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The Perfect in Homeric Greek: Towards a Unitary View of its Semantics

8 November 2018
Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars
University Library
Witte Singel 26-27
2311 BG Leiden


There is still no agreement as to what unites the various readings of the perfect in Ancient Greek. The main value attributed to it is Stative-Resultative, denoting a state of the subject that presupposes a completed action (τέθνηκε ‘is dead’). When corresponding to a telic predicate, the perfect may also assume Experiential (ὄπωπα ‘I have seen’), Habitual, and perhaps also other readings. In Homeric Greek, a ‘presentic’ use of the perfect is traditionally distinguished with sound verbs (βέβρυχε ‘roars’), but also more generally with atelic verbs (e.g. γηθέω, γέγηθα ‘I am glad’); for such cases, Intensive readings are often admitted.

How are all these different functions of the perfect interrelated? Usually, Stative-Resultative is considered the dominant and original function, inherited from Proto-Indo-European, whereas the other uses are considered ‘anomalous’ and secondary (cf. Haug 2004; García Ramón 2006; and recently Allan 2016: 102ff.). This view is challenged in various recent publications, including Willi (2018: 225-244) and Magni (2017). In this paper I propose, in part following a neglected paper by Berrettoni (1972), that the most general feature of the perfect stem, in opposition to the present and aorist stems, is to present participation in an event as a property of the subject. This claim will be illustrated by reconsidering the semantics of a number of important perfects to activity verbs in Homer, including γέγηθα ‘be glad’, δέδορκα ‘look’, μέμηλα ‘concern’, ἔολπα ‘think’, and ἀλάλημαι ‘roam’. It appears that the actionality of the predicate determines whether a perfect has a Stative-Resultative or Experiential reading (both are found exclusively with telic predicates) or Habitual and other extra-temporal readings (as found with both telic and atelic predicates).

Finally, I will discuss the implications of these findings for our reconstruction of the Indo-European perfect and its reflexes in other branches, which include the Germanic preterite presents and the Hittite hi-verbs, and discuss the possible functions of perfect reduplication.


Literature cited:

Allan, Rutger. 2016. “Tense and Aspect in classical Greek. Two historical developments: augment and perfect”, in: S.E. Runge and C.J. Fresch (eds.), The Greek Verb revisited. A fresh Approach to Biblical Exegesis, Bellingham, 81–121.

Berrettoni, Pierangiolo. 1972. “L’uso del perfetto nel greco omerico”. SSL 12:25–170.

García Ramón, José-Luís. 2006. “Expresión del estado y tipos de lexema en griego homérico”, in: Emilio Crespo et al. (eds.), Word Classes and Related Topics in Ancient Greek, 193–217. Louvain-la-Neuve: Peeters.

Haug, Dag. 2004. “Aristotle’s kinesis/energeia-test and the semantics of the Greek perfect”. Linguistics 42, 387–418.

Magni, Elisabetta. 2017. “Pluractionality and Perfect in Homeric Greek”, in: F. Logozzo and P. Poccetti (eds.), Ancient Greek Linguistics. New Approaches, Insights, Perspectives, 325–344. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Willi, Andreas. 2018. Origins of the Greek Verb. Cambridge: CUP.

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