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What Does "Aorist" Mean?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 18 June 2014
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In grammatical terms, aorists are common tenses of verb forms used in many ancient and some modern languages. They are generally used to instill an action word with a time distinction. References to past events or singular, momentary events are some of the grammatical conditions that use aorists. Examples include the following: complexive, progressive, dramatic, iterative, and gnomic.

Tenses usually reference a time period, such as future, present, and past. In grammar, they are often presented as additions to the root, or basic structure, of a word. For example, in the English language, the letters e and d are often added to the end of an action word to indicate that the action has taken place in the past. Different symbols have been used to indicate an aorist, including the sigma symbol — σ. Since the aorist is not typically the basic form of a word's structure, it is usually referred to as "marked grammar" as opposed to unmarked grammar.

Aorists most often arise in Indo-European languages. This means that most languages originating in Europe or southern Asia have used this grammatical form during some period in their histories. Examples include Ancient Greek, Hindi, and Spanish.

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In many languages, this structure is progressive and identifies a singular event. When telling a story, an individual usually strings a series of events together. Taken in isolation, each event is a snapshot of sorts. For example, an individual might say, "He picked up the fork." Since a listener or a reader does not know the preceding events or the following events, the action remains momentary.

In relevant languages, therefore, a writer or speaker would use progressive aorists of the action word "picked." If this form references a beginning event, it may be referred to as ingressive. In contrast, action words of ending events might be called consummative aorists.

Other forms of aorist tenses refer to specific situations. Some languages use an aorist tense to indicate one singular event that is summarized, and it is thus the simplest way to identify an action as having taken place in the past. In this complexive aorist form — or preterite — an individual might say, "The game was won," and signal the action word with an aorist ending. A dramatic aorist form, on the other hand, references an action made through speaking, whereas a gnomic aorist refers to a basic, universal statement of fact like those found in proverbs. If a word uses the iterative form of aorists, then a repeated or ritualistic action is being referenced.

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