Meanings of the Present Stem

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70. The forms which contain the present stem (the present and imperfect indicative, with the moods of the present) denote progressive action (incipient, continued, repeated, etc.), as opposed to a single fact or event.

It is easy to understand why a language which distinguished these two kinds of action should have no aorist for present time (*βῆμι, *λάβω, etc.). The present is not a space of time, but a point; what is present therefore is not (generally speaking) a whole action or event, but the fact that it is in course of happening. So in English we usually say, not I write now, but I am writing now. The mere effort of regarding an action as in present time almost obliges us to give it a progressive character.

The forms εἰμί, εἶμι, φημί, ἄγω, γράφω, etc., in which the stem has the form generally found only in aorists (§ 11, § 30), may be regarded as surviving instances of the 'present aorist,' i.e. of a present not conveying the notion of progress. We may compare the English use of I am, I go (now archaic in the sense of I am going), I say (says he), etc. In these cases the use of a distinctly progressive form has not been felt to be necessary.

A past action may usually be regarded, if we choose, as a single fact, irrespective of its duration (ἐβασίλευσεν ἔτη τριάκοντα he reigned, not he continued reigning). But an action which is thought of as contemporary with some other event is almost necessarily regarded as progressive. Accordingly, answering to the present I am writing (now), we have the past tense I was writing (when he came).

It follows from what has been said that a present or imperfect may be used either

  1. because the action intended is essentially progressive, or
  2. because the time is fixed by reference (a) to the moment of speaking, or (b) to a point of time in the past.

E.g. δίδωμι may mean either I seek to give, I offer, or I am giving; ἐδίδου either he offered or he was giving. In the second of these uses the notion of progress is only relative, arising from the relation of time under which the action is thought of.1

71. From the relative notion of progress or continuance is derived the general rule that the imperfect is used of a subordinate action or circumstance.

Il. 8.87 ὄφρʼ ὁ γέρων ἀπέταμνε τόφρʼ Ἕκτορος ὠκέες ἵπποι ἦλθον
while he was cutting the chariot came

Some varieties of this use may be noticed.

  1. The imperfect shows that a verb stands in a special connection with the verb of another clause.

    Il. 1.3-5 ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
    sent down the souls of heroes to Hades, while it made themselves a prey to dogs

    Od. 8.532 ἔνθʼ ἄλλους μὲν πάντας ἐλάνθανε δάκρυα λείβων, Ἀλκίνοος δέ μιν οἶος ἐπεφράσατʼ δʼ ἐνόησε
    while he was unobserved by the others, Alcinous observed him

    Il. 7.303 ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας δῶκε ξίφος ἀργυρόηλον, Αἴας δὲ ζωκτῆρα δίδου (gave in exchange)

    Od. 8.63 τὸν περὶ Μοῦσʼ ἐφίλησε, δίδου δʼ ἀγαθόν τε κακόν τε, ὀφθαλμῶν μὲν ἄμερσε, δίδου δʼ ἡδεῖαν ἀοιδήν

  2. In oratio obliqua.

    Il. 22.439 ἤγγειλ’ ὅττι ῥά οἱ πόσις ἔκτοθι μίμνε πυλάων

  3. The action or point of time to which the verb in the imperfect is subordinate may be merely implied.

    Il. 4.155 θάνατόν νύ τοι ὅρκι᾿ ἔταμνον
    it was death then to you that I made (in making the treaty)

    So in the common use with ἄρα

    σὺ δʼ οὐκ ἄρα τοῖος ἔησθα
    you were not as I thought ( = you are not, it now seems)

72. Essentially progressive action (incomplete or continuous) is exemplified

  1. In the verbs which form the aorist from a different verb stem.

    ὁράω I watch (Lat. tueor, whereas εἶδον means I descried)
    λέγω relateset forth (but εἶπον said)
    φέρω carry (but ἤνεγκον I brought)

    so τρέχω, ἔρχομαι (expressing different kinds of motion).

  2. In other verbs of motion, esp. βαίνω and ἵστημι

    Il. 21.313 ἵστη δὲ μέγα κῦμα
    raise up a great wave

    and often in the middle

    Il. 2.473 ἐν πεδίῳ ἵσταντο
    were drawn up in the plain

    παρίστατο
    came and stood beside, etc.

    Note 1. We should read ἵστασαν (not ἔστᾰσαν as a first aorist) in

    Il. 2.525 στίχας ἵστασαν (Bekk., La R., from the best MS.)

    Il. 12.56 τοὺς ἵστασαν υἷες Ἀχαιῶν
    which the Greeks had planted; see § 73.

    Od. 3.180 τέτρατον ἦμαρ ἔην ὅτʼ ἐν Ἄργεϊ νῆας ἐΐσας Τυδεΐδεω ἕταροι . . . ἵστασαν (see Ameis a. l.)

    Od. 8.435 αἱ δὲ λοετροχόον τρίποδʼ ἵστασαν (Bekk., La Roche)

    Od. 18.307 αὐτίκα λαμπτῆρας τρεῖς ἵστασαν (Bekk., La Roche)

    Note 2. The verb ἄγω is often so used.

    Il. 1.367 τὴν δὲ διεπράθομέν τε καὶ ἤγομεν ἐνθάδε πάντα

    Il. 7.363 κτήματα δʼ ὅσσʼ ἀγόμην
    the treasures which I brought (= have brought)

    Il. 9.664 τὴν Δεσβόθεν ἦγε
    whom he had brought

    In this verb, however, the aorist meaning appears distinctly in the participle.

    Il 6.87 ἡ δὲ ξυνάγουσα γεραιάς
    assembling (= having assembled)

    Il. 1.311 εἷσεν ἄγων
    brought and seated (cp. 3.48, 4.392, 11.827, 22.350).

    Perhaps these uses should be connected with the aoristic form of the stem (§ 70).

  3. In verbs expressing the beginning of a motion.

    ὤρνυτο bestirred himself (but ὦρτο arose)
    ἀφίει
    προΐει,
    ἔπεμπε
    μύθων ἦρχε began speech

    This usage extends to all words which imply a continuous result.

    κελεύει
    ἐκέλευε
    ἐπέτελλε
    ᾔτεε
    οὐκ ἐᾷ will not allow
    λείπω (to leave = to keep at home)

  4. ἀκούω and πεύθομαι sometimes mean to know by hearing.

    Il. 11.497 οὐδέ πω Ἕκτωρ πεύθετο
    Hector was not yet aware

    Il. 14.125 τὰ δὲ μέλλετʼ ἀκουέμεν
    you are like to have heard it

    and Od. 3.87, 187, 193. So in Attic μανθάνω understand, αἰσθάνομαι I am aware, πυνθάνομαι I learn (Goodwin, § 28).

73. A process thought of in relation to the present time, or to a point in the past, is expressed by the imperfect. (= English I have been doing, I had been doing).

Il. 6.282 μέγα γάρ μιν Ὀλύμπιος ἔτρεφε πῆμα
has reared him up to be a mischief (a process)

Cp. Il. 1.414 τί νύ σʼ ἔτρεφον
why have I reared thee?

Il. 9.524 ἐπευθόμεθα
we have been accustomed to hear

So the participle, Il. 3.44 φάντες who have been saying.

74. The "historical present" is not found in Homer, but somewhat the same effect is often given by the use which may be called the descriptive imperfect.

Il. 2.150 νῆας ἔπʼ ἐσσεύοντο, ποδῶν δʼ ὑπένερθε κονίη ἵστατ’ ἀειρομένη, τοὶ δʼ ἀλλήλοισι κέλευον ἅπτεσθαι νηῶν ἠδʼ ἑλκέμεν εἰς ἅλα δῖαν, οὐρούς τʼ ἐξεκάθαιρον κ.τ.λ.

The imperfect appears sometimes to be used in a description along with aorists for the sake of connection and variety (i.e. in order to avoid a series of detached assertions): e.g. in Il. 1.437-439, 2.43-45, 4.112-119; Od. 4.577-580.

  • 1. Aken, Hauptdata, p. 9.