The Nature and Use of the Perfect Tense in Ancient Greek |
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Ancient Greece

The Nature and Use of the Perfect Tense in Ancient Greek

1) Introduction:

This article explains the use of the Greek Perfect tense within the structure of Greek tense forms in general, and indicates how the Greek Perfect differs from the Latin Perfect tense.

2) Tense forms:

In both classical languages, and indeed in English, verb tense systems provide a combination of two dimensions: a) they indicate the time of the action which the verb describes, i.e. whether it is past, present or future time – in relation to time, verbs are either primary (present and future) or secondary/ historic (past); and b) the kind of action which has occurred, i.e. its nature or character – whether it is momentary or continuing, and whether it is completed or incomplete. The second of these dimensions in Greek grammar is known as ‘Aspect’, i.e. how the action of the verb is viewed. The name comes from the Latin verb “aspicio”, I catch sight of, I look at. While in Latin the tense of a verb is most important, in Greek Aspect takes priority. For comprehensive details of the overall tense system, readers are referred to the article, “The Tense of Verbs; a suggested structure,” published on this blogspot on 23rd November 2010. The rest of this article concentrates on Aspect and the Perfect tense.

3) Aspect:

In Greek verbs are differentiated into three Aspects:

i) The Progressive (or Imperfective), where the action is viewed as a continuing process, and thus incomplete, e.g. οἱ φύλακες τὰς πύλας κλείουσιν. (The guards are shutting the gates.)

ii) The Aorist, where the action is viewed as a simple event or fact, e.g. οἱ φύλακες τὰς πύλας ἔκλεισαν. (The guards shut the gates). Aorist means “indefinite” and comes from the Greek word “ἀόριστος” (unlimited). In the case of the Aorist Aspect, the action is considered incomplete, but only in the sense that it is happening at a particular moment in time and it is unclear whether it is continuing or will be repeated, or not.

iii) The Perfective, where the action is seen as a state, and thus completed but with its result continuing, e.g. οἱ φύλακες τὰς πύλας κέκλεινται. (The gates have been shut.) The verb in this case is in the Perfect tense. The name comes from the Latin verb “perficio”, (I finish, or I complete). However, in English Greek Perfects are often best translated by the Present tense, i.e. in the case of this example, “The gates are shut.” (For further examples, see section 6 below.)

4) The Perfect tense in Greek.

The Perfect (or Present Perfective) tense in Greek denotes or records an enduring state or condition in present time which is the consequence of an action completed in the past. Most Greek verbs form their Perfect tense by “reduplication”, i.e. repetition of the first consonant of the stem of their first syllable, and add “-κα” or “-α” to the stem. So the Perfect Active form of the paradigmatic verb “λύω”, I loosen, I free, is “λελύκα”, its infinitive is “λελυκέναι”, and its participle is “λελυκώς, λελυκυῖα, λελυκός”. The Perfect Middle or Passive of “λύω” also requires reduplication and has the ending “-μαι”; e.g.”λέλυμαι”, I ransom (Middle), I am freed (Passive), with an infinitive ” λελύσθαι”, and a participle, “λέλυμένος, -η, -ον”. Here are some examples of the use of the Perfect tense:

a) οἱ δοῦλοι τοὺς βοῦς ἤδη λελύκασιν. The slaves have already loosened the oxen. (Indicative Active)

b) φοβούμεθα μὴ οἱ δοῦλοι τοὺς βοῦς οὐκ ἤδη λελυκότες ῶσιν. We are afraid that the slaves have not loosened the oxen. (Subjunctive Active)

c) ἤρετο εἰ οἱ δοῦλοι τοὺς βοῦς οὐκ ἤδη λελυκότες εἶεν. He asked whether the slaves had already loosened the oxen. (Optative Active)

d) λέγει τοὺς δούλους τοὺς βοῦς οὐκ ἤδη λελυκέναι. He says that the slaves have already loosened the oxen. (Active Infinitive)

e) εἶδε τοὺς δούλους τοὺς βοῦς οὐκ ἤδη λελυκότας. He saw that the slaves had already loosened the oxen. (Active Participle)

f) οἱ Βόες τῷ δούλω ἤδη λέλυνται. The oxen have already been loosened by the slave. (Indicative Passive.)

g) εἶπε τοὺς Βόας τῷ δούλω ἤδη λελύσθαι. He said that the oxen had already been loosened by the slave. (Passive infinitive.)

h) οἱ Βόες τῷ δούλῳ λελυμένοι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἠλαύνοντο. After the oxen had been loosened by the slave, they were driven from the field. (Passive Participle.)

In English the Perfect tense is usually expressed by the use of the auxiliary verb “have”. In complex sentences where the Perfect tense is used in the subordinate clause or phrase, it describes an action which necessarily occurred prior to the action of the main verb. Where the main verb is in a past tense, i.e. in examples c), e), g), and h) above, the Perfect is usually translated with the word “had”.

Sometimes Greek Perfects emphasise strongly that the result of the action is continuing, e.g.

i) γέγραφα γέγραφα. What I have written, I have written (sc. so that’s that).

j) ἔγνωκα. I have discovered (sc. and so now I know).

The Perfect Passive is more commonly found than the Perfect Active. This is probably because it often more important to indicate that the subject of passive action is still in an unchanged relation to the action than that the subject of the action is. For instance in the case of examples a) and f) above, the probable main focus of both sentences is the state or condition of the oxen rather than that of the slave, and it is perhaps more natural therefore to express the action in the Passive voice, i.e. in example f) than in the Active, i.e. example a).

5) The use of the Perfect tense in Latin.

The Latin Perfect does the work of what are in both Ancient Greek and in English the work of two separate tenses: 1) the simple Past tense which is used in recounting past events, but which has no implications in relation to continuance or repetition, i.e. what is usually called the Aorist in Greek and the Past Historic in English. 2) the Perfect tense as described above which states the present and enduring effect of a past action, i.e. the equivalent of the Greek Perfect. These two tenses are very different. 1) is a historic tense and refers to past time, whereas 2) is a primary tense and relates to present time. The words “Librum celavi” could, therefore, either mean “I hid the book” at some time in the past but it is unclear whether the book is still hidden or not; or “I have hidden the book”, which implies that I have completed the act of hiding the book and it is still hidden. These two uses are sometimes distinguished as 1) the Past Perfect, and 2) the Present Perfect. Only the sense will make it clear in which of these two ways a Latin Perfect should be translated. In practice, though, the use of the Past Perfect appears far more often in classical Latin than that of the Present Perfect. This is because so much extant Latin, whether prose or poetry, is annalistic, i.e. it recounts past events, while the Primary tenses are likely to be more common in direct speech, of which little record survives.

The use of the Present Perfect, representing a present state resulting from a past action, is, in fact, relatively rare in Latin. In poetry, however, it is sometimes used to denote past existence which has now ceased, e.g. “Fuimus Troes; fuit Ilium”. We have been Trojans (sc. and are no longer); Troy has been (sc. and does not exist any more) – Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Another famous example of this usage is Cicero’s laconic statement after the execution of the five Catilinarian conspirators: “Vixerunt”. They have lived, i.e. they are dead.

The regular need for Latin to use the Perfect tense to denote the simple past is clearly anomalous, since the essential meaning of “Perfect” is “completed”, and there is usually no implication of completion in such statements of past events. The lack of a true Aorist tense in Latin is strange, and suggests perhaps the unexplained loss or disappearance of a Latin Aorist at some point in the distant past.

6. The employment of the Greek Perfect with a Present tense meaning.

To return to the Perfect tense in Greek, it is important to appreciate its use to express a Present tense meaning, and the way in which many Greek Perfects are often better translated into an English Present. A simple example of this is τέθαπται, which, if translated literally, means, “He has been buried”, but is better translated, “He is buried”. Another example is: αἱ πύλαι κέκλεινται. Literally, “The gates have been closed”, but often translated, “The gates are shut”.

The list below is of Greek verbs, the Perfect of which is often translated in the Present tense.

ἀναμιμνήσκω, I remind (someone). Perfect: μέμνημαι. I have reminded myself = I remember.

ἀποθνῃσκω, I die. Perfect: τέθνηκα. I have died = I am dead.

βαίνω, I step. Perfect: βέβηκα. I have taken a step = I stand, I stand firm, I am set.

γίγνομαι, I become. Perfect: γέγονα. I have become = I am.

ἵστημι, I have made (someone) stand (transitive). Perfect (intrans.): ἕστηκα. I have stood up = I stand.

κτάομαι, I gain. Perfect: κέκτημαι. I have gained = I possess.

λύω, I loosen, free. Perfect (Passive): λέλυμαι. I have been freed = I am free.

ὑπολαμβάνω, I understand. Perfect: ὑπείληφα. I have understood = I suppose.

φύω, I grow. Perfect: πέφυκα, I have grown = I am by nature.

Apart from the above verbs, there are other verbs, the Present tense of which does not appear in Attic Greek, and where the Perfect tense takes its place:

(δείδω), I fear. Perfect form: δέδοικα: fear has come upon me = I fear, I am afraid.

(ἔθω), I am accustomed. Perfect form: εἴωθα, I am accustomed to + infinitive.

(εἴκω), I seem, I am like. Perfect form: ἔοικα, I am like, I am likely to + infinitive.

(ἰδ-), I see. Perfect form: οἴδα, I have discovered, I have found out = I know.

7. Other tenses in the Perfective Aspect.

Apart from the Perfect tense, there are two other Greek tenses that fall within the Perfective Aspect: a) the Future Perfect, which is a primary tense; and b) the Pluperfect, which is a secondary or historic tense. A brief summary of the use of these tenses is provided below:

a) The Future Perfect. While the Future Tense usually expresses a momentary act in future time, e.g. κληθήσεται, literally “He will be called” = He will be given the name”, the Future Perfect expresses a future state, e.g. κεκλήσεται, literally, “He will be called” = “His name will be”. In Greek the Future Perfect is rare, and, indeed, in the Active Voice no distinctive future perfect inflexion actually exists. In Latin, the Future Perfect is used to express an action which will be complete in the future; if two future actions are spoken of, one of which will happen before the other, the prior one will be in the Future Perfect and the latter one in the Future, e.g. “ubi viderit, ridebit,” “He will laugh when he sees (lit. will have seen)”, and, as this example shows, the Future Perfect in Latin is frequently translated by the Present tense in English. In Greek the Future Perfect is concerned with Aspect not with the order of time. So, with regard to this last example, in Greek it would be expressed, “ὅταν ἴδῃ, γελάσεται”, i.e. literally, “Whenever he sees, he will laugh”, i.e. a Present Subjunctive rather than a Future Perfect, followed by a Future.

b) The Pluperfect (or Past Perfective) tense. The Pluperfect records an action or a state that existed in the past as the result of some other action which occurred at a time still more remote. In English it is usually translated with the use of the auxiliary verb “had”. The Pluperfect can usually be identified by an augment denoting past time, and reduplication denoting the Perfective Aspect, e.g. ἐλελύκη (I had loosened, I had freed). Examples:

i) οἰ δοῦλοι τοὺς βοῦς ἐλελύκεσαν πρὶν καταδῦναι τὸν ἥλιον. The slaves had loosened the oxen before the sun set. (Pluperfect Active)

ii) οἱ βόες ἐλέλυντο πρὶν καταδῦναι τὸν ἥλιον. The oxen had been loosened before the sun set. (Pluperfect Passive)

While the use of the word “had” often denotes a verb in the Pluperfect tense, this use of “had” needs to be distinguished from its use to denote a verb in the Perfect tense which appears in a subordinate clause or phrase where the main verb is in a past tense. (See paragraph 4 above.)

Although more common in Greek than the Future Perfect, the Pluperfect tense is still relatively infrequent in its usage. Whereas in Latin the Pluperfect is regularly used to denote the precise order of time relating to different events, the Greeks often found it unnecessary to draw such distinctions. e.g. while Latin would say, “ubi videram abii,” When I had seen (i.e. a Pluperfect followed by an Aorist or Past Historic), I went away, Greek would say, ἐπει εἶδον, ἀπῆλθον, i.e. When I saw, I went away (i.e. two Aorists). English, however, often follows the Latin usage; therefore, Greek Aorists are often translated as Pluperfects in English. Where Greek does use a Pluperfect, as in examples i) and ii) above, it does so to emphasise either the significance of the time relationship or the state resulting from the prior action.

It is also worth noting that in the case where a Greek Perfect replaces a Present form, or is translated by a verb in the Present tense in English, a Pluperfect is used in place of an Imperfect, e.g. οἶδα, I know, ᾔδη, I was aware; ἕστηκα, I stand, εἱστήκη, I was standing.

8. Conclusion.

This article has sought to show a) the importance of the concept of Aspect in the use of Greek verbs, and how Aspect takes priority over Time; and b) how the so-called Perfect tense in Latin is usually performing the function of an Aorist verb.

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