Written by Dyami Millarson
Aorist literally means unlimited or indefinite in Ancient Greek and it is probably one of the most difficult concepts of Ancient Greek grammar to understand in its entirety. The aorist always fascinated me while studying Ancient Greek, because it is such a mysterious verbal tense that seems to elude all rational understanding; there is certainly a lot of mystery surrounding its actual use. Few people truly understand the aorist and really know how to use it like an Ancient Greek person. It has always been my objective to be able to understand and apply Ancient Greek grammar like an Ancient Greek person would; my goal since 2010 has been the revival of the active use of Ancient Greek grammar and so I have always felt an urge to get a proper grasp of how Ancient Greeks used the aorist. The best way to learn is through the observation of a large set of examples and then the reproduction (imitation) of said examples by adapting them to other situations that look similar as those in which the original examples were found. However, I want to keep this article short and simple, so I will just briefly summarise my understanding of the aorist.
What is the aorist? The aorist is generally a simple action that was completed in the past. However, the aorist may in some cases also be a proverb-like timeless truth (in which case it is called a gnomic aorist) or a continuous action which began in the past. An example of such a proverbial or general truth: hares run fast. In addition, the aorist may be an action that happened in the past of the past; such an action was already in the past and was not the present at the time when the narrative, which the speaker is now referring to as the past, took place. This layered past may be understood in the same way as the pluperfect or past perfect in English.
I hope that with this simple explanation, the aorist has largely been demystified and I believe the aorist remains fascinating even when it may be readily understood once explained in a simple manner that does not needlessly mystify it or make it needlessly complex; Ancient Greeks would also have understood it in a simple way and they would not have thought of it as extremely complicated, so it should not be explained in such a way either. Generally, grammars of Ancient Greek talk from a passive translator’s perspective and it is hard to turn this into an active language user’s perspective. A translator does not need to concern himself too much with understanding the nuances of the tenses like an Ancient Greek did, whereas a user needs to know every single detail as he would otherwise not be able to make the right decisions for constructing a sentence. The user requires a roadmap, as the user needs to make fast decisions about what applies to the specific situation and the quicker the user can make these decisions, the more fluent he can be. So it is imperative for the user to learn to automate the decisions in his mental roadmap, and this automation can be brought about by simply the frequency by which he traverses the road of certain choice he needs to make a decision about. From an active user’s perspective, a language is full of options and for the beginner, these options can be so overwhelming that it is hard to make any sentences in the language he is learning. For this reason, it is useful to have a graph that will help the beginner analyse the roadmap that the advanced user of a language possesses. In this case, the beginner needs a graph of the roadmap for the use of the aorist in Ancient Greek. Nonetheless, please bear in mind this roadmap is a simplification of the options that exist.