In Greek, the difference between the present, aorist, and perfect, when used outside of the indicative (i.e. in the subjunctive, optative, imperative, infinitive, and participles) is almost entirely one of grammatical aspect, not of tense. That is, the aorist refers to a simple action, the present to an ongoing action, and the perfect to a state resulting from a previous action. An aorist infinitive or imperative, for example, does not refer to a past action, and in fact for many verbs (e.g. "kill") would likely be more common than a present infinitive or imperative. (In some participial constructions, however, an aorist participle can have either a tensal or aspectual meaning.) It is assumed that this distinction of aspect was the original significance of the PIE tenses, rather than any actual tense distinction, and that tense distinctions were originally indicated by means of adverbs, as in Chinese. It appears that by late PIE, the different tenses had already acquired a tensal meaning in particular contexts, as in Greek. In later Indo-European languages, this became dominant.
The meanings of the three tenses in the oldest Vedic Sanskrit differs somewhat from their meanings in Greek, and thus it is not clear whether the PIE meanings corresponded exactly to the Greek meanings. In particular, the Vedic imperfect had a meaning that was close to the Greek aorist, and the Vedic aorist had a meaning that was close to the Greek perfect. Meanwhile, the Vedic perfect was often indistinguishable from a present tense (Whitney 1889). In moods other than the indicative, the present, aorist, and perfect were almost indistinguishable from each other.
The lack of semantic distinction between different grammatical forms in a literary language often indicates that some of these forms no longer existed in the spoken language of the time. In fact, in Classical Sanskrit, the subjunctive dropped out, as did all tenses of the optative and imperative other than the present; meanwhile, in the indicative the imperfect, aorist and perfect became largely interchangeable, and in later Classical Sanskrit, all three could be freely replaced by a participial construction. All of these developments appear to reflect changes in spoken Middle Indo-Aryan; among the past tenses, for example, only the aorist survived into early Middle Indo-Aryan, which was later displaced by a participial past tense.
Read more about this topic: Proto-Indo-European Verbs
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