There is, to my knowledge, no fully satisfactory way to account for the variation of verbal aspect in the imperative mood in Hellenistic Greek (or any other period of Ancient Greek, for that matter). A wide variety of approaches have been proposed, with greater or lesser success in accounting for the data. NT grammars which attend to verbal aspect often assert that the perfective aspect (aorist) imperative is used for specific commands, while the imperfective aspect (present) imperative is used for general commands. This basic point can be found in grammars from prior to aspect study days as well. It is attractive as a beginning explanation and is intuitively useful, but it is woefully inadequate as a robust explanation for the texts we have. Other factors have been noted, such as that certain lexical classes of verbs tend towards one type of imperative or the other, regardless of the situation, and that factors such as social status, the presence or absence of the person being commanded, and possibly even notions like politeness all factor into the equation.

In this post, I am suggesting that the role an imperative of a verb of speaking plays in the conversation is also a factor in the aspect choice. This is speculative as it is based off one instance in the LXX (I have not explored it any further, though plan to someday, when I have time). In this particular exchange, the variation in verbal aspect seems to be explainable in terms of the role each imperative plays in its respective adjacency pair as part of a broader conversation. What is an adjacency pair, and why does that matter?

Adjacency Pairs

To cite from Sacks and Schegloff, the founders of the discipline of conversation analysis, via Wikipedia, “an adjacency pair is an example of conversational turn-taking. An adjacency pair is composed of two utterances by two speakers, one after the other. The speaking of the first utterance (the first-pair part, or the first turn) provokes a responding utterance (the second-pair part, or the second turn).”[1] The basic insight of the conversation analysis is that language use in spontaneous conversations tends to be highly structured and organized around basic patterns of turn-taking.

Conversations reported in written works not surprisingly tend to be organized around similar patterns of actual conversation. They are highly abstracted in the sense that they don’t have the customary pauses, syntactic infelicities, false-starts and repairs, as well as that they ultimately are the work of one mind rather than two, but they follow the basic structures of actual conversations. Thus, conversation analysis insights can profitably be used as a lens to consider what is going on in written conversations, taking account of some of the key differences.

LXX, Aspect, and Imperatives

So how does this all fit together with the LXX, verbal aspect, and imperatives. Verbal aspect is a pervasive and obligatory part of the Greek verbal system. Aspect has to do with the internal temporal structure of actions/states. Every Greek verbal form (with the exception of a few scattered words) have a variety of different forms based on which aspect they are conveying at the time. As already noted, the exact description of why verbal aspect varies in the imperative mood in Ancient Greek is quite vexed.

The LXX (read Septuagint; the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT[2]) makes an interesting place for observing aspect variation in Greek. The LXX can justly be described, in broad strokes, as “Greek vocabulary and Hebrew syntax.” It is very often the case that the Greek translator availed himself of the syntactic flexibility of Greek to render the Hebrew text in word for word order. The result is (most of the time) readily understandable, yet very clunky, Greek. However, there are many features of Greek which show appropriate idiomatic Greek usage, rather than simple slavish representation of the Hebrew text. Often, though not always, these are features where Hebrew and Greek work differently, requiring the translator to rely solely on their Greek language intuition. One such area is the translation of imperative forms.

All Greek imperative forms are marked for aspect. Functionally, in Hellenistic Greek they use either the perfective (aorist) or imperfective (present) form. There are perfect imperatives, but they are rare and tend to be lexically restricted. There is no direct equivalent feature to verbal aspect of imperatives in Hebrew imperatives. While verbal aspect is an important part of the Hebrew verbal system, it is not pervasive and obligatory and is essentially absent as an obvious and meaningful factor in the imperative mood.

Adjacency pairs and verbal aspect: Aspect sensitive to role in conversation?

1 Kings 2.12-18 shows an interesting example of aspect variation which I believe can be explained along the lines of the same verb playing different roles in adjacency pairs. The Greek verb in question is λαλεῖν.  As one should always do with the LXX, I checked the Hebrew to see if there is any difference in the Hebrew text which might account for the different Greek (assuming, of course, that the LXX translated from a Hebrew text that is the same as the Masoretic Text at this particular passage). In both instances, the Hebrew verb form is דִּבַּר , a second person singular Pi”el imperative of the root דבר, “to say, speak.” The pairing of λαλεῖν to translate דבר is unremarkable and we can rule out that the Greek differs because it is reflecting something different in the Hebrew. Assuming that the difference is accidental is possible, but should be used as  a council of desperation, only invoked if there are no other reasonable explanations available.

The conventional explanations on aspect variation doesn’t work here. It is difficult to see how one of the instances is more “specific” then the other. Also, since the same two people are talking both times, social roles, or the presence/absence of the person being commanded, are non-issues. One area that they could differ in is their respective role in their adjacency pairs as contributors to a meaningful conversation.


Adjacency pair analysis of 1 Kings 2.12-18

As already mentioned, an adjacency pair is the basic unit of spontaneous conversation. The first speaker takes a turn and is followed by the second speaker. The contribution of the second speaker is in some way connected to what the first person said. Spontaneous conversations tend to be built largely of these two-part turns, with a lot of other elements thrown into the mix. We can break up this larger passage into four adjacency pairs, as follows, with the different speakers’ turns highlighted:

Setting12 Καὶ Σαλωμων ἐκάθισεν ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου Δαυιδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ υἱὸς ἐτῶν δώδεκα, καὶ ἡτοιμάσθη ἡ βασιλεία αὐτοῦ σφ13 καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Αδωνιας υἱὸς Αγγιθ πρὸς Βηρσαβεε μητέρα Σαλωμων καὶ προσεκύνησεν αὐτῇ.   
1st APἡ δὲ εἶπεν Εἰρήνη ἡ εἴσοδός σου; καὶ εἶπεν Εἰρήνη·  Question – Answer
2nd AP14 λόγος μοι πρὸς σέ. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Λάλησον.  Proposal – Acceptance
3rd AP15 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ Σὺ οἶδας ὅτι ἐμοὶ ἦν ἡ βασιλεία καὶ ἐπ̓ ἐμὲ ἔθετο πᾶς Ισραηλ τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ εἰς βασιλέα, καὶ ἐστράφη ἡ βασιλεία καὶ ἐγενήθη τῷ ἀδελφῷ μου, ὅτι παρὰ κυρίου ἐγένετο αὐτῷ· 16 καὶ νῦν αἴτησιν μίαν ἐγὼ αἰτοῦμαι παρὰ σοῦ, μὴ ἀποστρέψῃς τὸ πρόσωπόν σου. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Βηρσαβεε Λάλει.  Proposal – Acceptance
4th AP17 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ Εἰπὸν δὴ πρὸς Σαλωμων τὸν βασιλέα ὅτι οὐκ ἀποστρέψει τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ σοῦ καὶ δώσει μοι τὴν Αβισακ τὴν Σωμανῖτιν εἰς γυναῖκα. 18 καὶ εἶπεν Βηρσαβεε Καλῶς· ἐγὼ λαλήσω περὶ σοῦ τῷ βασιλεῖ.  Proposal – Acceptance

The setting of this account introduces the two participants: the queen-mother Bethsheba and Solomon’s half-brother Adonijah. The situation is made clear: Adonijah is coming to Bethsheba to ask her for something. She is the one with control over the continuation of the conversation or not. Throughout the conversation, Adonijahis in the place of one presenting ideas but in need of permission from the other party to continue the conversation.

The first Adjacency Pair (AP) is a Question – Answer pair, which is functioning as a Greeting. Note that Bethsheba’s question is actually elicited by an action of Adonijah, making this more of a three-part move than an AP, strictly speaking.

The second AP involves Adonijah proposing a conversation, saying “I have something to say to you.” Here is the first imperative of interest. Bathsheba responds with the perfective, λάλησον, “speak!” What exactly is she doing with this response? It seems plain that she is giving Adonijah permission to pursue the line of discussion which he has come to ask her about. In other words, this response move by Bathsheba opens the possibility of a conversation, rather than denying that possibility. The choice might be represented as between the two possible answers, (1) “yes, speak on what you have to say,” and (2) “no, don’t talk about what you have to say” (obviously, a third possible response would have been for her to introduce her own topic of discussion and take things a different direction, but that would not have involved the simple “speak/don’t speak” response carried out with the imperative mood).

The third AP ends with the other imperative of interest, an imperfective λάλει. Here Adonijah provides background which supports his request, and then indicates he has a specific request to ask of the queen-mother. Presumably, there would have been an appropriate pause at this point in the conversation indicating that he was done with what he had said and is now waiting affirmation to continue with asking his question. It is important to again consider what Bethsheba is doing with her response of λάλει (remember, the Hebrew is the same for both her responses). The choice before her appears to be different this time. The issue is no longer one of approving or denying a possible conversation, but of continuing or stopping a conversation that is already underway. This, I submit, could account for the difference in the verbal aspect between these two Greek imperatives. While she is using the same word in response to Adonijah’s move in the conversation, her own conversation move is different each time. She is providing affirmation via an imperative for a slightly different request each time: start a conversation or continue a conversation.

In summary, I would suggest the following expansive glosses to capture the meaning distinction which I am proposing for these two imperatives:

v. 12 λάλησον: “(you have my permission to) speak!”

v. 14 λάλει: “go on (with what you are talking about)!”

My surmise is that the aspect usage difference would be driven here by the difference in what she is communicating in her response. As already noted, I have not looked for any similar occurrences in Greek elsewhere, either composition or translation Greek. This appears a sensible explanation for the aspect variation in this particular text where there is no reason to expect the Hebrew being translated triggers the aspect variation in anyway. While it is certainly premature to add this consideration to the list of possible factors influencing verbal aspect in the imperative mood, it is a promising explanation for this occurrence and possibly testifies to a normal pattern of aspect usage for verbs of speaking in conversation.

[1] Schegloff, Emanuel; Sacks, Harvey (1973). “Opening up closings”. Semiotica. 8 (4): 289–327).

[2] To call it a “translation” is misleading in that it really is a collection of different translations made a different times, and in some cases edited and revised. It is referred to as the LXX out of convenience, not because it is a centralized work.