Pinkster, Harm (1942-) [1990], Latin Syntax and Semantics [info], xii, 320 p.: ill.; 24 cm. [word count] [Pinkster].
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11.1.3 Aspect

The notion `aspect' appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, first in Greek and later also in Latin linguistics, following the use of the notion `vid' in Slavic linguistics, where it had been introduced owing to the inadequacy of the category `tense'. It served, among other things, to explain differences between pairs of non-compound and compound verbs that may ostensibly be used to refer to the same actions, e.g. the paradigms of the Russian verbs meaning `to write' in table 11.4. The difference between these verbs was described as `in progress' (the left-hand column) vs. `gone by' (the right-hand column), or as `not (yet) completed' vs. `completed' (`imperfective' vs. `perfective'). Assuming this difference, one can also explain why the form ya napishú is not a present tense (comparable to ya pishú): a `gone by', `completed' present is difficult to imagine. Practically the form functions as a future.

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Table 11.4
Act. infinitivepisát'napisát'(`to write')
1st pers. sing imperf.ya pisállya napisáll(`I wrote')
Pres.ya pishú-(`I write')
Fut.ya búdu pisát'ya napishú(`I shall write')

The notions `aspect', `imperfective' and `perfective' also seemed useful for describing the semantic difference between the Latin perfect and imperfect. In this connection, scholars also pointed at the terminology used by the Greek and Latin grammarians, e.g. the Latin terms `praeteritum perfectum' and `praeteritum imperfectum'. `Perfective aspect' was ascribed to the perfect, `imperfective aspect' to the imperfect. We see that the notion `aspect', mainly used in Slavic grammar to explain differences between pairs of verbs, was introduced into Greek and Latin grammar in order to explain differences between forms of one and the same verb.

N.B.: In the preceding section I have stated that the terms `imperfective' and `perfective' are also used to describe properties of verbs. I return to this in crosssection 11.1.4 on p. 223.

The question of whether or not in Latin `aspect' `exists' or is necessary for the description of the uses of the various verb forms has led to a flood of scholarly publications. The communis opinio is that in an earlier stage of Latin aspect was probably or certainly a productive category, but that the Latin of the texts we have at our disposal contains few (or no) traces of this. In Classical Latin contemporaneousness and anteriority are the most important factors. There is a rather persistent tendency to explain statistically remarkable, idiomatic uses of certain verb forms as relics of an earlier aspectual system. An example of such an expression is (18):

(18) cuius ego iudicium, pace tua dixerim, longe antepono tuo (`Whose judgment, if I may say so with your permission, I value much more than yours', Cic. Tusc. 5.12)

In instances of this kind, dixerim cannot be taken as anterior to the present. More of these instances will be discussed below.

One explanation for the popularity of the aspectual view of the Latin tense system might be the unspoken wish to find in Latin a system similar to that found in Greek. Yet, the usefulness of the category `aspect' for Greek is by no means undisputed. [12] Moreover, an important difference between Latin and Greek is the fact that Greek almost always offers the language user a `choice' between pairs of verb forms. In Latin this is not the case (apart from the perfect and imperfect indicatives and some idiomatic uses). Cf. the Greek examples (19a–b) and (20a–b) of present and aorist imperatives and infinitives, respectively: [13]

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(19a) ἀναγνώσεται πρῶτον ὑμῖν τὸν τούτου νόμον, εἶτα τοὺς ἄλλους ... ἀναγίγνωσκε (`First he will read to you his law, then the other laws, … Please read', Dem. 24.39)

(19b) ἀνάγνωθι δὲ καὶ τούτους τοὺς νόμους (`And read those laws as well', Dem. 24.104)

(20a) … . . . οἱ μάγοι ἀνεβίβασαν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ πύργον καὶ ἀγορεύειν ἐκέλευον (`The Magi brought him up on to a tower and ordered him to speak', Hdt. 3.75.1)

(20b) κεῖνον . . . ἐκέλευον ἀναβάντα ἐπὶ πύργον ἀγορεῦσαι ὡς … (`They ordered him to go up on to a tower and declare that … ', Hdt. 3.74.3)

Another explanation may be found in the fact that it is not made very clear what exactly `aspect' is. It is usually described as different from tense, e.g. as a non-deictic temporal category covering phenomena such as `completeness', `iteration', etc. In Latin linguistics the notions `progress' and `completeness' are most often used. I will now further discuss these two notions.

The grammarian Priscian (sixth century AD) describes the value of the Latin imperfect and perfect as follows:

(21) si incipiam in praeterito versum scribere et imperfectum eum (scil. versum) relinquam tunc utor praeterito imperfecto dicens `scribebam versum'; … continuo enim scripto ad finem versu dico `scripsi versum' (`If in the past I begin writing a verse and I leave it unfinished, I use the praeteritum imperfectum and say "scribebam versum"; … for immediately after writing the entire verse I say "scripsi versum", Prisc. In G.L. 8. 52–3)

In this example of the perfect the notion `complete', `finished' is entirely clear. The example is, however, not representative. We are dealing with a `terminative' state of affairs and in such cases a `result' interpretation of the perfect is obvious. With other Object constituents with scribere or with other verbs this interpretation is less obvious, see (22) and (23), respectively:

(22) nostri praeceptores servum cervumque u et o litteris scripserunt (`My teachers wrote servus and cervus with uo' (i. e. seruos and ceruos), Quint. Inst. 1.7.26)

(23) tun heri hunc salutavisti? (`Have you greeted him yesterday?', Pl. Am. 717)

Examples (21)–(23) have in common that before the moment of speaking the state of affairs has `ended', is `over' or at least that the statement of the language user refers to a phase of a situation or event that has at that moment been finished. See also (24):

(24) satis … vixi: invictus enim morior (`I have lived long enough; for I die without having been defeated', Nep. Ep. 9.4)

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Here the speaker is not dead, but is speaking of the stretch of life he has lived until then (*satis vivebam would be absolutely impossible). (See further also examples (69)–(71) in crosssection 11.3.1. on p. 238). Evidence for the `endedness' of a state of affairs marked by a perfect form may be found in the distribution of quantifying expressions such as semel (`once'), bis (`twice'), ter (`thrice'). These occur with the perfect, not with the imperfect, e.g. (25a–b):

(25a) sed fui … bis in Bithynia (`But I have twice been in Bithynia', Cic. Planc. 84)

(25b * sed eram bis in Bithynia

Quantifying expressions of this kind can typically be applied in retrospect to ended states of affairs (see further crosssection 11.2.1.1.5 on p. 230).

Thus, inasmuch as Latin linguists have used the ancient grammarians' notion `endedness' to support an aspect theory, it is not clear what exactly is the difference between the notion `completeness' and the notion `anteriority' as mentioned in crosssection 11.1.2 above. To my mind, the difference is solely terminological. I conclude, therefore, that it would be better from a methodological point of view to explain as much as possible the various uses of the individual verb forms with the aid of the two-dimensional description of crosssection 11.1.2 rather than to use the notion `aspect' in isolated cases.

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Pinkster, Harm (1942-) [1990], Latin Syntax and Semantics [info], xii, 320 p.: ill.; 24 cm. [word count] [Pinkster].
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