How to Use the Pluperfect in Ancient Greek?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Pluperfect is Latin for ‘more than completed’, which is an apt name as it is used in Ancient Greek for expressing the past of the past. I talked in my earlier articles about the aorist and imperfect. The aorist, imperfect and pluperfect are past tenses in Ancient Greek. The pluperfect is a rare past tense in Ancient Greek, because the aorist and imperfect are often used in its place. The aorist and imperfect may both be used to express an action in the past which occurred at an earlier time relative to another action; the pluperfect expresses this kind of layered past as well. The reason behind the name pluperfect: the imperfect (im- = non-) expresses a non-completed action in the past, the aorist expresses a completed action in the past, and the pluperfect is “more than completed” because it expresses an action that is completed earlier than another action in the past. While the use of the pluperfect is severely limited on account of the fact that the imperfect and aorist are mostly usurping its place, particularly in temporal clauses, the pluperfect does nevertheless occur in Ancient Greek, particularly in independent clauses.

The pluperfect does, nonetheless, never exist on its own but always exists in relation to another past tense, and so it may be deemed a ‘relational tense’, which requires another tense for its very existence. In other words, the pluperfect is a dependent tense while it depends on other tenses for its activation; it will not be called into being unless other tenses require additional temporal contextualisation. The pluperfect is a tool that helps to categorise what happened before and what happened after, and so this helps the listener to follow the speaker’s account of the chronology of past events. The pluperfect is basically a device to help the listener, but this device is often not needed in Ancient Greek because it is already clear from the context whether an event happened before or after another event in the past, and the limited use of the pluperfect perhaps also shows that the Ancient Greek culture did not care too much about temporal organisation and was quite content with its basic system of distinguishing simple past actions (marked by the aorist) and continuous past actions (marked by the imperfect), which the Ancient Greeks seem to have considered more important than distinguishing whether actions in the past were preceding or following another action; in other words, Ancient Greeks cared more for the nature of the actions than their sequence. To be more specific, Ancient Greeks cared about whether actions in the past were completed or not, and this focus might have to do with a traditional pagan culture valuing the completion of actions.

After studying the pluperfect, we have completed our study of the Ancient Greek past tenses.

7 comments

  1. This is what I find most annoying and disconcerting about some language learning, this terminology. It’s like having to learn one language in order to learn another.
    I really want to learn languages, but this way?
    So I’m stuck with ‘conversational’ teaching methods.

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      • It is nice to hear you have such an interest in languages, I encourage you to continue. What books are you currently using for learning French? Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

      • French – the free online course by Duolingo. It leaves a great deal to be desired, as the saying goes, but for the moment allows me to build up some groundwork (trying to remember my old school French lessons – which did not use any of the grammatical terms).
        And yourself?

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