Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Aorist or present imperative? Why?

Ronald Blankenborg, “The Grammarized Suggestion of Proximity or Distance,” in The Greek Verb: Morphology, Syntax, and Semantics, suggests that the use of the aorist imperative vs. present imperative is related to “the hearer’s immediate and accurate involvement, his proximity to the reaction required. Imperfective imperative is hence somewhat rude and impolite. Its usage suggests a situation in which the speaker implicitly holds a position that gives the right to command, and the privilege to expect his commands to be carried out without further ado. Imperfective imperative is also a reflection of social hierarchy. Aorist imperative reflects similar hierarchy, but the other way around: its usage appears to be more polite due to the distancing of the hearer from the required reaction.” (39)

A bit further down the page, he says “My concept of supposed distancing explains politeness as a result. If the speaker does not or cannot take hearer’s immediate involvement for granted, some distancing is unavoidable. . . . The pragmatic choice between aorist and imperfective imperative as distancing versus involving is also present in situations where the speaker hesitates as to whether his orders will be executed or not. A very clear example, and a comic reversal of hierarchical positions, is the discussion between Strepsiades and his son in Aristophanes’ Clouds 81–112. In an attempt to make his son take lessons with Socrates, Strepsiades gives him various commands (κύσον με, δός, εἰπε, πιθοῦ, ἔκτρεψον) that do not rouse his son’s suspicion. Only after an imperfective imperative (μάνθανε) does the son react: “What exactly do you want from me?” The son’s assertion that he will do as his father tells him (πείσομαι) makes the father continue in imperfective aspect (ἀπόβλεπε, σιώπα). Hesitation on the part of the son (“But these philosophers are madmen!”) leads to another aorist imperative (γενοῦ), only to be followed by an imperfective imperative (διδάσκου). The son’s surrender-like reaction (“What am I to learn then that may benefit you?”) shows that the father was right in his approach.” (39–40, emphasis original)

He also says that prayers tend to be in the aorist. I found that to be true. For example, the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6) is all aorists, as is Jesus prayer in John 17. Even in places where the imperfective aspect seems more appropriate, it is aorist.


Mike Aubrey said...

The observation about prayers in the aorist is something originally noted by Frederick Bakker in his 1966 monograph on the aspect of imperatives in prayers. It's a solid piece of research that I wish was more readily available (I've only ever seen it in a university library).

The idea of politeness being tied to aspect isn't unheard of--Russian for example does something similar to this. For Russian, in a situation where a parent was commanding a boy to clean his room, the imperfective would be used. But in a situation where a teacher commands a student to turn in a paper, the perfective would be used. It very much sounds like Blankenborg is taking something that's common in Slavic and seeing if it applies to Ancient Greek. Incidentally, someone has already done that for Modern Greek imperatives and concluded it was not the case (cf.: this google books page)

And even for Russian and other Slavic language, this dissertation has argued that the question is far more complicated than previous research has claimed--the abstract and the conclusion are worth reading.

Anyway...Blankenborg's proposal might be worth a closer look. There is some precedent, but this kind of thing is complicated and definitely runs the risk of leading students, exegetes, and commentary writers saying things that are really stupid.

Mike Aubrey said...

I should add:

I would anticipate that politeness might be an important issue for aspect and imperatives, but the standard Slavic framing in terms of proximity and distance runs the risk of sounding a little too much like you-know-who on Greek tense.

Mike Aubrey said...

One more...from facebook:

This quote from Tyurikova's dissertation's conclusion is perhaps the most telling for our ability to make judgments on this topic:

"It should become obvious from the discussion in Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 that it is impossible to teach foreign students explicitly how to express politeness/impoliteness via the imperfective / perfective forms in the imperative. Their knowledge of what is appropriate / inappropriate in a given situation, i.e., their understanding of what constitutes politic behavior, should increase as their linguistic competence in Russian grows and expands, which, of course, depends on the amount of practice the students have in the language.

If it's basically impossible for native Russians to teach politeness and aspect in the imperative and there is some kind of similar phenomenon in Greek, how can we expect that we will be able to wrap our heads around it when all our native speakers have been dead for 2000 years?

jps said...


Thanks for the feedback. Kris Lyle and I did a quick look at the imperatives in Colossians for the LDH we're working on. The playoff between aorist and present seemed to have more to do with perfective/imperfective action than it did with politeness. But, as Kris said to me, it sure is intriguing.

As for the prayer part, I'll have to grab Bakker's dissertation and take a look at it...


Mike Aubrey said...

That's my sense, too. Temporal structure seems like a more easily testable option and it often works.

If there is a politeness distinction, I'm guessing it arises in contexts where politeness is really important: strangers, family contexts, and well-defined social hierarchies.

jps said...


I think you are correct. If you look at the example he uses, you see that it is a family context. He also has another example, a bit later on, that is between Socrates and one of his students—a well-defined social hierarchy. So, I don't say throw it out, but I do say, be aware that this might be going on.

I ordered Bakker's book via ILL; thanks for the reference.