The perfect tense: really an aorist?

Discussion in 'Lingua Latina (Latin)' started by Outsider, May 15, 2007.

  1. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    There seems to be a lot of dicussion and confusion regarding the value of the Latin perfect (or perfective? -- perhaps we'd better not open that can of worms). Since this ends up extending somewhat to other languages, in particular the Romance languages, I've grown curious about the matter.

    Let me see if I got it straight:

    1. Both Latin and Greek had tenses which have traditionally been called "perfect". (I'm thinking of the perfect indicative mostly, here.)
    2. But modern linguists object to this terminology, arguing that the Latin tense actually had a very different value from the Greek one. They say that only one of the two tenses should be called "perfect", and the other should be called "perfective". Trouble is, they can't seem to agree on which should be the perfect and which should be the perfective. :rolleyes:
    3. The Latin "perfect/perfective" was actually closer in meaning to another Greek tense (or mood -- another can of worms I don't wish to open!) called the aorist.
    Is this right?
  2. clara mente Senior Member

    USA English
    Although I know next to nothing about Greek, perhaps this explanation of the Latin "perfect" will shed some light on this ambiguity. One of the main differences that exists between learning Latin in the structural manner vs. the traditional manner is it's definition of the perfect. In structural terminology the traditional perfect is not a "Tense" per se, but rather an "aspect" and therefore refered to as the "present perfect". This concept manifests itself in the sequence of tenses wherein the time aspect of the verb is scrutinized as to it's respect to the action of the verb in relation to "present" time. To explain further, when we translate the verb "lexit" do we mean "he read" or "he has read". This seemingly trivial detail in English was in fact critical to the Romans. The first being a action belonging to "past or finished time" and therefore treated as such in the sequence as would a "past imperfective" verb ala. "legebat" the latter would be treated as a "present perfect" such as "legit".
  3. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    The 'aorist' tense is the preterite (passé simple, passato remoto) tense of Greek. In Latin - as has happened largely also in the spoken forms of modern French and Italian - the present perfect tense almost completely took over the functions of the Latin aorist tense. The latter however was still to be seen in its 3rd person plural form even in the classical period.
    adsensere omnes et quae sibi quisque timebat
    unius in miseri exitium conversa tulere (Virgil)

    The Greek adjective "aoristos" literally means "without boundaries", "limitless" and the special or peculiar function of this tense is to indicate that what happened was bound to happen, given the nature of things or of people.
    It is therefore a 'timeless' tense. In English we occasionally get a glimpse of a Greek-style aorist in phrases like:
    "Faint heart never won fair lady"
    although the adverb "never" does itself give this sentence a hefty shove in the direction of timelessness.
    English normally expresses its aoristic ideas by either a present tense or a conditional.
    Well, it would, wouldn't it!

  4. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Thank you both for your replies. :)

    But it's not a trivial detail in English, is it? The past simple / present perfect distinction is quite central and characteristic of English. And, if I may add, can be quite difficult to master for foreigners. I can say without false modesty that I am fluent in English, and generally feel comfortable expressing myself in it, yet the present perfect is the one tense which still makes me hesitate after all these years.

    I am also intrigued by your definition of the imperfective as "past or finished time", because it doesn't seem to fit well the Romance imperfect tense, which I have always assumed behaved pretty much as the Latin imperfect. I say this because the Romance "non-perfect" (passé composé, passato remoto, etc.) can also speak of a past or finished time.
  5. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    If I understand what I read in my Latin grammar correctly, perfect forms (-ī, -istī, -it, -imus, -istis, -ērunt) are basically present perfect; past experience being carried over to the time of utterance. Salient examples are memin-ī (remember), ōd-ī (hate) and other verbs that, lacking present forms, make use of perfect forms in sense of present diction. I think it is safe to assume, for example, it is because we had a bad experience in the past (present perfect) that we hate. Ōd-ī morphologically captures that nuance.

    Latin perfect forms are used in sense of historical past despite the basic meaning above. Caesar said "veni, vidi, vici," way after the battle was over (said to be on a sign used for his triumphant procession), so we must admit that perfect forms are sometimes historic past. It is argued that Latin perfect combines perfect and aorist of Proto-Indo-European.
    Affix -s-, used to derive Latin perfect stems and Greek aorist stems, is often cited as evidence to PIE aorist being merged into Latin perfect.
  6. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    To be honest, the aorist in Greek is a very interesting aspect. One could write pages about it. Interestingly, the so-called aspect (it is considered a tense in some books, though) is often treated contradictorily. The German Wikipedia about the aorist is full of examples in many languages that use it; unfortunately, the English explanation on it is very short. If you want to, I can translate some of the passages of the German Wikipedia for you.

    Let's see what my Ars Graeca textbook says about the aorist (it's discussed over several pages!):

    First off, the Greek aorist is considered a tense (among present, imperfect, future I, perfect, pluperfect, and future II*). The seven Greek tenses can be devided into main tenses and augment tenses; the aorist (among the imperfect and pluperfect) belongs to the latter. The aorist is defined as:

    In the indicative, it is the narrative tense corresponding to the Latin perfectum historicum (later more).

    The tense signal of the aorist is an -s- (-σ-) in the active and middle voice, and a thê (-θη-) in the passive voice. Tenses that follow these signals are called weak tenses (alias tempora prima):
    επαίδευσα (epaídeusa**) from παιδεύειν (paideúein) = weak aorist (= aorist I) = I brought up/educated​

    The tenses that are formed without a tense signal are named strong tenses (or also tempora secunda):
    έλιπον (élipon) from λείπειν (leípein) = strong aorist (aorist II) = I let (past tense)​
    What is by augment is the vowel before the verb stem. It indicates the past tense and appears in the indicative only. There are two kinds of it: The syllabic augment (verbs beginning with a consonant receive an e-/ε-) and the temporal augment (the initial vowel of verbs beginning with a vowel is lengthened [it would get off-topic to elaborate upon these changes]).

    Back to the aorist: The aorist stem denotes completion and shortness in diverse modifications:
    1. Completion (effective: the end):
      • Έπειθον (impf.) αυτούς, καὶ οὺς έπεισα (aor.) τούτους έχων επορευόμην.
      • épeithon autoús, kaí oús épeisa toútous échôn eporeuómên.
      • I tried to convince them, and with those I had really convinced I set off.
      • the imperfect is used, because the end is not implied
      • the aorist is used, because we can see the end in "had convinced"
    2. Beginning (ingressive: the beginning):
      • Ὁι βάβαροι εφοβήθησαν καὶ τραπόμενοι έφυγον.
      • hoi bábaroi efobếthêsan kaí trapómenoi éfygon.
      • The Barbars got a fright and began to "turn away to flee".
      • the aorist is used in both cases, because it is a sudden action
    3. A unique or "uniform" historical event (= historical aorist):
      • Ὁ Κυπος έθυσε τὰ νομιζόμενα ἱερὰ.
      • ho Kyros éthyse tá nomizómena hierá.
      • Kyros sacrificed made the usual sacrifices.
      • the aorist tells us that is a historical event
      • -----------------------------------------
      • εβασίλεθσε πεντήκοντα έτη.
      • ebasíleuse pentếkonta étê.
      • He was king for 50 years.
      • the so-called complex aorist can be seen as a historical unity
    4. The gnomic aorist (sentences, aphorisms) affecting the present time:
      • Ἡ γλωσσα πολλοὺς εις όλεθρον ήγαγεν.
      • hê glôssa polloús eis ólethron ếgagen.
      • The tongue already brought disaster on many (people). (lit.: The tongue has led many to disaster)
    I think this should be enough for now. :)

    *they call it futurum perfecti (= future of the perfect)
    **the eu is pronounced like in German; like the English oi in coin

    PS: After this post and considering some other aspects in this thread, it should be moved to the Other Languages forum. :)
  7. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    You write:"Caesar said "veni, vidi, vici," way after the battle was over (said to be on a sign used for his triumphant procession), so we must admit that perfect forms are sometimes historic past".
    But how do you know whether Caesar meant those words as primary or secondary 'tonality' - in other words, why should we assume that by for example "veni" he meant "I came" rather than "I have come"?
  8. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    Very kind of you to go to so much trouble and good of German Wikipedia to provide the material. The only problem is that it reads rather like a User's Handbook for a person who has just bought his first PC. It's very useful, provided that you are already acquainted with the subject matter.
    Would it not be more useful - for someone not already so acquainted with the subject matter - to say that the aorist is the Greek preterite tense and that it gets its name from an occasional tendency to use the preterite tense to signify things which constantly recur in nature?
    Wouldn't you agree?
    By the way, I have heard that the past tense in German is called das Imperfekt. Is this true?
  9. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    In case you're interested, I just found the Greek equivalent for veni, vedi, vici, which is indeed ἦλθον, εἶδον, ἐνίκησα (élthon, eídon, eníkêsa) in the aorist.

    Yes, but I know that we all here will understand it. :)

    I will be thinking about it. I can't tell you for sure now.

    I don't like that designation for the past tense, but it's ok and most people will understand it. I use Präteritum for it. I use Imperfekt for the Latin imperfect when I speak about Latin in German. The funny thing is that in Arabic, the perfect is the past tense and the name imperfect is used for the present tense. That can become quote confusing sometimes. :)
  10. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    But that would the German academic (or Erasmian) pronunciation of "eu", and English speakers would pronounce it like the "eu" in "feud." The original pronunciation was [eu] -- but can't think of any examples in any languages I know.

    Just to add, although I think it was already said, but the Latin pefect seems to have combined the main uses of both the Greek aorist and perfect. I've also recently learned that some Latin perfect forms match up with Greek aorists (like dixi) and others with Greek perfects (like tetuli) so it's probably historically true that it is both.
  11. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    You're right. I think it is easier to pronounce ελεύθερος as if it had an οί instead of εύ. :)

    That's at least how I have learned it, but that's obviously wrong.

    Yes, the first example (dixi) is based on the s-aorist under lengthening the stem vowel unless it's a diphthong (mittere > mitt-s-i > misi; regere > reg-s-i > rexi) and the second* on the reduplication (dare > da+di > dedi; currere > cu+curri). There's also the lengthening of the present infinitive stem to form the perfect stem, which might go back to the Greek augmental aorist forms (agere > egi; facere > feci), but I'm not sure.

    *Your tetuli is interesting, because that's the Early Latin word for tuli. The forms of ferre are interesting anyway. :)
  12. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    Perhaps the ancients used the same pronunciation as the modern Greeks "eleftheros". very easy to say - which is what most nations finish up choosing anyway.
  13. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    On the meaning of the Greek adjective αοριστος (aoristos) the initial alpha is a Greek negative prefix (like English un-) and the rest of the adjective is derived from the verb οριζω (horizo) "to limit" or "set a boundary", whose present participle is the English "horizon".
    Hence the special function of the Greek aorist tense to indicate that what happened was bound to happen, given the nature of things, because the tense is an "unlimited" or "timeless" tense.

  14. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    For me, I've decided there's no such thing as a wrong pronunciation of a dead language, just that different groups have different traditions of how to pronounce them, although some are more historically accurate than others.

    What you say about dixi and the s-aorist is what I read -- for tetuli, the u is believed to come from an original o, and the o-sound with reduplication is very characteristic of the Greek perfect (e.g. λέλοιπα 'I have left'). In fact the forms tetuli has a cognate in Greek, τέτληκα, but it doesn't have exactly the same formation.
  15. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Yes, that reminds me of the BrE pronunciation of lieutenant, but that's obviously not from Greek. :)

    However, I think that the pronunciation of ευ was like the eu in German Entstehung (the h is not pronounced).

    Good call. I couldn't agree more. :)

    I assume the word τέτληκα is the perfect of τλῆναι. Would you, by the way, call τέθνηκα a reduplication of θνῃσκω?
  16. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    I've always thought "aorist" was a poor term and wondered why it was chosen -- in most uses of the aorist, especially outside the indicative mood, it just represents the perfective aspect which seems to be the exact opposite of unbounded. And even if the name was originally given just to the indicative mood, the only timeless use of it is the relatively rare gnomic use Whodunit mentioned before (and of which you gave a really good English example, which I'll have to keep in mind -- the only other similar example I've seen is "curiosity killed the cat"), but it's predominant use was just a past tense with perfective aspect, which again is something I can't really see being called unbounded.

    Yes to both questions, and for the latter of course you have τε instead of θε because of the rule in Greek against aspirated consonants in consecutive syllables. Although it might be more accurate to say that it's a reduplication of the root θαν- (clearly seen in the aorist ἔθανον), since the present has the (ι)σκω addition, and clearly it's more than just a reduplication.
  17. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Moderation Note
    Discussions about aspect have been moved to an OL thread. Please be reminded that the theme of the current thread is Latin perfect forms (and its aoristic use). If agreeing upon the definition of the linguistic term aspect is a prerequisite for furthering the discussion of Latin perfect, feel free to quote your conclusions from the OL thread.

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