BMCR 1997.11.13

1997.11.13, Two Studies in the Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek

, , Two studies in the semantics of the verb in classical Greek. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 160. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996. xii, 308 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9789004104600 $108.50.

The two studies in question are (Part I, pp. 1-118) ‘Aspect choice: time reference or discourse function?’ by Sicking, and (Part II, pp. 119-298) ‘The synthetic perfect in classical Greek’ by Sicking and Stork in collaboration. The book represents another of the extraordinary contributions to the crossover area between linguistics and the critical interpretation of texts made by Dutch scholars in the present century. Both studies in the present volume continue earlier work on the same subject by the authors. 1 Clearly-worded exposition, plenty of (politely worded) disagreement with standard views, masses of supporting examples and a slightly forbidding title constitute the style of the new Dutch school. The two studies go closely together, as both raise questions of verbal aspect and Aktionsart (or actio): the discussion in Part I is structured around the question, ‘What were the considerations which guided the speaker (writer) in his choice of an Aorist Stem (AS) or a Present Stem (PS)?’, while Part II queries the common interpretation of the perfect as (more or less) a narrative tense in the classical period. These questions are somewhat uncomfortable for most of us: they are extraordinarily basic to the Greek language, but when we read and teach Greek we generally fall back on the answers supplied at an early age by school grammars, and later reinforced by Kühner-Gerth and the scholarly work of trusted figures such as and Wackernagel and Chantraine. There is nothing wrong with this, except for the awareness that in many cases in reading a Greek text the traditional criteria cannot be forced to work (i.e., we do not understand the choice that the author has made), and one is therefore left in the unsatisfactory situation of having to suppose (for example) that there is an element of subjectivity in the choice between AS and PS of such delicacy that we cannot always hope to recapture it. This, of course, may be unsatisfactory but it is not impossible; and one thinks hard before rejecting Chantraine and Wackernagel (among others). Nevertheless, classical scholarship has built on the work of these scholars and moved on; furthermore, it has been enriched by new ways of thinking about language which have crossed over from the discipline of linguistics, and even by new discoveries: K. L. McKay in 1965 pointed out that new Menander discoveries had vitiated Chantraine’s statistics and hence his analysis of the Greek perfect. 2 A new suggestion for the interpretation of verbal aspect in Greek must be worth serious consideration, and classicists will not feel intimidated by the Sicking-Stork way of proceeding: there is very little linguistic jargon, and exhaustive, methodical use of quotation from Classical texts. Helpful summaries are included at fairly frequent intervals.

In Part I Sicking expands the argument of his earlier article, in which he challenged the general (if vaguely held) views on the difference between the aorist and present verbal stems. The point at issue: the most common ways of articulating the difference between AS and PS are (a) AS as simple action (punctual) versus PS as a process (durative); or (b) AS as completed action (perfective) versus PS as non-completed (durative). Sicking challenges these semantic oppositions along the same lines as in his earlier work. In the present study he applies his analysis (i) to past sub-clauses introduced by W(S, ἐπεί) and ἐπειδή, and (ii) to participle clauses, including genitive absolutes. In particular, he concentrates on refuting an important work by H. Hettrich 3 which (following Ruijgh in Autour de TE épique, 1971) attempts to analyze AS and PS in Herodotus along the following opposition: AS signifies that the verbal action is complete at the ‘moment donné’, while PS signifies a process that is not yet finished at this moment. This definition links verbal aspect closely to (relative) chronology: the ‘moment donné’ is given by the main clause in a temporal sentence, and the sub-clause will on this view signify either that the (subordinate) verbal action is simultaneous (PS), or that it is anterior and complete (AS). Sicking argues that this (and other ‘monolithic’ accounts) will not work. He proposes instead to distinguish between the ‘meaning’ (factual information) of a communication on the one hand, and (borrowing from discourse analysis) its organization and pragmatic function on the other. He believes that previous attempts to explain the AS opposition have had limited success precisely because they have concentrated on the meaning and ignored the discourse structure. He argues that information about the (relative) chronology of events must be gathered from the context, not from the verbal stems, and explains the AS contrast as a matter of emphasis and narrative structure within the larger communicational (or literary, if you prefer) context. Linguists, including Hettrich, have always sternly insisted on the importance of context in the study of verbal aspect, so there is nothing particularly startling in this declaration of principle. What is new is the amount of context and its ‘scientific’ application to verbal morphology: discourse analysis, as Sicking remarks, analyses the organization of language beyond the level of the sentence, and there are often cases where he (and Sicking-Stork in Part II) correct the contextually-based interpretation of a Greek sentence of an earlier scholar by reference to an even wider narrative context: what has happened previously in the story, or what outcome the author is setting us up for. The cash value of all this is that in Section 1 Sicking sets out to demonstrate that ἐπεί + AS marks a step in the narrative that is important in itself, while ἐπεί + PS merely points forward or in general sets the scene for the next important development. Similarly, in the case of participles AS foregrounds the verbal action in the narrative while PS participles ‘typically serve the purpose of preparing the audience for what will come next, the information conveyed owing its relevance to what is reported in the main clause’ (p. 42). As part of this exercise he argues that Hettrich and others are mistaken in seeing a tendency on the part of the subordinate verb to assimilate its stem that of the main verb. A satisfying part of Sicking’s approach (as with that of Sicking-Stork in Part II) is his ability to relate the Aktionsart of the verbs to their appearance in AS or PS. It has always been an odd and worrying feature of the ‘monolithic’ explanations that these two ingredients of verbal aspect, viz. the verbal stem and the semantic characteristics of the verb, were not systematically related (this is such a tricky issue that the terminology is scarcely agreed on). Sicking uses the terms punctual (e.g., ἐλθεῖν), terminative (αἰτεῖν) and durative (ἐλπίζειν): he demonstrates how verbs gravitate towards AS or PS in various contexts, and makes this part of his attempt to account for (what he sees as) the historic mix-up with relative chronology. In Section 2 he examines the effect of the postposition of subclauses and participles after the main verb. Section 3 (Preliminary Conclusion) and Section 4 (A Basic Value for AS versus PS) give a reasoned account of his position and might perhaps be read before Sections 1 & 2 by someone looking for a quick overview: Section 4 introduces the important notion of ‘focus function’ (associated with PS), and tackles those verbal lexemes where altering the stem really will alter the meaning (e.g., the conative imperfect of ‘terminative’ verbs such as πείθω). In Section 5 he applies his analysis to three extended passages of Greek prose (two from Hdt. and one from Thuc.). Section 6 is a brief conclusion and Section 7 is a sketchy examination of AS and PS in ‘dynamic’ infinitives (infinitives where stem is not narrowly related to tense, as in indirect speech) which draws on Stork’s book on the subject. Sicking’s account of AS and PS is interesting and persuasive: there are of course instances where readers may challenge his analysis of the narrative structure (this after all moves close to ‘subjective’ literary interpretation at times); but the gain over the old situation, where one was often at a complete loss to explain the author’s choice, is considerable. The study deserves careful consideration by all classicists interested in this issue.

In Part II Sicking and Stork challenge the opinio communis on the interpretation (and history) of the Greek perfect (by ‘synthetic’ they mean single-form perfects as opposed to the participle-plus-auxiliary of modern Greek, and English). About sixty pages of this section are dedicated to arguing their case; this is followed by over 100 pages of tables and indices giving the distribution (and analysis) of perfect forms in the tragedians, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Lysias, and Xenophon’s Opuscula. The Sicking-Stork view of the perfect, though radical, will not be as startling as their analysis of the PS opposition since the issues they consider have from time to time been raised by other scholars, 4 though not (so far as I know) in such a systematic manner. The tables in the back are necessary because they argue, probably rightly, that previous statistical analysis of the perfect is based on partial and misleading data. Discussion of the semantic value of the perfect (a synchronic issue) has generally been bound up with discussion of its evolution before and after the classical period since almost all scholars who have tackled the subject have detected a shift in its meaning between Homeric and Hellenistic Greek, roughly corresponding to a shift from being a verbal stem which designated state to one which designated past action (and thus became increasingly assimilated to the aorist tense). Sicking-Stork argue that the perfect at all stages in ancient Greek denotes present state. The argument is set out slightly more elegantly than in Part I, and takes in an extremely interesting discussion of the middle voice and an analysis of the interaction of the Aktionsart of different verbal lexemes with perfect (and/or middle) inflection.

In Section 1 (The Problem) the authors set out some of the commonly-held positions that they take issue with. These include the argument that by the fifth century the perfect was ‘resultative’ rather than pure stative, designating present-situation-as-the-result-of-past-action (a view almost universally adopted in the handbooks), and the ‘intensive’ perfect (πεφόβημαι) which has occasionally been identified as a by-product of the resultative (what action could πεφόβημαι point back to?). In Section 2 (Perfect and Middle Voice) they take a detour to consider the semantic πεφόβημαι of the middle as part of their investigation into the perfect. This is valuable for two reasons: first, it is time for a semantic re-evaluation of the middle; and second, the morphological contamination of the perfect with middle inflection has long been included in discussions of the perfect, but from a generally diachronic perspective. A synchronic analysis which relates the perfect, the middle, and the Aktionsart of the verbal lexemes is particularly valuable. Sicking-Stork argue that forms such as μαίνεται are ‘prototypical’ middles, while middles which take an accusative (ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα) are to be considered ‘peripheral’: the relevance to the perfect is that prototypical middles denote a present state (of the subject) and lack the feature ‘control’ (i.e. in the case of μαίνεται the human agent has no control over the ‘action’ of the verb, which explains the gradual assimilation of middle and passive). The feature ‘control’ proves to be vital for Section 3 (Four Types of Situations), where it is used along with the feature ‘change’ (for which contrast τέθηλε ‘no change’ with λέλοιπα ‘with change’) to divide verbal lexemes into four semantic categories which have different narrative properties. In Section 4 the authors return to the question of whether the perfect entered into the tense system in the fifth century. Here they make an interesting distinction between denotation and presupposition: a perfect form may presuppose an action in the past (in the case of verbal lexemes which include the feature ‘control’), but what it denotes is a present situation. Section 5 (Productivity, Use and Distribution of Different Forms of Perfect) examines the morphology of various perfect forms. In a curious remark on p. 176 they say (of ‘state’ verbs with both present and perfect, e.g. πεφόβημαι) that such perfects are an inheritance from archaic epic poetry. It is not clear what this could mean: perhaps merely that they are unproductive forms from an older period of the language. The authors’ suggestion that this type of perfect was felt to be a poetic idiom is inappropriate in the case of (for example) Aristophanic ἔστυκα.

The ‘classic’ account of the perfect given by Chantraine and others had already been called into question, and the present study, to my mind, is an important contribution to a new and better understanding of the perfect in particular and Greek verbal aspect in general.

1. In particular, Sicking’s recent article (‘The distribution of Aorist and Present tense stem forms in Greek, especially in the imperative’, Glotta 69, 1991), and Stork’s book on verbal aspect in Herodotus ( The Aspectual Usage of the Dynamic Infinitive in Herodotus, Groningen 1982).

2.’The Use of the Ancient Greek Perfect down to the Second Century AD’: BICS 12, 1-21.

3. Kontext und Aspekt in der altgriechischen Prosa Herodots (Göttingen 1976). Sympathetically reviewed by Rijksbaron ( Lingua [1978], 223-54) and Ruijgh ( Gnomon 51 [1979], 217-27).

4. E.g, by Mackay op. cit., and in BICS 27 (1980), 23-49. Donna Goldberg (Diss. Oxford 1997) has demonstrated that the perfect in Menander does not express anteriority like a narrative tense but assists in the structuring of the narrative.