Review of Campbell’s Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek - Part Two

Written by Michael Hanel on November 8th, 2008

In my first post on Campbell’s new book, I stated the absolute value of his book because it really does fill a void. For this post I will elucidate a few specific thoughts on the contents of his book. I will leave it to others more linguistically-trained to argue about whether Campbell gets aspect “right”. I think that argument is beside the point and not particularly relevant to the task he set out for himself, but that is my particular editorial comment.

Thoughts on the Contents of the Book)

The book consists of two parts, with the first half explaining verbal aspect theory and the second half executing the theory in the context of the Greek NT with examples of different aspects and self-correcting exercises for the reader to check whether he is understanding the way verbal aspect interacts with other lexical and contextual factors.

Part One)

Campbell defines aspect as viewpoint of the author or speaker and argues that there are primarily two aspects, the imperfective (view from inside the action) and perfective (view from outside the action). One of his fundamental definitions for the book is being able to distinguish between semantics and pragmatics. These are key linguistic terms you don’t often see in an introductory grammar, but Campbell set them out early and uses them again and again throughout the book so that students will hopefully know the difference between the two and how they matter in this discussion.

Within the imperfective and perfective aspects, Campbell then assigns the tense-forms to the following categories. The aorist tense-form he says encodes (semantics) the perfective aspect and spatial remoteness. The future tense-form he says encodes the perfective aspect (and is naturally remote). The present tense-form he said encodes the imperfective aspect and spatial proximity (here he connects the historical present to verbs of propulsion and verbs that introduce discourse). The imperfect tense-form he believes encodes the imperfective aspect and spatial remoteness. The perfect tense-form he notes as problematic, but finally says it encodes imperfective aspect and the spatial value of heightened proximity. The pluperfect tense-form he then says encodes imperfective aspect and heightened remoteness. Clearly there are going to be many people who disagree with this system of classification. But what is more important to me, is that Campbell equips the reader for some of these debates by his descriptions so that if one finds Campbell’s theories lacking, after reading Campbell’s book, he will be better able to read other accounts of aspect since Campbell has done such a thorough job of explaining the terminology.

Part Two)

The second part of the book is a bit more hands on. After a chapter on lexeme basics, Campbell then runs through the tense-forms once more in order to help the reader begin to understand that the final force (the Aktionsart) of any given verb will depend not just on its aspect which is semantically encoded in the form, but also on its lexeme and context. While I enjoyed the first part of the book quite thoroughly and thought it was very well put together. I had a bit more trouble following this section. There are a few examples of each tense-form given by Campbell and then there are examples where the reader is left to determine a given verb’s Aktionsart by “adding up” its Semantics, Lexeme and Context. Granted, this is where the rubber meets the road. His verbal theory section is just theory without applying it to the art of translation. I guess if anything my criticism would be that in the first part of the book everything was so crystal-clear and well-laid out that in the second part of the book I felt like I was left to fend for myself a bit too much. After mastering the verbal aspect material, the reader now has to know what the following list of items is: intransitive lexemes, ambitransitive lexemes, transitive: punctiliar, and intransitive: stative. Some of those are easier to understand than others (One key thing to note (that I thought Campbell could have explained better) is that a verb’s transitive or intransitive quality is based on the verb’s nature itself, not its form in any given context. So a transitive verb in the passive voice, though intransitive in that instance is still a transitive vebal lexeme. Also, I particularly had a hard time with guessing “punctiliar” correctly). Perhaps a few more charts or tables summarizing the various types of action would have been more helpful. Ironically, I found myself able to translate examples correctly (i.e. getting the correct Aktionsart), but I could not always fill in the right answers for the boxes for Lexeme and Context. I’m not sure what that says about myself or Campbell’s book, but it must say something.

He also covers non-indicative moods (participles also get their own additional chapter), but the biggest focus is definitely on indicative.

Overall Thoughts)

Again, the value to me of this book is not whether Campbell came up with the right answers to all these questions. The value is that he did a very good job of explaining in a rather clear manner what verbal aspect is and why it is important. In terms of clarity, I thought the first half of his book was great. The second part of the book, while by far the more pragmatic, was for me a bit more problematic. Perhaps it’s because it shows that there are still cracks between theory and practice or perhaps because Campbell’s goal of getting a concise and affordable book out there was a bit more than could be accomplished this time around. A few more charts or tables could have made a real difference. Also as I mentioned in the first post, a select bibliography or a “for further reading” section would also greatly enhance this book and help it become not just a book on the “basics” but also a proper introduction to the whole topic, a first year grammar on aspect, if you will. On the plus side, the Scripture index and Glossary are welcome.

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