The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby RandallButh » May 13th, 2011, 4:20 am

Consider Albert Rijksbaron, "Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek", 3rd ed, 2002, p. 24
"The historic present is only found with terminative (telic), not with stative (atelic) verbs."

This is a telling observation. (No comments on punning, Mark!)
It hints as to why and how the 'historic present' is able to function
pragmatically against its grammatical aspect.
Yes, the present indicative can commonly be used
PRAGMATICALLY against its SEMANTIC aspect.

The present indicative is aspectually 'imperfective'. However, when
used in past contexts it gets part of its rhetorical force by being
used against its semantic meaning.
Cf. Mark 8:22-23
ἔρχονται 'are coming' >> as if 'still on the way', but contextually this is complete 'came'.
φέρουσιν 'are carrying' >> as if 'still bringing', but contextually complete 'brought'.
παρακαλοῦσιν 'are begging' >> as if 'in the process of begging', but contextually complete 'begged'.
(Then with a new, central subject)
ἐπιλαβόμενος ... ἐξήνεγκεν 'he (having taken) ... brought out' >> this is definitely after all of the events in the above sequence, and these events 'taken ... brought out' are contextually complete and are presented as contextually complete.

ἐξήνεγκεν becomes the first main-line, foregrounded, act of the story, followed by a backgrounded conversation introduced by
imperfects (also against their aspectual 'grain'--for demotion, in order to lead up to the main events)
and leading on to main line, foregrounded, aorist pasts for the healing and other main points of the story (including an imperfect, correctly describing the situation 'open-endedly').

Now what is important about Rijksbaron's comments is that it explains how the historic present is able to function.
Stative verbs do not have any obvious 'endpoint' or telic completion. Consequently, they are not candidates for use as historic presents, since they cannot show themselves as 'against the grain'. Their grammatical irony would not be visible.

Telic verbs and telic verbal constructions, on the other hand, have a natural completion and they can be evaluated in a context. 'Coming' can have a natural, telic interpretation as arrival to a particular place. By mentioning the place of arrival and contextually showing that the arrival 'happened', an author can extract extra rhetorical effect by putting the verb in an aspect that implies that the arrival had not yet happened.
It is a kind of grammatical irony.
To repeat, it is a "telic" verb, a verb with an 'endpoint', that can be seen as to whether or not the endpoint was achieved. Because of that, a telic verb can be used with ironic aspect.
They can be presented as if they had not yet achieved their endpoint even though it is obvious in the context that they did.

Greeks loved it.

People following 'aspect-only-theory' don't get it. This lack of understanding of a basic Greek grammatical irony is a relatively new digression in NT interpretation, fortunately limited to the last two decades and to a minority of practioners. This lack of appreciation of the historical present will eventually clear itself up and disappear. And all the practioners reading the GNT will once again appreciate the grammatical irony and rhetoric.

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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby Jonathan Robie » May 13th, 2011, 8:04 am

I haven't looked at this for years, the first useful account I ever saw on aspect in New Testament Greek using modern linguistics was Mari Broman Olsen's thesis - Rod Decker has a summary of that thesis on his site.

It's important to account for both lexical aspect and grammatical aspect, and to explain the relationship between the two. It sounds like Rijksbaron is using a model that is similar to Mari's, and both believe that Greek gramaticalizes both tense and aspect. How different are their models?

For English, Beth Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation makes it easy to quickly identify the properties of verbs, which then makes it easy to look for examples where a particular grammatical structure is used with a verb that has a particular lexical aspect.

Are similar lists of verbs available for Greek? I would find that valuable.
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby Jonathan Robie » May 13th, 2011, 9:05 am

RandallButh wrote:Yes, the present indicative can commonly be used
PRAGMATICALLY against its SEMANTIC aspect.

The present indicative is aspectually 'imperfective'. However, when
used in past contexts it gets part of its rhetorical force by being
used against its semantic meaning.


For those who haven't read this kind of stuff: one of the things linguists do is try to construct sentences where there is tension between two different things that indicate aspect, and see which one wins.

Pragmatic implicature basically means the context and the assumptions we make about the world around us and the communication that is taking place. In English, if we know that someone is describing a past event, and they use present tense, we still know that it is in the past:

"So today, this woman walks into my store, and she's wearing a bright pink blazer ..."

The present tense is vivid and imperfective. You see yourself in the moment.

The pragmatic implicature says it's in the past, the result of using a present tense in a context that indicates the past is a historical present. So ... does that mean that the present tense doesn't indicate time at all? Or merely that it can be overruled by the context and what we know about the world and what is being communicated?

RandallButh wrote:Consider Albert Rijksbaron, "Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek", 3rd ed, 2002, p. 24
"The historic present is only found with terminative (telic), not with stative (atelic) verbs."

This is a telling observation. (No comments on punning, Mark!)
It hints as to why and how the 'historic present' is able to function
pragmatically against its grammatical aspect.


There's a pretty good discussion of Telicity in Wikipedia.

In linguistics, telicity (from the Greek τέλοϛ, meaning "end" or "goal") is the property of a verb or verb phrase that presents an action or event as being complete in some sense. A verb or verb phrase with this property is said to be telic, while a verb or verb phrase that presents an action or event as being incomplete is said to be atelic.


In English, I don't think the historical present requires a telic verb:

"Yesterday she believes he's the best thing since sliced toast, now she believes he's a complete jerk."

I wonder if there are examples of the historical present with atelic verbs in Greek.

RandallButh wrote:Cf. Mark 8:22-23
ἔρχονται 'are coming' >> as if 'still on the way', but contextually this is complete 'came'.
φέρουσιν 'are carrying' >> as if 'still bringing', but contextually complete 'brought'.
παρακαλοῦσιν 'are begging' >> as if 'in the process of begging', but contextually complete 'begged'.
(Then with a new, central subject)
ἐπιλαβόμενος ... ἐξήνεγκεν 'he (having taken) ... brought out' >> this is definitely after all of the events in the above sequence, and these events 'taken ... brought out' are contextually complete and are presented as contextually complete.

ἐξήνεγκεν becomes the first main-line, foregrounded, act of the story, followed by a backgrounded conversation introduced by
imperfects (also against their aspectual 'grain'--for demotion, in order to lead up to the main events)
and leading on to main line, foregrounded, aorist pasts for the healing and other main points of the story (including an imperfect, correctly describing the situation 'open-endedly').


Nice.

RandallButh wrote:Now what is important about Rijksbaron's comments is that it explains how the historic present is able to function.
Stative verbs do not have any obvious 'endpoint' or telic completion. Consequently, they are not candidates for use as historic presents, since they cannot show themselves as 'against the grain'. Their grammatical irony would not be visible.

Telic verbs and telic verbal constructions, on the other hand, have a natural completion and they can be evaluated in a context. 'Coming' can have a natural, telic interpretation as arrival to a particular place. By mentioning the place of arrival and contextually showing that the arrival 'happened', an author can extract extra rhetorical effect by putting the verb in an aspect that implies that the arrival had not yet happened.
It is a kind of grammatical irony.
To repeat, it is a "telic" verb, a verb with an 'endpoint', that can be seen as to whether or not the endpoint was achieved. Because of that, a telic verb can be used with ironic aspect.


The idea of "ironic aspect" is new to me. Is this a term Rijksbaron uses? Is it meant to imply there is actually a sense of irony?
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby RandallButh » May 13th, 2011, 9:41 am

grammatical irony is my own term as far as I know.

I thought it might help 'aspect-only' people see what they are missing and how they are skewing the Greek language into what it isn't.
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby Jonathan Robie » May 13th, 2011, 10:34 am

RandallButh wrote:grammatical irony is my own term as far as I know.

I thought it might help 'aspect-only' people see what they are missing and how they are skewing the Greek language into what it isn't.



One problem I have with the "aspect-only camp" is that there's no testable theory, and no systematic explanation of how the verb actually works. As I said many years ago,

It's not use to say that unless you can identify what these factors are.
When I read Porter, I often get the feeling that he is saying that the
context overrules whatever phenomenon he is discussing. If that's true,
then he should stop writing about that phenomenon and describe some
phenomenon in the context that has some predictive value for the
interpretation of a verb's meaning. Porter likes to dismiss other people's
theories with counterexamples, but he doesn't really propose a testable
theory of his own, which means that he doesn't really give me any way to
evaluate whether what he says is true.

Naturally, context is important, but to make useful statements about
context and aspect, you have to identify what these contextual factors are
and how they contribute to the aspect of a verb. I think Mari Broman Olsen
has done the best job of this. For instance, she discusses in some depth
how contextual implications about the aspect of a verb interact with
syntactic aspect and lexical aspect. She also provides a broad view of
aspect in many languages. Fanning has much more comprehensive treatment of
aspect in the New Testament, with in-depth analysis of many passages - his
theory is not as strong as Mari's, but his treatment of the passages is
extraordinarily helpful.


Until the aspect-only people explain the interaction between context, lexical aspect, and grammatical aspect - and in a way we can test with examples - it's not much of a theory. If they want to radically change the way we understand the Greek language, they need to produce a falsifiable theory, and provide strong evidence to support it.
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby MAubrey » May 13th, 2011, 1:02 pm

Jonathan Robie wrote:One problem I have with the "aspect-only camp" is that there's no testable theory, and no systematic explanation of how the verb actually works. As I said many years ago,

It's not use to say that unless you can identify what these factors are.
When I read Porter, I often get the feeling that he is saying that the
context overrules whatever phenomenon he is discussing. If that's true,
then he should stop writing about that phenomenon and describe some
phenomenon in the context that has some predictive value for the
interpretation of a verb's meaning. Porter likes to dismiss other people's
theories with counterexamples, but he doesn't really propose a testable
theory of his own, which means that he doesn't really give me any way to
evaluate whether what he says is true.

Naturally, context is important, but to make useful statements about
context and aspect, you have to identify what these contextual factors are
and how they contribute to the aspect of a verb. I think Mari Broman Olsen
has done the best job of this. For instance, she discusses in some depth
how contextual implications about the aspect of a verb interact with
syntactic aspect and lexical aspect. She also provides a broad view of
aspect in many languages. Fanning has much more comprehensive treatment of
aspect in the New Testament, with in-depth analysis of many passages - his
theory is not as strong as Mari's, but his treatment of the passages is
extraordinarily helpful.


Until the aspect-only people explain the interaction between context, lexical aspect, and grammatical aspect - and in a way we can test with examples - it's not much of a theory. If they want to radically change the way we understand the Greek language, they need to produce a falsifiable theory, and provide strong evidence to support it.


Agreed.

Olsen, though, attempts to find some middle ground between Fanning and Porter. She rejects the existence of tense as a viable category for the "aorist" and the "present" verbal form on the basis of an extremely (and I'd say oddly) strict division between semantics and pragmatics--one that Con Campbell wholeheartedly jumps on. Beyond that her actual system for aktionsart is extremely close to Fanning because both ultimately rely upon Vendler (Verbs and Times, 1957).

None of the people who have published on the HP and aspect issues so far (with the exception of Randal, Steve Runge [The Aspect of the Historical Present Indicative in Narrative], and Levinsohn) have recognized that the division between semantics and pragmatics is not so clean cut (personally, I'm quite close to rejecting it in its entirety).

My own thesis is on this subject. Hopefully, it will be a useful contribution.
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby Jonathan Robie » May 13th, 2011, 1:20 pm

MAubrey wrote:Olsen, though, attempts to find some middle ground between Fanning and Porter. She rejects the existence of tense as a viable category for the "aorist" and the "present" verbal form on the basis of an extremely (and I'd say oddly) strict division between semantics and pragmatics--one that Con Campbell wholeheartedly jumps on. Beyond that her actual system for aktionsart is extremely close to Fanning because both ultimately rely upon Vendler (Verbs and Times, 1957).

None of the people who have published on the HP and aspect issues so far (with the exception of Randal, Steve Runge [The Aspect of the Historical Present Indicative in Narrative], and Levinsohn) have recognized that the division between semantics and pragmatics is not so clean cut (personally, I'm quite close to rejecting it in its entirety).

My own thesis is on this subject. Hopefully, it will be a useful contribution.


How far along are you on your thesis? This is an area that I'm very interested in, but I haven't kept up since 2003 or so.

I downloaded Runge's paper and Vendler's paper - thanks for the links. What should I read from Randall?
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby MAubrey » May 13th, 2011, 3:01 pm

Randall's article was: “Mark's use of the historic present,” Notes on Translation 65 (1982): 7-13.

As for my thesis, I'm currently working on literature survey and organizing my corpus. I plan on drafting chapters dealing with the data by July or August (hopefully). My completion goal is spring 2012.
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby Jonathan Robie » May 13th, 2011, 3:39 pm

MAubrey wrote:Randall's article was: “Mark's use of the historic present,” Notes on Translation 65 (1982): 7-13.


Is this available online?

MAubrey wrote:As for my thesis, I'm currently working on literature survey and organizing my corpus. I plan on drafting chapters dealing with the data by July or August (hopefully). My completion goal is spring 2012.


I hope you'll post insights you pick up along the way!
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: The Aspect of Historical Present 'Against the Grain'

Postby RandallButh » May 13th, 2011, 3:43 pm

the division between semantics and pragmatics is not so clean cut (personally, I'm quite close to rejecting it in its entirety


You can't 'reject' it. They are parameters, fields. That fact that pieces of language interact in both dimensions doesn't drop their usefulness or validity. Like tense-aspect-mood. One doesn't drop them just because some languages mix them like the particle-wave nature of light.
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