less) textbook answer: the aorist discloses the action of the verb simply as occurring, "an action pure and simple" (Chantraine); the perfect describes a persistent state which follows from some prior action.

How then do these two sentences, one aorist (simple past), one perfect, differ in meaning:

I lost my keys.

I have lost my keys.

?

When I put this question to students (young and old) in my NT Greek class, no one can answer it to his satisfaction. But the fault isn't theirs. It is, in fact, very difficult to detect any differences when comparing such sentences in isolation, that is, detached from a real-world situation. I mean that in the mundane course of things sentences are accompanied by other sentences, knowledge of the world, the present situation (including the act of uttering the sentence), background assumptions, and other interpretive constraints. All these data provide context by which we interpret the meaning of a sentence.

I would answer my question as follows: the aorist "I lost my keys." implies what may well be a temporary condition. In fact, at the time of utterance, the keys may no longer be lost. This cannot be said for the perfect "I have lost my keys." Its use implies a persistent, if not permanent, state. More subtly, proper interpretation of the aorist seems to require context, whereas the perfect, giving only stative information, does not.

But this claim is better illustrated by a more realistic example:

Socrates felt cold. He lay down, gestured weakly to his friends, and closed his eyes. He moaned. It would soon be dawn.

This utterance is readily interpreted as follows: before dawn and all the while feeling cold, Socrates first lay down, then gestured, then closed his eyes; finally, he moaned. The context tells us that the last thing he did, still before dawn, was to moan. We don't know exactly when he moaned or how many times. But we do know that he moaned after lying down, gesturing, and closing his eyes.

If we now replace the aorist "moaned" with a perfect construction, e.g.,

Socrates felt cold. He lay down, gestured weakly to his friends, and closed his eyes. He had moaned. It would soon be dawn.

we could infer that Socrates' moaning occurred before, during, or after his lying down.

Thus the perfect permits inferences that do not, unlike the aorist, depend on the context.

Cordially,

Paul

User avatar
GlottalGreekGeek
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 903
Joined: Sun Dec 12, 2004 3:37 am
Location: Mountain View

Post by GlottalGreekGeek » Sun Apr 02, 2006 3:15 am

Thank you for the clear explaination. I myself have tried to explain the distinction to myself, but I am like your NT Greek class in never having come up with a satisfactory explaination.

*cough*

I myself tried to explain the distinction to myself, but I, like your NT Greek class, never came up with a satisfactory explaination.

Democritus
Textkit Fan
Posts: 331
Joined: Fri May 07, 2004 12:14 am
Location: California

Re: A Note on the Semantics of the Aorist and Perfect

Post by Democritus » Sun Apr 02, 2006 10:24 pm

Paul wrote:When I put this question to students (young and old) in my NT Greek class, no one can answer it to his satisfaction.
Maybe it's because English usage is subtle, and not consistent.

a) I lost my keys
b) I have lost my keys

c) I was in Madrid
d) I have been in Madrid

The difference between (a) and (b) is quite different than the distinction between (c) and (d). I would go so far as to say that (a) and (b) might be considered synonymous, in some regional dialects of English. An American speaker is a lot more likely to use (a) in scenarios where a British speaker would use (b). But that is not true of (c) and (d), which have a sharp difference in meaning.

The distinction between English past and present perfect does not necessarily mirror the distinction between Greek aorist and perfect, in all cases. In many cases it does, in many cases it doesn't.

Honestly, I think the English usage is a lot harder to grasp than the Greek.

Paul wrote:This cannot be said for the perfect "I have lost my keys." Its use implies a persistent, if not permanent, state.
I don't agree that this English phrase implies this. For some speakers of English, the phrase means "I just lost them a moment ago, it happened just now." For other speakers of English, there's not a lot of difference between the two.

English present perfect can be used to indicate a persistent state (like Greek perfect), but that is not the only usage.

e) I have become poor
f) I became poor

Am I still poor? If I say (e) the answer is probably yes, but if I say (f) then it's not so clear. In this case, English seems to mirror the Greek. But, again, the distinction between (e) and (f) is not necessarily the same as the distinction between (a) and (b). There's no need for it to be.

Try this one on:

g) I have been in Madrid for three days.
h) I have been in Madrid three times.

Same tense. Am I still in Madrid now? In the case of (g), yes. In the case of (h), maybe not. In some languages, (g) would be expressed with a present tense, and (h) would be expressed with a past tense. But English doesn't work this way -- we use present perfect in both cases, to mean two different things.

User avatar
GlottalGreekGeek
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 903
Joined: Sun Dec 12, 2004 3:37 am
Location: Mountain View

Re: A Note on the Semantics of the Aorist and Perfect

Post by GlottalGreekGeek » Mon Apr 03, 2006 12:51 am

Democritus wrote: g) I have been in Madrid for three days.

Same tense. Am I still in Madrid now? In the case of (g), yes.
Not necessarily. I have been in Italy for three weeks. I assure you that those three weeks were 2-3 years ago, and I am currently in California. Granted, in French this distinction would be more precise - I would either have to say "Je suis en Italie il y a trois semaines" (present tense - I am still in Italy) or "J'ai été en Italie pendant trois semaines" (perfect - I was in Italy for a period of three weeks). But English is not French.

Of course, perhaps my variety of English varies from yours.

User avatar
Paul
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 700
Joined: Sun Jun 15, 2003 4:47 pm
Location: New York
Contact:

Post by Paul » Mon Apr 03, 2006 2:05 am

Democritus wrote:
Paul wrote: a) I lost my keys
b) I have lost my keys

Democritus wrote:
Paul wrote:This cannot be said for the perfect "I have lost my keys." Its use implies a persistent, if not permanent, state.
I don't agree that this English phrase implies this. For some speakers of English, the phrase means "I just lost them a moment ago, it happened just now." For other speakers of English, there's not a lot of difference between the two.
Why does it matter that the keys were lost "a moment ago"? The point is that at the time of utterance they remain lost. You cannot make the same claim about the aorist. E.g., I get into the car and my wife says, "What took you so long?". I reply, "I lost my keys." (but they are no longer lost). In this context, having found my keys, it would be unnatural for me to say "I have lost my keys."
Democritus wrote:English present perfect can be used to indicate a persistent state (like Greek perfect), but that is not the only usage.

e) I have become poor
f) I became poor

Am I still poor? If I say (e) the answer is probably yes, but if I say (f) then it's not so clear. In this case, English seems to mirror the Greek. But, again, the distinction between (e) and (f) is not necessarily the same as the distinction between (a) and (b). There's no need for it to be.
I agree But I see this as wholly consistent with (b) and (a). Mind you, I don't want to be a prescriptivist. Speakers of American English may well have lost the sense of difference here.
Democritus wrote: Try this one on:

g) I have been in Madrid for three days.
h) I have been in Madrid three times.

Same tense. Am I still in Madrid now? In the case of (g), yes. In the case of (h), maybe not. In some languages, (g) would be expressed with a present tense, and (h) would be expressed with a past tense. But English doesn't work this way -- we use present perfect in both cases, to mean two different things.
I'm not sure what your point is. Of course there are different uses of the perfect. Following Comrie, (g) is an instance of the familiar "perfect of persistent situation" whose semantics are characteristic of the English perfect. We typically infer from this perfect that the state described persists into the present (but note GlottalGreekGeek's point). (h) is an example of the "experiential perfect": there is no necessary implication that I am still in Madrid.

Moreover, given the originary "past in present" sense of the perfect, it is hardly surprising that (g) and (h) can be construed in other languages with present and past tenses. I might also point out that the adverb "depuis" in "Je suis en Californie depuis trois jours." (a representative French instance of the type (g)) imparts to the present tense the sense of persistence from the past into the present. (Real French speakers: please correct my sentence if it's wrong!)

The deeper issue here is that of context. The main point of my post concerned the relative importance of context in the interpretation of the aorist and perfect.

Cordially,

Paul

User avatar
GlottalGreekGeek
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 903
Joined: Sun Dec 12, 2004 3:37 am
Location: Mountain View

Post by GlottalGreekGeek » Mon Apr 03, 2006 3:14 am

Paul wrote:I might also point out that the adverb "depuis" in "Je suis en Californie depuis trois jours."
*bangs head*

I knew I had made some error of this sort, but I didn't feel like grabbing my French grammar to check myself.

Democritus
Textkit Fan
Posts: 331
Joined: Fri May 07, 2004 12:14 am
Location: California

Re: A Note on the Semantics of the Aorist and Perfect

Post by Democritus » Mon Apr 03, 2006 2:51 pm

GlottalGreekGeek wrote:Of course, perhaps my variety of English varies from yours.
What sort of English would that be? :) Where are you from?

Post Reply