Aorist (Ancient Greek)
In the grammar of Ancient Greek, including Koine, the aorist (pron.: //) is a class of verb forms that generally portray a situation as simple or undivided, that is, as having perfective aspect. In the grammatical terminology of classical Greek, it is a tense, one of the seven divisions of the conjugation of a verb, found in all moods and voices.
In traditional grammatical terminology, the aorist is a "tense", a section of the verb paradigm formed with the same stem across all moods. By contrast, in theoretical linguistics, tense refers to a form that specifies a point in time (past, present, or future).
The literary Greek of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Attic Greek, was the standard school-room form of Greek for centuries. This article therefore chiefly describes the Attic aorist, describing the variants at other times and in other dialects as needed. The poems of Homer were studied in Athens, and may have been compiled there; they are in Epic or Homeric Greek, an artificial blend of several dialects, not including Attic. The Homeric aorist differs in morphology from Attic, but the educated Athenians imitated Homeric syntax.
Conversely, Hellenistic or Koine Greek was a blend of several dialects after the conquests of Alexander; most of the written texts that survive in Koine imitate the Attic taught in schools to a greater or lesser extent, but the spoken language of the writers appears to have simplified and regularized the formation of the aorist, and some of the features of Attic syntax are much less frequently attested.
A verb may have either a first aorist or a second aorist: the distinction is like that between weak (try, tried) and strong verbs (write, wrote) in English. A very few verbs have both types of aorist, sometimes with a distinction of meaning: for example ἵστημι (to set up or cause to stand) has both ἕστησα and ἕστην as aorists, but the first has a transitive meaning ("I set up") and the second an intransitive meaning ("I stood").
Compensatory lengthening 
In Attic and Ionic Greek (also in Doric, with some differences), the σ in the first aorist suffix causes compensatory lengthening of the vowel before the sonorant, producing a long vowel (α → η or ᾱ, ε → ει, ι → ῑ, ο → ου, υ → ῡ).
The present stem sometimes undergoes sound changes caused by a suffix — for instance, -ι̯- (IPA: /j/, English consonantal y). In this case, the aorist is formed from the verbal root without the present-stem sound changes.
|original form||Attic||original form||Attic||Aeolic|
|μέν-ω||μεν-σα||ἔ-μεινα||*ἔ-μεννα||stay, wait for|
Kiparsky analyzes the process as debuccalization of s (σ) to h in Proto-Greek, metathesis of h and the sonorant so that h comes before the sonorant, and assimilation of h to the vowel (Attic-Ionic-Doric) or to the consonant (Aeolic).
- men-sa → men-ha (debuccalization) → mehna (metathesis) → mēna or menna (compensatory lengthening)
First aorist endings 
Most of the active and middle forms of the first aorist are similar to the forms of the present and imperfect, except with an α in the endings instead of an ο or ε. The first person singular indicative active, second person singular imperfect middle, the second person singular imperatives, active infinitive, and masculine nominative singular of the participle (bolded), however, differ, and the subjunctive active and middle of the first aorist have endings identical to the present ones.
Most of the passive forms of the first aorist have endings similar to those of the root aorist.
The stem of the second aorist is the bare root of the verb, or a reduplicated version of the root. In these verbs, the present stem often has e-grade of ablaut and adds a nasal infix or suffix to the basic verb root, but the aorist has zero-grade (no e) and no infix or suffix.
When the present has a diphthong (e.g., ει), the second aorist has the offglide of the diphthong (ι).
- present λείπω "leave", aorist λιπ(ο⁄ε)- (e-grade in present, zero-grade in aorist)
When there is no vowel in the present stem besides the e of ablaut, the aorist has no vowel, or has an α from a vocalic ρ or λ.
- present πέτομαι "fly", aorist πτ(ο⁄ε)- (e-grade in present, zero-grade in aorist)
- present τρέπω, aorist τραπ(ο⁄ε)- (e-grade ρε in present, zero-grade ρ → ρα in aorist)
Present stems of verbs with a reduplicated aorist often do not have e-grade or an infix or suffix.
- present ἄγω "lead", aorist ἄγαγ(ο⁄ε)- (bare stem in present, reduplicated stem in aorist)
Second aorist endings 
Second aorist passive 
A second aorist passive is distinguished from a first aorist passive only by the absence of θ. A few verbs have passive aorists in both forms, with no distinction in meaning.
There is no correlation between the first/second aorist distinction in the active and the passive: a verb with an active second aorist may have a passive first aorist or vice versa.
The root aorist is characteristic of athematic verbs (those with a present active in -μι). Like the second aorist, the stem is the bare root, and endings are similar to the imperfect in the indicative, and identical to the present in non-indicative moods. It is sometimes included as a subcategory of the second aorist because of these similarities, but unlike the second aorist of thematic verbs, it has no thematic ο⁄ε.
The singular aorist indicative active of some athematic verbs (τίθημι, ἔθηκα; δίδωμι, ἔδωκα) uses a stem formed by the suffix -κα and takes first aorist rather than root aorist endings.
Indicative mood 
The aorist usually implies a past event in the indicative, but it does not assert pastness, and can be used of present or future events.
- ἀπωλόμην ἄρ᾽, εἴ με δὴ λείψεις, γύναι.
The aorist and the imperfect are the standard tenses for telling a story. The ordinary distinction between them is between an action considered as a single undivided event and the action as a continuous event. Thus, for example, a process as a whole can be described in the imperfect, while the individual steps in that process will be aorist.
- ἔπαιζε ἐν τῇ κώμῃ ταύτῃ ... μετ᾽ ἄλλων ἡλίκων ἐν ὁδῷ. καὶ οἱ παῖδες παίζοντες εἵλοντο ἑωυτῶν βασιλέα εἶναι... ὁ δὲ αὐτῶν διέταξε τοὺς μὲν οἰκίας οἰκοδομέειν, τοὺς δὲ δορυφόρους εἶναι, τὸν δέ κου τινὰ αὐτῶν ὀφθαλμὸν βασιλέος εἶναι, τῷ δὲ τινὶ τὰς ἀγγελίας φέρειν ἐδίδου γέρας,...
[Cyrus] was playing in this village... in the road with others of his age. The boys while playing chose to be their king this one.... Then he assigned some of them to the building of houses, some to be his bodyguard, one doubtless to be the King's Eye; to another he gave the right of bringing him messages;....
- Here the imperfect ἔπαιζε "was playing" is the whole process of the game (which continues past these extracts); the aorists the individual steps.
The narrative aorist has the same force, of an undivided or single action, when used by itself:
- ἐπεὶ δὲ εἶδον αὐτὸν οἵπερ πρόσθεν προσεκύνουν, καὶ τότε προσεκύνησαν, καίπερ εἰδότες ὅτι ἐπὶ θάνατον ἄγοιτο.
And when the men who in former days were wont to do him homage saw him, they made their obeisance even then, although they knew that he was being led forth to death.
- Were wont to do him homage is the imperfect, made their obeisance the aorist, of προσκύνω "kowtow".
On the other hand, if the entire action is expressed, not as a continuous action, but as a single undivided event, the aorist is used:
Herodotus introduces his story of Cyrus playing with:
- καὶ ὅτε ἦν δεκαέτης ὁ παῖς, πρῆγμα ἐς αὑτὸν τοιόνδε γενόμενον ἐξέφηνέ μιν·
Now when the boy was ten years old, the truth about him was revealed in some such way as this:
The aorist is also used when something is described as happening for some definite interval of time; this particular function can be more precisely called the temporal aorist:
- Οὑμὸς πατὴρ Κέφαλος ἐπείσθη μὲν ὑπὸ Περικλέους εἰς ταύτην γῆν ἀφικέσθαι, ἔτη δὲ τριάκοντα ᾤκησε.
My father Cephalus was persuaded by Pericles to come to this land and lived (there) thirty years.
The other chief narrative use of the aorist is to express events before the time of the story:
- τούς τε Ἱμεραίους ἔπεισαν ξυμπολεμεῖν καὶ αὐτούς τε ἕπεσθαι καὶ τοῖς ἐκ τῶν νεῶν τῶν σφετέρων ναύταις ὅσοι μὴ εἶχον ὅπλα παρασχεῖν (τὰς γὰρ ναῦς ἀνείλκυσαν ἐν Ἱμέρᾳ)
they persuaded the Himeraeans to join in the war, and not only to go with them themselves but to provide arms for the seamen from their vessels (for they had beached their ships at Himera)
It thus often translates an English or Latin pluperfect: the Greek pluperfect has the narrower function of expressing a state of affairs existing at the time of the story as the result of events before the time of the story.
- βασιλεύω "I am king" (present) — ἐβασίλευσα "I became king" or "I ruled" (aorist)
- basileúō — ebasíleusa
The resultative aorist expresses the result of an action. Whether this is truly distinguishable from the normal force of the narrative aorist is disputable.
- ἐβούλευον "I was deliberating" is imperfect; ἐβούλευσα "I decided" is aorist.
The gnomic aorist expresses the way things generally happen, as in proverbs. The empiric aorist states a fact of experience (ἐμπειρίᾱ empeiríā), and is modified by the adverbs often, always, sometimes, already, not yet, never, etc. (English tends to express similar timeless assertions with the simple present.)
- οἱ τύραννοι πλούσιον ὃν ἄν βούλωνται παραχρῆμ’ ἐποίησαν (not *ἄν βούλοιεν)
Tyrants make rich in a moment whomever they wish.
In dialogues within tragedy and comedy, the first person singular aorist or present expresses an action performed by the act of speaking, like thanking someone (see performative utterance), or, according to another analysis, a state of mind. This is called tragic or dramatic aorist. The aorist is used when the action is complete in the single statement; the present when the speaker goes on to explain how or why he is acting.
- Ἀλλαντοπώλης. ἥσθην ἀπειλαῖς, ἐγέλασα ψολοκομπίαις,
ἀπεπυδάρισα μόθωνα, περιεκόκκασα.
Sausage-seller. I like your threats, laugh at your empty bluster,
dance a fling, and cry cuckoo all around.
Indicative mood with particle 
Unattainable wish 
- εἴθε σοι, ὦ Περίκλεις, τότε συνεγενόμην.
If only I had been with you then, Pericles!
Past potential 
- τίς γὰρ ἂν ᾠήθη ταῦτα γένεσθαι;
For who would have expected these things to happen?
The aorist indicative (also the imperfect, or past iterative in Herodotus) with ἄν án may express repeated or customary past action. This is called the iterative indicative. It is similar to the past potential, since it denotes what could have happened at a given point, but unlike the past potential, it is a statement of fact.
The aorist or imperfect indicative with ἄν may express past unreality or counterfactuality. This is called the unreal indicative. This construction is used in the consequence of past counterfactual conditional sentences.
Non-indicative moods 
Outside of the indicative mood, sometimes the aorist determines time (often past time), and sometimes the function of the mood determines it. When the aorist does not determine time, it determines aspect instead.
Aorist in indirect discourse refers to past time relative to the main verb, since it replaces an aorist indicative.
An imperative, subjunctive or optative in an independent clause usually refers to future time, because the imperative express a command, the subjunctive expresses urging, prohibition, or deliberation, and the optative expresses a wish or possibility.
In dependent clauses (temporal, conditional, etc.), the time (past, present, or future) of an aorist subjunctive, optative, or imperative is based on the function of the mood. The subjunctive is used with main verbs in the present and future tenses (primary sequence), and the optative is used with main verbs in the past tenses (secondary sequence) and to express potentiality in the future.
Optative mood 
See also 
- Albert Rijksbaron, Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek: An Introduction (2002) – cited by section
- Herbert Weir Smyth, A Greek grammar for colleges (1916) – cited by page and section
- Smyth. p. 172, sect. 542-545: first (sigmatic) aorist active and middle.
- Smyth, p. 182, sect. 585: first passive (first aorist and first future passive).
- μένω. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at Perseus Project
- στέλλω in Liddell and Scott
- φαίνω in Liddell and Scott
- Paul Kiparsky, "Sonorant Clusters in Greek", Language, Vol. 43, No. 3, Part 1, pp. 619-635: Sep. 1967
- Smyth. p. 174, sect. 546, 547: second aorist; in o-verbs.
- Smyth. p. 174, sect. 549: aorist of verbs with simple presents.
- Smyth. p. 174, sect. 550: first aorist active and middle.
- Smyth. p. 208, sect. 755: first aorist active and middle in -μι verbs.
- Bernard Comrie, 1976, Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems, Cambridge University Press.
- Stanley Porter, 1992, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, Continuum International.
- Östen Dahl & Eva Hedin, 2000, "Current relevance and event reference", in Dahl, ed., Tense and Aspect in the Languages of Europe, Walter de Gruyter.
- Gary Alan Long, 2006, Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Greek, Hendrickson.
- Maria Napoli, 2006, Aspect and Actionality in Homeric Greek: A contrastive analysis, FrancoAngeli.
- Rijksbaron, §6.1
- Rijksbaron, §6.3.1; last clause trans. following Rijksbaron
- Smyth. p. 430, sect. 1924: ingressive aorist.
- Smyth. p. 430, sect. 1926: resultative aorist.
- Smyth. p. 431, sect. 1931: gnomic aorist.
- Smyth. p. 431, sect. 1930: empiric aorist.
- Smyth. p. 414, sect. 1858: primary and secondary tenses.
- Smyth. p. 432, sect. 1937: dramatic aorist.
- Aristophanes, W. J. Hickie. The Comedies of Aristophanes, Volume 1. H. G. Bohn, 1853. p. 83.
- Smyth. p. 402, sect. 1780: unattainable wish.
- Smyth. p. 406, sect. 1814: optative of wish.
- Smyth. p. 406, sect. 1818: unattainable future wish.
- Smyth. p. 402, sect. 1784: past potential.
- Smyth. p. 432, sect. 1933: iterative aorist.
- Smyth. p. 408, sect. 1790: iterative indicative;
- sect. 1791: comparison with past potential;
- sect. 1792: modal particle with iterative in Herodotus.
- Smyth. p. 402, sect. 1786: unreal indicative;
- sect. 1787: connection with past potential, use in unreal conditions;
- sect. 1788: different tenses in this construction.
- Smyth. p. 420, sect. 1872.c: aorist participle not in indirect discourse.
- Smyth. p. 413, sect. 1852.d: tense in subjunctive, optative, and imperative.
- Smyth. p. 407, sect. 1824: potential optative.