Skip to main content

Full text of "The Greek aorist"

See other formats





A.^'^J.^b'ell, M.A., Ph.D., Toronto, 


The aorist has been termed the Proteus of tenses ; not ineptly, 
whether we regard its forms or the meanings which it can and does ex- 
press. With regard to form we have two classes of aorists : the first, or 
weak, and the second, or strong; the first being the sigmatic aorist ending 
in a, though all sigmatic aorists do not end in a (witness sttsgov), and 
we have aorists ending in a that are not sigmatic and to all appearance 
never were, e.g., eSooHa, eina, e'xsva. The first important contri- 
bution to the investigation of this tense was made by Philip Buttmann, 
who, in his Ausfiihrliche Griechische (irammatik, stated with such cogency 
his reasons for believing that the second aorist was the older and simpler 
form, and that the first aorist was a later formation, developed from the 
present,, that the point has not since been disputed. But his further con- 
clusion that this second, or strong aorist, is the oldest form of the finite 
verb, being based on evidence which Buttmann, at that early stage of 
inquiry into sounds and forms, could not be expected to interpret rightly, 
has not met with such general acceptance. It is the evidence for this 
view that I wish to examine now, in view of the results won from our 
further study of forms and syntax. 

In the examination of a grammatical form three things must be kept 
in view : (1) The meaning, or meanings, expressed by the form; (2) the 
nature of the form itself ; (3) the information, if any, given about it by 
the people who used it and knew it in its living force. It is because 
Delbriick, for example, gives so little heed to the nature of grammatical 
forms, concentrating his attention, as he has done in all his works, on 
the meanings that the form is capable of expressing, that the scattered 
hints that Brugmann gives us occasionally in the course of his Theory 
of Sounds and Forms seem so much more luminous for syntax than the 
learning accumulated in the two bulky volumes of Comparative Syntax 
that Delbriick has given us. I have placed the meaning first, not be- 
cause I regard it as of more value than the form as a guide to the origi- 
nal force of a grammatical inflexion, but because the evidence it gives 
seems, at first sight, so much clearer and easier to gra.sp. Whether it is 


really so we shall have some opportunity of seeing as we deal with this 

What, then, is the meaning of the Greek aorist? — or, to be more pre- 
cise, what is the time denoted by this tense 1 The answer at first seems 
obvious enough. It is a past tense ; according to Dionj'^sius Thrax, one 
of the four varieties or Siacpopdi of the xpo^os TrapsXrjXvdoo^, which 
are the naparaxinoz, the TrapaKeifjievo^y the VTiEpffwreXiuos and 
the aopiGTOs j and while our modern grammars do not follow him in 
regarding the j^fpoVos rrapaxei/ASvoS as a past tense, they all give the 
aorist a place among the historical tenses or preterites. But it is note- 
worthy that this tense alone of the historical tenses has forms for all the 
moods ; that we find an aorist subjunctive, an aorist optative, as well 
as an aorist indicative. Is the aorist subjunctive a past tense? "No," 
answers Apollonius Dyscolus, in the first syntax produced in the Western 
world, " for the time relation belonging to the indicative disappears as 
soon as we change the indicative to another mood." This is the reason, 
of course, why the augment, a mark of absolute past time, is attached 
to the indicative only. In the other moods, Apollonius thinks the aorist 
expresses ffvvTtXein! or avvffiS as opposed to the TrapaTacrii: of the 
present. But the force of completion appears to belong rather to the 
perfect in classic Greek, and the meaning of the aorist is often rather 
inceptive or ingressive. But I don't wish to dwell on this ; the fact 
to which I wish to call your .attention is that the aorist alone of historical 
tenses has forms for all moods, which, it is admitted by all, never denote 
past time in the subjunctive, and denote past time in the optative only 
after verbs of declaring, i.e., in indirect discourse, — a secondary use of 
the optative. Dionysius speaks of the perfect as one of the varieties of 
the past, i.e., as a preterite or historical tense, and it has for^is for all 
the moods. But we know that primarily the perfect was not a preterite, 
but a completed present, as, e.y., HtHT7}i.i<xi or /.u/.irffiuai, or o/rf/r ; 
that its use as a preterite belongs to later Greek ; and that it is as a 
completed present that it developes these forms for the subjunctive and 
optative. Might it not be logical to suppose that the aorist, too, was 
not primarily a past tense, and that it was not as a past tense that it 
developed these modal forms ? 

But what meanings does the aorist express in the indicative ? It 
denotes the simple occurrence of an act in past time, as in-»^L^ iyivero, 
as opposed to the imperfect in v\^ tyiyyero. Buttmann says the 
aorist leaves the present out of view, transports us to the past and relates 
in succession the events that occurred there. But Apollonius Dy.scolus 
tells us that the aorist with naXai is rather a pluperfect ; " for," he adds, 
" the aorist embraces the preteritive meanings of the perfect and the 
pluperfect, just as among nouns there are those to which the masculine 


and the feminine gender is common." Is, then, the aorist used for the 
pluperfect ? It is certainly used as an equivalent for the Latin pluper- 
fect. Hoc scripseras, ubi amicus advenit, is in Greek, J'oCto s'ypaipa, 
ore. rjXdev 6 cplXo?. So in Thucy. II. 92, erpaTtovro e; toi^ 
Ttavopi-iov, oOevTtep av?)ydyovro, and we translate the aorist here 
by the English pluperfect. Farrar says, "Never translate the aorist 
by have ; " but Thompson owns that we at times use a perfect where the 
Greeks use an aorist, and reft-rs to Soph. Aj. 586, €7rijveG^ epyov 
Kcxi TTpovoiav r/r eOov, "I praise thy deed and the foresight thou 
hast shown." But in classic Greek the perfect and pluperfect are not 
tenses in the proper sense of the term, but rather modes of action, being 
presents and imperfects of completed action ; and it is the preteritive 
meanings which these tenses assume later that ApoUonius has in view. 
Still such a use of the aorist as is found in Matt. iii. 17, ovtos aGTiv 
vio> 1.10V 6 ayaTTr/TO^y ev o3 svSoja/ffa, resembles the Greek per- 
fect in its primary sense very closely. It is not used, to my knowledge, 
in the primary sense of the imperfect ; even in case of verbs that imply 
duration; its force is inceptive, e. y., evofftjffa, "I fell ill," effiyyjffa', 
" I became silent." 

These are varieties in its use as a preterite; but it does not alwa3'^s 
designate past time. At times we have to translate it by a present : So 
in €7rtjy£ff' i'pynv xal npovoiav ])v <=Sov, and in Aj. G82, i(ppiB,'' 
e'pcoTi 7iepiX(^pi]> (5' avsTTTOnay, which are instantaneous, or, as some 
grammarians call them, emphatic presents. Then in II. 16, 482, ?}pi7i€ 
6' 005 ore tiS 6pv5 y'lpirrey t'/ axepooi> ("And he fell as falls an oak 
or a silver poplar." — Lang). And in II. 17, 173, yijy 6e (X€v oovorjcxi-iyv 
Ttayxv (})ptva> ("But now think I altogether scorn of thy wisdom." — 
Lang). Brugmann translates covoGcxf-ajv as a present perfect here (^^bin 
ich Tadler geworden "), and adds, " This use is found in Slavic and Vedic 
(being extremely frequent in the latter), and must be regarded as belong- 
ing to the primitive Indo-Germanic. In II. 9, 320, xdrdcxv^ 6juc^5 
6 r' aepyos avrfp o re TtoXXd aopyoo^ ("Death cometh alike to the 
untoiling and to him that hath toiled long." — Lang) we have a gnomic 
aorist, as in noXXa napa yvoo}U}v e'rcecjev. But the aorist does not 
here denote past time, it rather denotes what is true at any time, whether 
past, present or future. And the aorist is used for the future, not merely 
in the infinitive as in /.uXXoo Ttoujffcxi, a very frequent use, but in the 
indicative. Brugmann notes, II. 4, 160, 

i'lTtEp yap rf lial avriiC OXvprnio-' ovh ereXeffffev 
i'x Se nai ot/:i: reXer^ gvv re jxeyaXoo anktiGav -^ 
and II. 9, 412: 

eilJ-iv k' aidi jxtvcijv Tpcooov ttoXiv aj.((pijudxGO/^ai 
aJXero /.itv juoi vogtoSj ardp jiXto^ dtpdiror i'arai j 


and conjectures that these future uses are to be connected with the 
unaugmented or injunctive forms of the aorist stem. The aorist, then, 
is used to express an act taking place in the past, present or future ; or 
what is true at any time, whether past, present or future. It is also 
used to express an act never accomplished in either past, present or 
future. So e.g., in Eurip. Ion., 1291, SKTeiva 6'6vra 7roXe/.iiov 
66).ioi5 SfAOiZ, or Xenophon, Anab.,11., 6,4, ek tovtov 7iai iQavarcoQii 
V7i6 rwv iv ^Ttapt)} TfA&PK oo^ anEidc^v. Sophocles plays on this 
use of the aorist in Ajax, 1126-7 : 

Msv. diHaia yap rov evrvx^iy KTeivavra fxe ^ 

Tev. KTEivavTa ^ deivov y' einaz, ii nai Crjs davoov. 

These uses, thinks Brugmann, are not inceptive, but are to be explained 
from this, that the verbs in question give merely the action of the sub- 
ject, not the result or effect on the object. But this seems merely a 
special case of the inceptive or ingressive use of the aorist. Now are we 
to suppose, as one might if he judged simply from the Englishman's 
standpoint, that the Greek aorist had the force of the pluperfect, or the 
perfect, or the imperfect, or a simple past, or a present, or a future 1 
Absurd ! An examination of the form of this tense will, I think, show 
that these uses can be reduced to three, a primitive use, and two others 
easily derived from it. 

What of the form of the so-called second, or strong aorist 1 Compare 
i'atrfv with i'ffrrjffa, or with ftovXevGaif^ii. It shows augment, root, 
personal ending. But the augment is originally an independent word, 
probably a locative of the pronominal stem o, the stem of the Latin 
pronoun is, and means there or then, in that place or at that time. Tliat 
it is not an essential part of the strong aorist is clear from its frequent 
omission in Homer. If we leave it out of account, we have merely the 
root and the personal ending, but nothing whatever to indicate tense. 

What of the name given by the Greeks to this tense? — the jpoVos 
aopiffro^, or indefinite tense. Dionysius and Apollonius understand it 
of an indefinite past ; but there is nothing in the name to limit its mean- 
ing in this way. This tense, then, the Greeks called the indefinite tense. 
There is in its form no mark, such as we find in other tenses, to indicate 
time, and it may be used to denote acts that have occurred in present, 
past, or future time, or that are likely so to occur, or that were merely 
planned but never accomplished. The one Hmitation to its meaning 
seems to be that it never denotes duration, and perhaps this must be 
qualified, for Brugmann thinks that the form TiOt^s, the second sing. pres. 
indie, of Tidij^xi, is an unaugmented aorist or injunctive form. The 
present should have been Tidt^ffi cf. I'af-Uy i'aai. 

What, then, was this tense originally? "We must assume for the 
Greek verb," says Buttmann, " an older period, when a definite and dis- 


tinct present did not yet exist " (i.e., behind the tenses of verbs there 
was a tenseless or a timeless form from which they developed). " There 
was only one form for the relation of what had happened, was happen- 
ing, or was about to happen — an aorist — a timeless form. This form 
was the strong aorist, the primary form of the Greek verb, from which 
all tenses and moods were developed." For moods, Brugmann recognizes 
the existence of such forms, and calls them injunctives. They are used 
as indicatives, present or past, as voluntative subjunctives, as impera- 
tives, and as futures. They are unaugmented aorists, he says, and he 
takes as an example of them the Sanskrit hharat = (psps^r). He does 
not think of these injunctives as constituting a separate mood, but as 
the oldest forms of the finite verb, representing a stage in its develop- 
ment when the moods had as yet found no separate and distinct means 
of expression. 

But while Brugmann gives the unaugmented strong aorist this place 
for moods, he holds an entirely diflferent opinion with regard to tenses ; 
for he does not hold with Goodwin that the subjunctive and optative 
are merely developed futures, nor does he see the force of the indicative 
ending. In his Greek Syntax he says, "The present indicative is in 
itself timeless, and denotes originally no definite period of time. Hence 
in Greek, as in the original Indo-Germanic, it was used alike for the 
present, the past (as Hist. Pres.) and the future, i.e., for all times 
alike." I have two objections to make to this statement : (1) It will 
be difficult to prove that in the original Indo-Germanic the present 
was used for present, past, and future time. It is true that the use 
of the Hist. Present in the Vedas is common. It is used in later Greek, 
where the use seems developed by orators, and intended for the vivid 
presentation of past events, so that perhaps it should be called a 
Rhetorical rather than an Historical Present. But the Historical Pre- 
sent is not found in the Homeric poems. Brugmann is frank, as usual, 
in stating the embarrassment this gives him. He finds its lack in Homer 
difficult to account for. " It can hardly be due," he says, " to the char- 
acter of the epic diction." The use of the present in relating past occur- 
rences is so natural that it may well be thought to have developed inde- 
pendently in Vedic, Greek and Latin — early iu Vedic and perhaps in 
Latin, later in Greek and hardly as an Historical Present in the proper 
sense of the term. Its absence in Homer seems to me a good reason for 
not asserting its presence in the original Indo-Germanic. (2) But my second 
objection to his statement is, if welL grounded, fatal to his theory. The 
pres. indie, is not timeless in its form ; it has in its ending a mark of 
the present time. How does the form of the present differ from that 
of the unaugmented aoi'ist ? — hharati from hharat. The original end- 
ings for the present seem to have been mi, si, ti, men or mes, te, nti ; 


for the aorist, m, s, t, men or mes, te, nt. Where they differ, the differ-- 
ence consists in the addition of t to the aorist to form the present. 
What is the force of this i % Fick did not hesitate in his lectures tO' 
identify it with the i in Romai. "It means here,'" he said. "While 
hharat means '■hearing Ae,' hharati means 'bearing he here,' i.e., 'he bears,' and^ 
^he is now bearing.'" And by the addition of this suffix to the unaugmented 
aorist, the old pretemporal, timeless form, we get the first tense in the 
proper sense of the term, the present tense. This formation determined 
the later character of the aorist, the indefirtite preterite. If we leave 
out of account, for the moment, the unreal use of the aorist, which I think 
a special case of its inceptive use, all the other uses of the Greek aorist 
that I have quoted fall naturally into two classes. There are : (1) Its. 
eomparatively rare uses as a present and future and, the gnomic aorist,. 
which belong to the old indefinite or timeless tense. The characteristic- 
of all of them' is the ignoring of the idea of time, e.g., co5 Ti5 dpvS 
I'lpmsv (Any fall of an oak, no matter when, will serve as an example- 
to illustrate his fall). (2) Then there are the ordinary uses of the aorist as- 
an indefinite preterite,, the use left to it after the formation of the 
present. What took place when- the present was developed 1 Let this- 
line pas t, pres., fut., represent the province of the old timeless aorist. 
When tlie pre.sent was developed it was divided thus, v^ U I prcs., fut., the 
present and future falling to the new tense. That the future was once 
represented by the present seems to me probable, and the use of the- 
present €T/.ii = ibo, foi- the future as well as the present seems a remnant 
of this use. 

A word here about the inceptive force of the aorist. Besides the 
tenses of the verb denoting absolute time (the past, present and future)^ 
and those denoting relative time (the pluperfect and future perfect), we 
have two which denote the mode as v/eil as the time of the act, the 
imperfect and perfect. For most acts, as regards their time, can be 
thought of in three modes ; they are beginning, in progress, or com- 
pleted. With the formation of the present the mode of duration was 
appropriated for it, and presently that of completion was taken for the 
perfect, leaving the mode of inception for the aorist. Interesting here 
may be the one remark Dionysius Thrax adds to his enumeration of 
the tenses. " Of the six," he says, " we have three avyytvtiai or 
related pairs — the present and imperfect, the perfect and pluperfect, 
and aorist and future." In the last pairing he evidently has in view the 
inceptive force of the aorist, which Kriiger and Curtius (I think) believed 
to be a special and primary force. (Ed. Uhlig, p. 53.) 

But, it will be objected, you say that all parts of the finite verb are 
developed directly or indirectly from the strong aorist. How can this 
be true when such a verb as ei^ai, to be, a verb of some importance and 


^antiquity, has ne aorist? To the question of the relation between the 
Imperfect and the aorist a good deal ©f attention has been given since 
Lobeck first essayed its solution. " fOTy; is like s-qjr} in formation," 
•said Lobeck ; "^ i'qjf] is the imperfect of cpr/jui^ therefore i'ffT?/ must 
have been originally the imperfect of an older ffTtjfxiy and i'ffTjj/ui is a 
later reduplicated form of the present." Delbriick, in support of this,, 
'cites from the Vedas the forms pati for pibati, and dhati for didhati, 
i.e., di}(li for TiOr/Gi, or dij/Jiior riGr]fJ.i^ and Brugmann says, "The 
distinction between the present and the strong aorist was merely syn- 
tactic, not formal. Forms of the same <;lass were used, now in a present, 
now in an aorist sense, e^g,, i'qjtjv^ eyp(xq)Ov, sye/uov^ €vi7tT6/.^?]V 
are imperfects, but sffTtjv^ ETpaTcov, i'ftXaffTOv, eyevo}.irjv are aorists, 
•though they are homogeneous forms." Brugmann, you see, accepts 
Lobeck's conjecture, supported as it is by Delbriick, that ecprjv and 
EGTJjv were to begin with the same tense. This seems to me probable, 
"especially as E(pr]v is so often used as an aorist. But if Ecpyjv is aorist 
as well as imperfect, what of t)y, I was? It is surely about as often 
aorist as imperfect. The verb eivai, once significant and transitive, has 
been reduced to a substantive verb or copula, the meaning of which is 
«uch that it does not need several forms to express its past, which 
presents in itscJt" no varieties of meaning. And with regard to form, 
?/y ought t© be called a second, or strong aorist. But no doubt some of 
these strong aorists have, as Brugmann believes, become imperfects. In 
some verbs the present has the same form of the root as had the original 
aorist, e.g., efffii cptj/Ji cptpco- but the form of the root was usually 
changed in the present, by gradation, as in XsiTtoo (aor. s'XiTrov) or by 
expansion as in XafA^avoo (aor. eXa/3ov). When the form of the root 
was thus changed, a new tense was formed from it to express for the past 
what the present tense expressed for the present, viz., an action then in 
progress, e.g., sXsiTtov and eXa/jparov^ and eXinov and i'Xajiov 
remained aorists. But when the strong aorist stem remained unchanged 
in the present, the old strong aorists became imperfects, e.g., ifVy eqjrjr, 
e'cpepov. The stem e? developed no new aorist in Greek (in Latin it 
borrowed the perfect ^1*1" : I have become) 5 cprfjxi formed a first aorist 
eirca, cp^poo borrowed the aorist eveyKa. That some imperfects were 
originally aorists, as both Brugmann and Delbriick suppose, is rendered 
still more probable by the use of the imperfect as an aorist in Homer — 
the descriptive imperfect, which Monro describes as producing in a 
measure the effect of the Historical Present for epic diction. 

It remains to add a word about the formation of the first or weak 
aorist. From forms of the present, like XeinoOy which difiered from the 
second aorist in stem, were formed an aorist ending in a, or more 
usually Ga. These had at first the personal endings of the strong aorist 


in all persons but the first, as is clear from Homeric forms like e'/Jf/ffeTO 
and a^£T£; and eneffov has preserved the strong aorist endings. But the- 
rest have assimilated to the a of the first person all other personal end- 
ings but that of the third sing., which remains &. How did this aorist 
originate'? Curtius thought it the result of composition. It consisted 
of the root -fasfflm, Latin eram, Greek ^v ( = e + es m). This theory is 
abandoned to-day ; a little too readily, Fick used to say. But perhaps 
the weak aorist rather followed the analogy of one of the forms in which 
the imperfect of eijui (e-f-es m) appears, than resulted from composition 
with it ; for (e-Fes m) appears in Greek as t/v or f)a, a being a common, 
equivalent for m — and perhaps this form r/a became the starting point 
for aorists in a. But what of the usual ending ffa 1 Of course f}a was 
for old ?}ffa, and we find the third plural in ^olie as sffffav. If this- 
presupposes a first sing, s'ffffa, as Pick believed (the form is not found 
in the rather scanty remains of jEoHc), the new ending might easily be- 
got by false division, for the root is SF, and da might well appear to be 
an ending. 

University of Toronto 








Acme Library CardPccket 

Under Pat. '*Ref. Indes File"