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Gnomic vs eternal; also, telic vs atelic. (was: Re: Anti-telic?)

From:Eldin Raigmore <eldin_raigmore@...>
Date:Wednesday, July 12, 2006, 18:33
My initial contribution to this thread, perhaps, did not belong on this
thread.  It was inspired by And Rosta's preceding contribution, so I
entered it as a reply to that; but perhaps I should have changed the title.

Trask's definition of "gnomic" as having to do with "eternal truths"
doesn't really apply to statements like "Achilles is the slayer of Hector"
or "I was born in 1952 in Arkansas".

In order for a statement to be "gnomic", it is not enough that the
statement be, technically, "true forever".  In addition, the statement must
be _about_ all time; or _about_ all places; or, at least, _about_ all of

Unfortunately Trask died recently, so we can no longer ask him to clarify
what he wrote.  But if we examine the statements that other writers have
called "gnomic" versus those they would not call "gnomic", we can see that
the statements are not only considered, by their speakers, to be eternally
true or universally true, but also to be about something eternal or
something universal, or about eternity or about the universe.

So if I say "Dogs chase cats" with the meaning "(Four specific) dogs (I
have in mind) (habitually for the duration of their mutual lives) chase
(five specific) cats (I have in mind)", _that_ is _not_ gnomic, even though
it will technically be "true forever", and even though it applies to the
entire joint life of the particular dogs and cats of whom I speak.
But if I say "Dogs chase cats" with the meaning "(It is well known that
all) dogs chase (any and all) cats (whenever they get the chance)", that
_is_ gnomic.


According to, IIRC, Bernard Comrie's "Aspect", the terms "telic"
and "atelic" apply to a distinction that is better termed "aktionsart"
than "aspect".

(Of course, some writers think it is hard to tell aktionsart apart from
aspect; and some think some languages don't make the distinction, even if
linguists do.)

But, IIRC the same author (Comrie) in the same book ("Aspect"), quotes a
French grammarian on the distinction between telic and atelic; and I will
try to paraphrase, from memory, what was said about it.

It is the entire "situation" (Comrie's word -- I believe most of us would
say "clause" in English or "proposition" in French) which is "telic"
or "atelic".

A "telic" clause must proceed to its conclusion in order to be true;
an "atelic" clause may be interrupted and yet still be true.

Examples given by Comrie, as well as I can recall;

Suppose I say "I sing"; suppose I am interrupted while singing; have I
sung, or have I not sung?  Yes, I have sung.  Therefore "I sing" is

Suppose I say "I sing the National Anthem" (Comrie doesn't make clear
whether this is "God Save the Queen" or "O Canada" or "The Star-Spangled
Banner" or something else, but I suppose it isn't crucial to know); suppose
I am interrupted while singing; did I sing the National Anthem?  No, I did
not sing the National Anthem.  Therefore "I sing the National Anthem" is

Suppose I say "I sing some patriotic songs"; suppose I am interrupted
during the third such song; did I sing some patriotic songs?  Yes, I did
sing some patriotic songs (whether or not the National Anthem was one of
them); therefore "I sing some patriotic songs" is _atelic_.

That is _my_ understanding of the "telic vs atelic" distinction.  Someone
else on list may have a reference for some widely-accepted explanation of
this distinction that is markedly different from this; if so, I would like
to see it; it might change my mind.  Or, everyone else on this thread may
agree that the above is, essentially, at least close enough.


As for "anti-telic"; I can imagine that could describe those situations
which are _incapable_ of being interrupted _at_all_. For instance, in most
ordinary people's conceptions of the world for most of history, the
statement "the sun shines by day and the stars shine by night" would fit
that "definition" of "anti-telic".

Such a statement would be "gnomic", I think.  It would also be "eternal",
by the sense And Rosta meant "eternal" in his latest post, if I understood
him correctly.

Another way to form the meaning of "anti-telic" would be to go back to the
morphemes out of which the word is made.  According to Ray Brown, the "-
telic" part of these words comes from a Greek word "telos" meaning a goal.
So "telic" action has a "goal" which must be reached in order for the
action to have taken place (e.g. I swam the Channel); "atelic" action has
no such "goal" and has taken place whether or not any specific "goal" is
reached (e.g. I swam around for a while); perhaps "anti-telic" action could
be the sort of action which couldn't possibly _have_ such a goal?

Examples, corrections, comments, agreements, disagreements, confirmations,
counter-examples, etc., anyone?