Talking About the Past in Greek (and not Latin)

Some tenses of the Koine indicative are easy and obvious. For example, the present and future work about like you'd expect them to, with one paradigm per tense. The only trick there is teaching passive and middle voices. But when it comes to paradigms for the past tense, things get muddy. Koine Greek has three common paradigms for the past tense: the aorist, the imperfect, and the perfect. And in Greek they are called tenses -- chronoi, "times." The aorist paradigm already carries its Greek name: aoristos, "undefined," as the alpha-privative of horistos, from horos, "boundary marker." It is as simply past as you can get -- and says nothing more definite than the time.

The paradigms we call the imperfect and the perfect suggest more definite things. But tempus imperfectum and tempus perfectum are only the Latin analogues for the Greek tenses. And I've gotten very suspicious, lately, of Latin analogues for Greek concepts. Latin is a different language, with a profoundly different mindset -- far more linear and orderly. What the Latins called the imperfect tense, suggesting incomplete action, the Greeks called the chronos paratatikos, from parateinw, to "stretch out." This is the tense of continuing action, action that happens over time. What the Latins called the perfect tense, suggesting complete action, the Greeks called the chronos parakeimenos, from parakeimai, the passive of paratithemi. This is therefore the tense of things that are given, things that have been set forth in the past and therefore are available in the present. It is also called the enestws suntelikos, which is to say the "completed present" or "present perfect."

When we go back into the Greek grammarians, all the distinctions we'd like to make as English grammarians using Latin categories get fuzzy, and the Greek past is definitely one of those places. I set out to write about these three paradigms as ways of talking about the past, which is how they've been taught to me. As referring to a single past tense, using different aspects. The aorist is a preterite, the simple past; the imperfect is still past action, but has a progressive, iterative, or habitual sense; and the perfect is the case of completed past action with present effects.

And that gets so much more complicated in the history of Western grammarians studying Greek and developing theories about it. Tense, Aktionsart, aspect, all manner of subjective and objective attempts to describe the action of the verb, and then many attempts to simplify and describe those tense meanings from morphology alone. And that all boils down broadly to what I just described as the differences between these paradigms of the Greek past by aspect: the aorist is perfective, the imperfect is imperfective, and the perfect is perfect. Which is not a Greek way of looking at it.

But Dionysius Thrax (2nd c. BCE) gives me a way to still talk about these three paradigms under the past tense, in Hellenistic Greek terms. He does in fact describe these three paradigms as distinctions within the dominant category of chronos pareleuthws, from parerchomai, which does simply refer to what has passed: the tense of past events. And in addition to the undefined past, the extended past, and the past that remains present, Thrax gives a fourth distinction, the hupersuntelikos, the super-complete, which we often call the pluperfect. And then he makes familial relationships, sungeneia, between the six paradigmatic verb tenses. The present is akin to the extended past (imperfect); the completed present (perfect) is akin to the super-complete (pluperfect); and the aorist is akin to the future.

Now, that sounds kind of funny. The aorist, the simple past, is akin to the future? But with a little thought, it does make sense. The aorist is the undefined past -- and the future is similarly undefined. There is no complex futurity in Thrax' grammar. The future is simply the time of likely or anticipated coming action. I can't talk about how that action has happened, or that it is happening, or about its remaining effects -- I cannot define it in any way but to say that the action will happen. Likewise, the aorist is the time of action that simply has happened. It says nothing further about that action, only that it exists in the past.

Once that makes sense, the other two familial relationships are easy. The present and the extended past both refer to actions as happening within their time. And the completed present and the completed past both refer to actions as completed prior to their time -- as long as we remember that the perfect is the present perfect, and the pluperfect is the past perfect. So Dionysius Thrax gives us three aspects: continuing or progressive, completed or perfective, and undefined, and he links them to three tenses: present, past, and future. The present naturally takes the first of these, and the future the third, but the past can be portrayed in all three aspects.

And it is important to be able to talk about the past in its relationship to the present, which is what we tend most to do. The aorist lets us talk simply about events of the past. It is a bare sort of factual tense, the zero-degree of "this happened." The "imperfect" lets us talk about past events in terms of the present time they occupied while they were happening. We use it to talk about past moments of present time. It is a beautifully narrative tense, as we see in Mark 1, re-presenting the past. And the "perfect" lets us talk about present moments of past time. We use it to talk about the past that impacts the present moment.