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Aorist (/ˈ.ərst/; abbreviated AOR) verb forms usually express perfective aspect and refer to past events, similar to a preterite. Ancient Greek grammar had the aorist form, and the grammars of other Indo-European languages and languages influenced by the Indo-European grammatical tradition, such as Proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit, Armenian, the South Slavic languages, and Georgian also have forms referred to as aorist.

The word comes from Ancient Greek aóristos "indefinite",[1] as the aorist was the unmarked (default) form of the verb, and thus did not have the implications of the imperfective aspect, which referred to an ongoing or repeated situation, or the perfect, which referred to a situation with a continuing relevance; instead it described an action "pure and simple".[2]

Because the aorist was the unmarked aspect in Ancient Greek, the term is sometimes applied to unmarked verb forms in other languages, such as the habitual aspect in Turkish.[3]

Indo-European languages


In Proto-Indo-European, the aorist appears to have originated as a series of verb forms expressing manner of action.[4] Proto-Indo-European had a three-way aspectual opposition, traditionally called "present", "aorist", and "perfect", which are thought to have been, respectively, imperfective, perfective, and stative (resultant state) aspects. By the time of Classical Greek, this system was maintained largely in independent instances of the non-indicative moods and in the nonfinite forms. But in the indicative, and in dependent clauses with the subjunctive and optative, the aspects took on temporal significance. In this manner, the aorist was often used as an unmarked past tense, and the perfect came to develop a resultative use,[5] which is why the term perfect is used for this meaning in modern languages.

Other Indo-European languages lost the aorist entirely. In the development of Latin, for example, the aorist merged with the perfect.[6] The preterites (past perfectives) of the Romance languages, which are sometimes called 'aorist', are an independent development.


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In the Ancient Greek, the indicative aorist is one of the two main forms used in telling a story; it is used for undivided events, such as the individual steps in a continuous process (narrative aorist); it is also used for events that took place before the story itself (past-within-past). The aorist indicative is also used to express things that happen in general, without asserting a time (the "gnomic aorist"). It can also be used of present and future[7] events; the aorist also has several specialized senses meaning present action.

Non-indicative forms of the aorist (subjunctives, optatives, imperatives, infinitives) are usually purely aspectual, with certain exceptions including indirect speech constructions and the use of optative as part of the sequence of tenses in dependent clauses. There are aorist infinitives and imperatives that do not imply temporality at all. For example, the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:11 uses the aorist imperative in "Give (δός dós) us this day our daily bread",[8] in contrast to the analogous passage in Luke 11:3, which uses the imperfective aspect, implying repetition, with "Give (δίδου dídou, present imperative) us day by day our daily bread."[9]

An example of how the aorist tense contrasts with the imperfect in describing the past occurs in Xenophon's Anabasis, when the Persian aristocrat Orontas is executed: "and those who had been previously in the habit of bowing (προσεκύνουν prosekúnoun, imperfect) to him, bowed (προσεκύνησαν prosekúnēsan, aorist) to him even then."[10] Here the imperfect refers to a past habitual or repeated act, and the aorist to a single one.

There is disagreement as to which functions of the Greek aorist are inherent within it. Some of the disagreement applies to the history of the development of the various functions and forms. Most grammarians differentiate the aorist indicative from the non-indicative aorists. Many authors hold that the aorist tends to be about the past because it is perfective, and perfectives tend to describe completed actions;[11] others that the aorist indicative and to some extent the participle is essentially a mixture of past tense and perfective aspect.[12]

Hermeneutic implications

Because the aorist was not maintained in either Latin or the Germanic languages, there have long been difficulties in translating the Greek New Testament into Western languages. The aorist has often been interpreted as making a strong statement about the aspect or even the time of an event, when, in fact, due to its being the unmarked (default) form of the Greek verb, such implications are often left to context. Thus, within New Testament hermeneutics, it is considered an exegetical fallacy to attach undue significance to uses of the aorist.[13] Although one may draw specific implications from an author's use of the imperfective or perfect, no such conclusions can, in general, be drawn from the use of the aorist, which may refer to an action "without specifying whether the action is unique, repeated, ingressive, instantaneous, past, or accomplished."[13] In particular, the aorist does not imply a "once for all" action, as it has commonly been misinterpreted, although it frequently refers to a simple, non-repeated action.[14]


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Although quite common in older Sanskrit, the aorist is comparatively infrequent in much of classical Sanskrit, occurring, for example, 66 times in the first book of the Rāmāyaṇa, 8 times in the Hitopadeśa, 6 times in the Bhagavad-Gītā, and 6 times in the story of Śakuntalā in the Mahābhārata.[15]

In the later language, the aorist indicative had the value of a preterite,[clarification needed] while in the older language it was closer in sense to the perfect.[15] The aorist was also used with the ancient injunctive mood, particularly in prohibitions.[16]

Slavic languages

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The Indo-European aorist was inherited by the Slavic languages in general; it is obsolete, or virtually so, in most of them, but does function in South Slavic languages like Bulgarian and Macedonian. Until recently, in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, the aorist had mostly been used in literary language and legal writing. The predominantly young users of the modern means of communication (SMS, email) have found advantages of using the rarely spoken verb forms like aorist and imperfect as they require fewer characters than compound verbs, thus bringing them back to popular use.[17]

In Bulgarian, which has produced a new regular formation, the aorist is used in indirect and presumptive quotations.[18] Bulgarian has separate inflections for aorist (past imperfective) and general perfective. The aorist may be used with the imperfective, producing a compound perfective–imperfective aspect.[19][20]

The aorist in Macedonian is called "past definite complete tense" (минато определено свршено време) and it refers to a completed action in the past tense. It most often corresponds to the simple past tense in English: I read the book, I wrote the letter, I ate my supper, etc. In contemporary standard Macedonian, the aorist is formed almost exclusively from perfective verbs. The formation of the aorist for most verbs is not complex, but there are numerous small subcategories that must be learned. While all verbs in the aorist (except сум) take the same endings, there are complexities in the aorist stem vowel and possible consonant alternations. All verbs (except сум) take the following endings in the aorist:[21]

јас ние -вме
ти -∅ вие -вте
тој -∅ тие -а / -ја

(The sign ∅ indicates a zero ending, i.e., nothing is added after the stem vowel.)


In the Indo-European languages Greek and Sanskrit, the aorist stem is marked by several morphological devices (the aorist indicative also has the past-tense augment ἐ- e-, which contracts with the initial vowel). Three aorist morphological devices stand out as most common:

Morphology Description, examples of aorist tense and aorist imperative
suffixing of s[22] The first, weak, s-, or sigmatic aorist is the most common in Greek.
  • ἀκούω akoúō "I hear"—ἤκουσα ēkousa "I heard"—ἀκουσον akouson "Hear!"
zero-grade of ablaut,
lack of suffix / nasal infix[23][24]
The second or strong aorist uses the bare root of the verb without the e of ablaut or the present-tense suffix or nasal infix.
  • λείπω l "I leave"—ἔλιπον élipon "I left"—λίπε lipe "Leave!"
  • λαμβάνω lambánō "I take"—ἔλαβον élabon "I took"—λαβε labe "Take!"
reduplication[25] Reduplication is more common in the perfect, but a few Greek verbs use it in the aorist. The reduplicated aorist is more common in Sanskrit, e.g. ájījanam "I gave birth."[15]
  • ἄγω ágō "I lead"—ἤγαγον ēgagon "I led"—ἄγαγε ágage "Lead!"

South Caucasian languages

In Georgian and Svan, the aorist marks perfective aspect. In the indicative, it marks completed events; in other moods it marks events yet to be completed.[26]

In Mingrelian and Laz, the aorist is basically a past tense and can be combined with both perfective and imperfective aspects as well as imperative and subjunctive moods.[27]

Northeast Caucasian languages

In Khinalug, the aorist is a perfective aspect and the two terms ("aorist" and "perfective") are often used interchangeably.[28]

In Udi, the aorist is an imperfective aspect that is usually a past tense, but can also replace the present tense.[29]


In Turkish the aorist is a habitual aspect.[3]


In J. R. R. Tolkien's constructed language Quenya, the aorist is a gnomic tense or simple present that expresses general facts or simple present actions.[30]

See also


  1. ἀόριστος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  2. Frank Beetham, Learning Greek with Plato, Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007, p. 362. This does not mean, however, that the aorist was aspectually neutral (Maria Napoli, 2006, Aspect and actionality in Homeric Greek, p. 67).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Geoffrey Lewis, Turkish Grammar (2nd ed, 2000, Oxford).
  4. Michael Meier-Brügger, Matthias Fritz, Manfred Mayrhofer, Indo-European Linguistics, Walter de Gruyter, 2003, ISBN 3-11-017433-2, pp. 173–176.
  5. Teffeteller, 2006. "Ancient Greek", in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition
  6. L.R. Palmer, The Latin Language, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, p. 8.
  7. Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, sect. 1934, citing Euripides, Alcestis, 386 "I am destroyed (aorist indicative) if you will leave me".
  8. Matthew 6:11, KJV. In Greek: Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον.
  9. Luke 11:3, KJV. In Greek: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δίδου ἡμῖν τὸ καθ' ἡμέραν.
  10. F. Kinchin Smith and T.W. Melluish, Teach Yourself Greek, Hodder and Stoughton, 1968, p. 94.
  11. Egbert Bakker, 1997, Grammar as interpretation: Greek literature in its linguistic contexts, p 21;
    Constantine Campbell, 2007, Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative: soundings in the Greek of the New Testament, chapter 4;
    Donald Mastronarde, 1993, Introduction to Attic Greek;
    Buist M. Fanning, 1990, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, p 67;
    Heerak Kim, 2008, Intricately Connected: Biblical Studies, Intertextuality, and Literary Genre;
    Maria Napoli, 2006, Aspect and actionality in Homeric Greek; Brook Pearson, 2001, Corresponding Sense: Paul, Dialectic, and Gadamer, p 75;
    Stanley Porter, 1992, Idioms of the Greek New Testament;
    A.T. Robertson, 1934, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research;
    Max Zerwick, 1963, Biblical Greek.
  12. Martin Haspelmath, ed., 2001, Typologie des langues et les universaux linguistiques, 1:779;
    Roger Woodward, "Attic Greek", in The Ancient Languages of Europe, p 33;
    see also discussion in Stanley Porter, 1992, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, p 38
  13. 13.0 13.1 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Baker Book House, 1984, ISBN 0-8010-2499-4, p. 70.
  14. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation, 2nd ed., InterVarsity Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8308-2826-5, p. 69.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 William Dwight Whitney, Sanskrit Grammar: Including both the Classical Language and the older Dialects, of Veda and Brahmana, Oxford University Press, 1950, pp. 297-330.
  16. T. Burrow, The Sanskrit Language, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 2001, ISBN 81-208-1767-2, p. 299.
  17. Dr Branko Tošović, Zbornik Matice srpske za slavistiku, knjiga 71-72 (Serbian only)
  18. The Slavonic languages ed. Bernard Comrie, Greville G. Corbett, passim, esp. p.212ff.
  19. Bernard Comrie, Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems, Cambridge University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-521-29045-7, p 12.
  20. Östen Dahl, Tense and Aspect in the Languages of Europe, Walter de Gruyter, 2000, ISBN 3-11-015752-7, p. 290.
  21. Christina E. Kramer (1999), Makedonski Jazik (The University of Wisconsin Press).
  22. Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, American Book Company, 1920, sect. 542: first aorist stem.
  23. Smyth, sect. 546, 547: second aorist stem, o-verbs.
  24. Anna Giacalone Ramat and Paolo Ramat (eds.), The Indo-European Languages, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-06449-X, pp. 248–251.
  25. Smyth, sect. 494: reduplication;
    sect. 549 (1): reduplication in 2nd aorist.
  26. Heinz Fãhnrich, "Old Georgian", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages (1991, Caravan Books), pp. 129-217.
    Howard I. Aronson, "Modern Georgian", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages (1991, Caravan Books), pp. 219-312.
    Karl Horst Schmidt, "Svan", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages (1991, Caravan Books), pp. 473-556.
  27. Alice C. Harris, "Mingrelian", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages (1991, Caravan Books), pp. 313-394.
    Dee Ann Holisky, "Laz", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages (1991, Caravan Books), pp. 395-472.
  28. A.E. Kibrik, "Khinalug", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 4, North East Caucasian Languages, Part 2 (1994, Caravan Books), pp. 367-406.
  29. Wolfgang Schulze-Fürhoff, "Udi", The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Volume 4, North East Caucasian Languages, Part 2 (1994, Caravan Books), pp. 447-514.
  30. Helge Kåre Fauskanger. Ardalambion. Quenya - The Ancient Tongue. The Verb.

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