Pinkster, Harm (1942-) [1990], Latin Syntax and Semantics [info], xii, 320 p.: ill.; 24 cm. [word count] [Pinkster].
Previous Sub2Sect

Next Sub2Sect

11.3.1 Imperfect and perfect as background and foreground tenses

`Perfecto procedit, imperfecto insistit oratio' (`In the perfect the text moves on, in the imperfect it stands still'). The use of the perfect as the tense for successive actions in the foreground and of the imperfect as the tense for accompanying circumstances in the background has long been recognized for Latin, and has parallels in many languages. [34] The use of the imperfect as a background tense is a result of its value, viz. to characterize a predication as taking place at and contemporaneous with a certain moment in the past. Predications marked by the imperfect thus constitute the framework within which other events and situations occur. In contexts in which one or more predications in the imperfect are followed by a predication in the perfect the latter will be interpreted as the incident that takes place in a situation in the past (see example (68a)), just as a cum-clause in the so-called cum-inversum construction is the incident (see example (68b)):

(68a) tantos illa suo rumpebat pectore questus: / Aeneas celsa in puppi iam certus eundi/carpebat [35] somnos rebus iam rite paratis. / huic se forma dei … obtulit (`Such were the wails that kept bursting from her heart. But Aeneas, now that he was resolved on going, was snatching sleep on his vessel's high stern, all having been duly prepared. To him there appeared the vision of a god …', Verg. A. 4.553–7)

(68b) iamque hoc facere noctu apparabant cum matres familiae repente in publicum procurrerunt flentesque proiectae ad pedes suorum omnibus precibus petierunt ne … (`And they were already doing this at night, when the wives suddenly came running out into the open and, lying weeping at the feet of their relatives, implored them with prayers not to …', Caes. Gal. 7.26.3)

(68c) tantus repente terror invasit, ut, cum Lentulus consul ad aperiendum aerarium venisset …, protinus … profugeret. Caesar enim adventare iam iamque et adesse eius equites falso nuntiabantur (`Such a panic suddenly seized them that when the consul Lentulus came to open the treasury he fled immediately. For it had incorrectly been reported that Caesar was approaching and that his cavalry had already arrived', Caes. Civ. 1.14.1)

The relations between (a) preceding predication(s) in the imperfect and (a) following predication(s) in the perfect are often indicated explicitly, e.g. with connectors such as igitur, ergo (`therefore'). In contexts where the order is reversed, so first a perfect and then one or more imperfects, the predication in

-- 238 --

the imperfect will often be interpreted as offering additional information or a motive. [36] This can be made explicit by connectors such as nam, enim (`for'), e.g. example (68c). The relation between a predication in the imperfect preceding or following a predication in the perfect may also be compared with the relation between a `participium coniunctum' or ablative absolute construction with a present participle and a main predication (in the perfect).

A predication in the perfect refers to an event or situation which is presented by the speaker, from his situation, as `ended', anterior. If the context does not contain any further information, a series of predications will be interpreted as referring to events that have occurred successively (without overlapping one another). See example (50):

(50) Orgetorix … suam familiam … coegit et omnes clientes … conduxit. per eos … se eripuit (`O. gathered all his retainers and assembled all his clients. Thanks to them he escaped from …', Caes. Gal. 1.4.2)

In a series of predications in the imperfect, however, the predications can overlap; as a rule, they are not intended as successive, e.g. example (69):

(69) (Caesar) Aeduos … in dicione videbat Germanorum teneri eorumque obsides esse apud Ariovistum … intellegebat; quod … turpissimum … arbitrabatur … Germanos consuescere Rhenum transire … videbat. Neque sibi homines … barbaros … temperaturos existimabat quin …; quibus rebus quam maturrime occurrendum putabat (`He could see that the Aedui were fast bound in subjection to the Germans and he was aware that their hostages were with Ariovistus. This he deemed to be an utter disgrace. He could see that the Germans were becoming gradually accustomed to cross the Rhine. Nor did he suppose that the barbarians would stop. All this, he felt, must be faced without a moment's delay', Caes. Gal. 1.33.2–4)

We can justifiably suppose that non-successive events or situations–unless the context offers special information–must be expressed in the imperfect, e.g. (70):

(70) (Mercurius) hinc toto praeceps se corpore ad undas / misit avi similis, quae circum litora, circum / piscosos scopulos humilis volat aequora iuxta / haud aliter terras inter caelumque volabat / litus harenosum ad Lybiae, ventosque secabat / (`Hence with his whole frame Mercury sped sheer down to the waves like a bird, which round the shores, round the fish-haunted cliffs, flies low near to the waters. Even thus between earth and sky flew Cyllene's nursling to Libya's sandy shore and cut the winds', Verg. A. 4.253–7)

Volabat in (70) does not follow upon se misit; it is a specification of the way in which Mercury was flying, rather than a factual statement that he was flying.

-- 239 --

It is the function of the imperfect to characterize a predication as `going on in the past'. If a story or an episode begins with one or more imperfects, the reader expects certain actions to take place within the framework thus created. The imperfect is, therefore, a very suitable beginning for a fairy - tale, as in (71):

(71) erant in quadam civitate rex et regina (`In a certain city there were a King and a Queen', Apul. Met. 4.28)

Conversely, the imperfect may also be impossible, e.g. (72)–(73):

(72) Samia mihi mater fuit; ea habitabat Rhodi (`My mother came from Samos; she lived on Rhodes', Ter. Eu. 107)

(73) apud Helvetios longe nobilissimus fuit et ditissimus Orgetorix (`Among the Helvetians the noblest man by far and the most wealthy was Orgetorix', Caes. Gal. 1.2.1)

It would be strange, and at any rate something completely different, to begin (72) with `once upon a time I had a mother from Samos', and in (73) to say that at a certain moment Orgetorix, who has not yet been mentioned, was the most wealthy man; in both cases, the reader would want to know: `what happened then?'

It goes without saying that instances in which one of the two verb forms is impossible give important information as to the specific value of each form. Further research is required on this point.

Previous Sub2Sect

Next Sub2Sect


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