Geoffrey Horrocks “Envoi” in The Greek Verb Revisited

Geoffrey Horrocks provides one of the most lucid concluding chapters of an academic volume I have read in recent memory so I wanted to provide a brief summary in hopes that readers might pick it up and attend to the essays in The Greek Verb Revisited (pages 626-35 in The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis; eds. Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch;Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016). This volume is a collection of papers presented at Cambridge University’s 2015 Linguistics and Greek Verb Conference. There several presenters addressed the current paradigm of the Greek verb, rooting in the Porter/Fanning debate. The key issue of the conference and this volume might be stated in the form of a question: To what degree is verbal aspect related to the subjective portray of temporality of the action from the viewpoint of the speaker? To get at the idea another way, the question might be stated: What weight should interpreters of texts place on an author/speaker’s choice of aspectual grammaticalization, aware that the idea in view could have been expressed by at least one other aspectual frame?

Horrocks notes that for Greek authors/speakers, being forced to make a choice between oppositional tense forms is not the same as being able to make such choices; not every verbal expression is the hard and fast choice of the author/speaker (627). Nonetheless each choice of aspect should be investigated as such, yet not without at least some reference to subjective time. Horrocks writes that “While viewpoint aspect is indeed an essentially ‘temporal’ category, it is one that has little or nothing to do with the actual temporal properties of the situation described, whether in terms of its location in time or of its duration/punctuality” (630). Horrocks suggests that lexical aspectuality more precisely expresses viewpoint than does grammaticalized aspectual opposition, the latter being vague and abstract (630). But oppositional choice still matters, a notion reinforced by the fact the Greek augment corresponds to secondary endings and the expression of past time (often framing the action from a perfective viewpoint) (631). Horrocks observes that oppositional grammatical aspect is so vague that when an aorist or present is out of its normal character (futuristic aorists and historical presents), “There is always a contextual cue for the listener/reader to suppress the unwanted component of meaning” (632).

What about the perfect tense form, the focus of several essays in the volume and perhaps the crux of grammatical aspect studies in Greek verbs? In what seems a bit of a sarcasm, Horrocks writes, “But if we simply understand the Greek perfect to require an eventuality to be understood as homogeneous, non terminative, and continuing at least up to a temporal reference point (usually the present), and then allow any further characterization of that eventuality, together with the exact nature of the subject’s participation in it, to be determined by lexical factors, this definition could indeed apply equally well to the perfects of all verbs” (633). It is thus complexive. Horrocks notes that this matrix of ideas results in the perfect tense-form, on occasion, communicating a passive nuance such that the subject is the carrier of the property in view even when the subject is in the active voice (634). The perfect is thus “a facultative option that may be deployed for clarity and explicitness rather than a true third choice in the grammaticalized system of viewpoint aspect” (634).