The Syriac active participle and the expression of the past imperfective and the present.

Author:Li, Tarsee


In earlier studies (Li 2009 and 2010), I suggested that the active participle in the Aramaic of Daniel functioned as a general atemporal imperfective that was on its way to becoming a present. I also proposed that the past time instances of the active participle in the corpus should not be ascribed to a "historical present" function, but rather to the fact that it was a general imperfective whose function was not temporally restricted. Since the aforementioned studies were focused on the Aramaic of Daniel, I did not present extensive comparisons with other corpora. In this present study, I intend to provide additional evidence for my conclusions by presenting comparative evidence from another Aramaic corpus, the Syriac New Testament Peshitta of Matthew, where, as will be demonstrated, participial constructions that express past imperfective and present are clearly distinguished.

For the sake of clarity, it is useful to begin by briefly explaining the grammatical terminology adopted in this article--there is no universally accepted terminology. The labels used here follow those of Comrie 1976. Whereas tense describes the relationship between the event and some other point in time, such as the moment of speech (e.g., past, present, future), grammatical aspect describes how its internal temporal structure is viewed. That is, aspect may describe a portion of the time of occurrence (beginning, middle, or end), or the frequency of occurrence, etc. Thus, "the perfective looks at the situation from outside, without distinguishing any of the internal structure of the situation, whereas the imperfective looks at the situation from the inside" (Comrie 1976: 4).

For example, in the sentence, "John was reading the book, when I entered" (Comrie 1976: 4-5), the last verb, "entered," can be said to be "perfective" in that the action is viewed as a single whole, whereas the verb phrase "was reading" is "imperfective," because it makes an explicit reference to a portion of the action; i.e., in this case, the act of reading is described in the middle, excluding the beginning and the end of the action. Comrie (1976: 24-25) also subdivided the imperfective aspect into "habitual" and "continuous," the latter including "progressive." However, Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994: 137-39) subdivided imperfective aspect into "habitual" and "progressive," because they observed that, although examples can be found of grammatical forms expressing habitual, progressive, and imperfective aspects, there are no examples in cross-linguistic data of a non-progressive continuous. The label "habitual" refers to customarily repeated actions. As used in this article, it also serves as an umbrella term for not only habitual actions, but also those that are iterative, i.e., repeated actions that have a well-defined end point, or frequentative, i.e., actions that occur frequently in a specific period of time. The label "progressive" refers to a grammatical expression that describes an action as ongoing at reference time. And the label "imperfective" refers to a construction that can express both habitual and progressive meanings.

At the risk of oversimplification, I will further illustrate these labels with the following examples:

  1. Sara was reading the novel.

  2. Sara used to read novels.

  3. Sara kept on reading the novel.

    Sentences 1 to 3 illustrate some varieties of imperfective aspect, all in past time for the sake of comparison. Sentence 1 is progressive, expressing an action in process at reference time. Sentence 2 is habitual, indicating a customary or habitual action, not an action in process. And sentence 3 is, depending on context, either iterative, expressing repetition, or continuative, expressing the deliberate continuance of an action. In languages with an imperfective, i.e., a grammatical construction capable of expressing most or all shades of imperfective aspect, the imperfective construction can express any of the meanings of sentences 1 to 3, with the exact shade of meaning being determined by the context.

    English does not have such an imperfective construction, but other languages do. For example, sentence 4 below contains a French imperfect ("imparfait"), which is a past imperfective.

  4. Elle lisait. [She was reading/used to read.]

    The French imperfect in sentence 4 above can be translated either as a past progressive, "she was reading," or a past habitual, "she used to read," depending on the context, and is therefore a past imperfective. Of course, an imperfective can, and often does, coexist with grammatical constructions for more specific types of imperfectivity, such as progressives, habituals, iteratives, etc. Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994: 126) also noted that imperfectives are more often restricted to the past, as in the Spanish and French imperfect tenses, but may also be applicable to present and the future, as in Russian.

    There is also a relationship between imperfective aspect and present tense. Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994: 126) argued that the present tense is a type of imperfective, because present tense constructions in most languages can usually express not only the actual present, i.e., an action that is occurring at the moment of speech (e.g., "Sarah is reading a novel"), but also the general present, i.e., a statement of fact or an action that habitually or customarily occurs but may not be occurring at the moment of speech (e.g., "Sarah reads novels"). (1) That is, since the first type of present is in essence progressive and the latter is gnomic or habitual, the fact that both can be expressed by the same construction means that it is proper to consider the present tense a present imperfective. (2) Therefore, a general (i.e., atemporal) imperfective construction has both past imperfective and present functions. In contrast, in most contexts, a past imperfective construction does not express the present, nor does a present construction express the past imperfective.

    Furthermore, progressive constructions can often develop into imperfectives or presents. According to Bybee (1994: 250), "a progressive restricted to the present by the existence of a past imperfective will become a present tense, while a progressive that is not so restricted will become an imperfective--expanding to cover as many functions as possible." Although it is indisputable that the Aramaic active participle developed from an atemporal progressive to a present, or at least to the base of a grammatical construction for the present tense (e.g., Rubin 2005: 31-32), the evidence from my research on the Aramaic of Daniel suggests that the path of development was not direct, but that the active participle first became a general imperfective (see Li 2009: 55-56, 90-92, 95-96, 147-48; 2010).

    Finally, the present tense may be employed to narrate past events in some languages such as Koine Greek, a function called "historical present." Some have explained past time instances of the Aramaic active participle as historical presents on the assumption that it is primarily a present tense (e.g., for Biblical Aramaic, see Bauer and Leander 1927: 294-95; Rosenthal 1961: 55; Johns 1972: 25; Cohen 1984: 413, 477; Rogland 2003: 430-32; Gzella 2004: 120-31). However, most of the possible instances involve participial expressions introducing direct speech (see Li 2009: 43-45, 52-55), and the label "historical present" may be inaccurate for such expressions. Goodwin (1889: 17) noticed that in classical Greek, in "such expressions as he said, he commanded," "the action is of such a nature that it is not important to distinguish its duration from its occurrence." That is, the aspectual opposition between the Greek aorist indicative (i.e., the past perfective/simple past) and the imperfect indicative (i.e., the past imperfective) was sometimes neutralized when applied to verbs introducing direct speech, and both aspects could be used interchangeably, their distinction being "occasionally indifferent" (Goodwin 1900: 270).

    It is possible that this phenomenon occurs in other languages, including ancient Aramaic. If so, the use of the active participle with verbs introducing direct speech in Aramaic should not be classed as the historical present, but as the "occasionally indifferent" use of the imperfective aspect in expressions introducing direct speech. That is, the active participle of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and other verbs introducing direct speech was originally employed instead of the suffix conjugation in past lime narrative not as a historical present, but because the aspectual difference between simple past and past imperfective was often neutralized in such expressions. Then, in later Aramaic, when participial expressions for the present and past imperfective became clearly distinguished, the use of the simple participle with verbs introducing direct speech persisted as a vestige of earlier usage.


    There is genera! agreement that the Syriac active participle is used in the expression of, inter alia, the present or present-future tense (e.g., Duval 1881: 312-16; Brockelmann 1899: 93; Noldeke 1904: 211-18; Muraoka 2005: 66-67) and that the combination of the Syriac active participle with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] expresses a past imperfective (e.g., Duval 1881: 321-22, etc.; but see the discussion of Joosten 1996 below), so much so that some grammars have labeled it the Syriac "imperfect" tense (Hoffman 1827: 337-38; Phillips 1866: 170-71; they applied the label "future" to the prefix conjugation and "preterite" to the suffix conjugation). However, since the use of the past imperfective in many languages can often be a stylistic choice made by a speaker/writer rather than a requirement, an a priori assumption as to how imperfective aspect is rendered can sometimes result in circular reasoning. For example, if one assumes that a certain grammatical construction has an imperfective function, it is...

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