This begins a new series here at the CALLE site. TAMPA is meant to provide a basic overview of the relationship of Time and Language — how languages express time and how time expression manifests itself in the various structures and forms of language. It is a precursor to an upcoming textbook covering the same information with particular focus on applying this understanding to the language education experience. Information on that project will appear soon at languageandtime.wordpress.com when it becomes available.
TAMPA is an acronym referring to the five attributes of language used for expression of time and the relationship of time to linguistic structures in all languages. These terms tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart are used throughout linguistic and language education texts, yet there exists still quite a bit of confusion regarding their meanings. Tense, Aspect, and Aktionsart are the three primary temporal attributes of language. That is, they are the concepts in linguistics that deal specifically with time. The fourth term, perfection is more secondary to the expression of time as it is purely the method of presenting the verb as completed (finished) or not. The fifth, mood, is again not specifically a temporal element, but is a key element in time expressions in most languages including English. What’s interesting about these five is that they are among the most simple, easy to understand concepts in the study of languages, yet they are also among the most misunderstood of all linguistic concepts.
There’s a reason so much confusion exists regarding these topics. More than anything, that reason is terminology. The temporal nature of language has not been the most actively studied area of languages and this is probably because it’s been only in the last hundred years or so that linguists have truly come to understand how such information is expressed in most languages and how different languages relate to time and its expression within their forms. The study of the relation of time and languages began in earnest only around the turn of the 20th century. It was at this time that linguists in Russia and Germany first realized that what works in analyzing one language does not necessarily work in analyzing another. Prior to this time, grammars and analysis of languages had been based on the model established by Greek and Roman philosophers studying Greek and Latin. Greek (ancient Greek) was the model used for most study. The Greek language is, compared to most modern tongues, quite simple and straightforward, especially in regard to temporal expression. People were discussing and writing about the interworkings of the Greek language thousands of years before the idea of linguistics as a field of study even came about. They figured out much of the science of communication and basics of what we still study today (semantics, syntax, morphology, etc) at a time when much of the world hadn’t even thought of the wheel. Human beings being easily proud of our accomplishments unfortunately didn’t continue our passion for linguistic research with that ancient fervor of old. Having figured out the basics of Greek linguistics, students of language basically stopped and for the next two thousand years attempted to describe every language they encountered in terms of their comparison to Greek.
It’s Greek to Me.
Every language is of course not Greek, nor are that many of them structurally similar to that common tongue of Sparta and Troy. Today it is understood that there are many languages, that those languages can be grouped into families of related tongues, and that various types of languages have various characteristics that may not be common in other types of language. As commonsensical as this seems though, this view is a fairly new innovation. Prior to the 20th Century, most grammars, regardless of language used the Greek model. English is by far the best example of this because most of the grammars of English, both past and present, have been written with relatively little attention paid to the actual linguistics of English. Instead, they have attempted (and always failed) to shape the structures of English into a form that can mesh with seemingly equivalent forms in Latin and Greek.
To understand the fallacy of such an approach it’s best to perhaps first consider what the study of linguistics is and to compare that to the study of a language or of the study of languages as a whole. The study of a language is basically the academic pursuit of fluency in that tongue. It’s basically just learning the language for the purpose of being able to communicate with speakers of that language. The study of languages as a social science is more one of anthropological curiosity – of comparing the ways in which various peoples and cultures communicate and how they blend the aspects of their culture and character with that communication. The field of linguistics takes this study of languages to a new level, that of the study of language as a whole – the human ability to create systems of communication with various patterns and forms and of the underlying math of such systems. It’s these systems that are truly the focus of linguistics.
Every language conveys the same information. They all have subjects and objects and verbs and ways of communicating the who, what, when, where, how, and why of daily life. This is the primary similarity of all human communication. The differences are in how this information is conveyed. Some languages use extremely long words in which complex systems of prefixes and suffixes express things like tense, number, mood, person, aspect, and any other combination of information or character. Other languages use individual words for each of these attributes. Most, like English, are somewhere in the middle with a system of inflected words and structures providing the full inventory needed for expressing any combination of meaning.
It is important to understand that all languages, while appearing sometimes very different on the surface, are at their core quite similar, especially in their being tools for conveying common information and key attributes of human existence. Time is of course one of those key attributes of our lives and languages all have a means of expressing time through their grammars, syntax, and usage. The mistaken historical approach of trying to make everything fit the mold of Greek or Latin is not in the idea that the information expressed is different, but rather that all languages express that information in similar ways. They of course do not, so while time is a standard and ever present component of language, the relation of time to each language is specific and merits specific treatment and research.
TAMPA: Tense, Aspect, Mood, Perfection, & Aktionsart
In understanding languages, improving language learning efficiency, and especially in honing an approach in secondary language instruction, understanding the primary ways in which languages express time and their interaction is of the utmost importance. Regardless of any differences languages may have in the manner in which such information is expressed, the types of time information are the same – combinations of tense and aspect as regulated by aktionsart. Some languages also blend supporting moods into their systems of temporal expression. English is a prime example of such a language in that all but two future forms in the language require additional modal support. Basically, there are five linguistic components at play regarding the relationship of time and language: Tense – the contrast between temporal references on the timeline of an utterance; Aspect – the temporal nature of that utterance, usually as durational or not, as determined by structure; Mood – any additional qualification of the utterance, particularly as applied to its verb; Perfection – the quality of the temporal nature of that utterance as completed or not, as determined by structure; and Aktionsart – the temporal nature of the inclusive verbs used in that utterance, most often defined as a combination of duration and completion.
Continue reading TAMPA: The Basics
This is page 2 of the introductory section for the TAMPA series on Time and Language. The first page can be found here.
The primary point of the TAMPA series is to do away with longstanding confusion over language and time and to provide linguists, language enthusiasts, and educators with a solid yet simplified overview of these five concepts and how all languages use them to express the relationship of time and communication within those languages. As pointed out in the introduction, much of this confusion stems from the fact that terminology did not often keep up with developments in research and understanding in this field. Also, as new concepts were discovered and explored, rarely were languages reanalyzed within the context of this new understanding. This has led to a system where these concepts to be discussed (especially aspect and tense) are often conflated. It’s also led to quite disparate terminology being used to explain the same concepts within different languages or language families. Notice, that I said same concepts rather than similar ones. This is because these five attributes (tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart) are universals of linguistics. That is, they are the same concepts, with the same definitions, and the same relationships with each other regardless of the language to which the terminology is applied. This is not to say that all languages express the relationships between time and language in the same way. They certainly do not, however it is these same universal concepts that are at work in all of these languages in much the same way that all languages use subjects and verbs and objects. The ways in which these attributes are utilized may be quite different from one tongue to the next, but the basic building blocks and rules of these relationships remain the same across the linguistic spectrum.
Every utterance in every language expresses within its meaning and structure information relative to time. This temporal information includes a time reference (when), the nature of that time reference (how long), the status in relation to that time reference (finished or not finished), whether the nature, status, and reference to time is certain or dependent on something else, and it even provides information regarding the type of utterance and information conveyed and how that effects its relation to time — [tense, aspect, perfection, mood, aktionsart]. The manner in which these five attributes are exhibited varies greatly from one language to the next and often can seem visually quite different even within various utterances within the same language. Some languages have a very strongly marked system for expressing these attributes, using various declined verbs, phrases, and structures in conveying such temporal insights (English and most other Indo-European Languages are of this type) while other languages use very few special forms and are in fact often mistakenly thought to ‘have no tense’ (Chinese) or to be missing certain of these five attributes. Often it’s simply difficult to actively identify time elements within a language because they work together in a way that leaves very little clue as to the independent temporal workings of an utterance. Consider these two sentences in English: ”You will have been working on this for 3 days by the end of the week.” and “Stop!”
In the first utterance the tense = future (will); which is a modal future of high certainty by the subjects volition (by his own will or doing) — so mood = volitive; ‘be + -ing’ is a form in English which uses structure to express duration — this is called aspect, so aspect = durational; ‘have + past participle’ is a structural form marking completeness which is often referred to as ‘the perfect’, so in this utterance perfection = perfected; finally the verb ‘work’ when used with this meaning is an activity and has an inherent time quality of occurring over a length of time (because it’s rather difficult to ‘work on’ something for only a single moment in time) — the time quality that is inherent in the meaning of a verb itself is called aktionsart, so for this utterance aktionsart = durational activity.
For the second example much less information seems visually available, yet all 5 time attributes are in fact present and being conveyed: ”Stop!” is a command. It’s said now, and intended that the person who hears it stops ‘now’, so tense = present; there is no special structure used to convey duration, so the aspect = non-durational; commands use a special set of modal forms called imperatives, so mood = imperative; no information is given as to whether the activity ordered in this command is completed or not, so perfection = nonperfected; yet, the verb ‘stop’ obviously has an endpoint to it (because once someone has stopped, well, they have stopped and are not going to continue stopping beyond that). At the same time though while there may be effort and time needed to slow down or prepare in some other way to stop, the actual act of stopping really doesn’t take any time. You’re either stopped or you’re not, but the actual change from doing something to not doing it does not take place over a period of time so that means that stopping has no duration itself. So together this means that for the verb ‘stop’, aktionsart = perfected, non-durational change of state.
These two examples show two seemingly very different utterances conveying the same sets of information in very different ways. However the time information in both are conveyed using the same five temporal attributes. These same attributes are present in every sentence in every language regardless of how different they may seem on the surface. It is the goal of this series to provide an understanding of these concepts in simple clear terms and to equip the reader with the ability to analyze any utterance in any language in terms of these five universals of time and finally to understand how these concepts interrelate and how language combine these elements to express time — that key component of human existence and communication.
Below is a basic glossary of terminology used throughout this text. A brief description of each of the five TAMPA concepts follows. An extensive treatment of each concept and a discussion of how they relate to one another and other elements of syntax and morphology begins in the next section. Some terminology listed below may be used in a manner that is not the same as other texts. It is recommended that each definition and detail section be read and considered with an open mind toward defining existing concepts within the context of the usage detailed in this work. It is the author’s belief that completion of these texts that the logic behind these usages and the usefulness of this system shall be clear upon the reader’s successful completion of the full Time & Language project:
Activity – an idea expressing an action that is performed by or on a person or thing.
Assertion – in a purely informative utterance, that point which is established by the predicate.
Attestation – in habituals, generalizations, and modal constructions, the argument proposed by the predicate which may be evaluated as true or not.
Duration – the quality of a verb or the predicate in which it is used occurring over a period of time (specified or not).
Generalization – an utterance in which it is attested that some point is generally true.
Habitual – an utterance in which it is attested that something occurs repeatedly under a given set of circumstances.
Punctular – occurring at a specific point in time versus over a range, not having duration.
Temporal – an adjective meaning of or related to time.
Timeline – an abstract or visual representation of the utterance in relation to time with the present being at the center, the past left of center, and the future right of center, onto which the temporal references used to determine tense are plotted.
Utterance – any structure expressing a complete thought and including at minimum a subject and predicate. Utterance may refer to sentences, clauses, or certain phrases; or to sentences which contain one or more of these.
Tense – tense is the name given to a way of describing the contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance. In describing tense, the relative location of these two references (to the left or right of each other) and the relative distance between them along that timeline determines tense. Tense has nothing to do with the type of time information given or the nature of the information conveyed by the utterance, it is merely a manner of describing the above explained contrast. Tense is an attribute of an utterance, not of any element within that utterance (meaning that verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions cannot be said to ‘have tense’).
Aspect – Like tense, aspect is an attribute of the utterance (and not of any component within that utterance). Aspect, refers to the use of structural elements to express the temporal nature of the utterance. Aspects can be divided into durational and non-durational varieties. Within this division, further forms may be used to determine the type of information conveyed. These types of information can show whether something is meant to be purely informative, whether it is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, an accomplishment, an activity, or simply to show that any of these others occur with a prolonged measurable duration. Multiple systems of classifying and naming aspect within various languages exist and while little agreement has been achieved toward a universal system, the common points of all are that all aspects (regardless of what they are called) are either durational or non-durational, and that they are a method of using the specific structure of the utterance (word order, auxiliary verbs, special forms, etc) to override any lexical attribute of verbs used within that utterance. It should be noted that aspect cannot be considered without awareness of the aktionsart of the inclusive verbs.
Mood – in linguistics mood and modality are mostly interchangeable terms, although to be specific, mood is an attribute of an utterance determined by the modality expressed by its form. Modality refers to the quality within a language of adding a further qualification to the assertion of an utterance. That is, beyond what is purely expressed by the combined meanings of the individual words used, the addition of specific modality creates an added layer of meaning to the utterance as a whole. Modality is used to express things like certainty, probability, willingness, coercion, confidence, certainty, or a lack of any of these things as well as a vast variety of other concepts. Like aspect and tense, mood is an attribute of an utterance itself and not of any specific component therein. Specific words and structures within an utterance however are often used to express mood. These forms are called modals and can be single words such as shall/will/can/could, phrases such as be going/be willing/had better, special forms such as let’s, and even slang such as gotta or gotsta. Mood is an attribute that is present in all utterances in all languages — just as with the other four TAMPA concepts. In some utterances that mood may be seen as missing, but would better be described as neutral, or the usual mood signifying no additional qualification (usually referred to as the indicative mood). This should not be misconstrued as a lack of mood, as mood is present, it is just simply the mood that is most prevalent and thus least noticeable. In most languages, expression of certain tenses and aspect require the use of specific moods. In English, eight of the ten possible forms for expressing the future require the use of specific (non-indicative) moods.
Perfection – perfection refers to the linguistic quality of completeness. The term (often just ‘perfect’ in common parlance) derives from the Latin perfectus and further further from the verb perficio meaning ‘finish’ or ‘bring to an end’. Perfection is actually a universal concept of many fields and comes originally from philosophy. Greek philosophers first coined the idea to describe a uniform circle as being whole and without beginning or end. Because a true circle had no corners or starting or stopping points, they referred to it as ‘perfect’ (the ‘perfect circle’). This idea spread first through the sciences, and later entered everyday speech with the meaning of flawless. The idea was first proposed by Aristotle who defined perfect as ‘that which is complete or which has attained its purpose.’ Thus in linguistics, perfect refers to the quality of a verb or predicate as completed. Like tense, aspect, and mood, perfection is an attribute of the utterance as a whole (structural), unlike aktionsart which is an attribute of the verb itself (lexical). At the lexical level, perfection is also expressed as an attribute of the verb’s aktionsart as complete or not (called telicity rather than perfection at the lexical level).
Aktionsart – as with aspect, aktionsart refers to the nature of information provided in an utterance. Unlike aspect though which is an attribute of an entire utterance, aktionsart is an attribute of the individual verb used within the utterance. In fact, aktionsart is also sometimes referred to as ‘lexical aspect’ (lexical meaning ‘of the word’ from the linguistic term lexeme which is the smallest independent unit which can express an idea — this smallest unit normally being simply put, a word). The term aktionsart is German and comes from the original idea of ‘kind (art) of action’ — the plural form is aktionsarten (-en is how most German words become plural) and the adjective is aktionsartig (pronounced ‘aktionsartish’). As with aspect, several systems have been proposed for classifying aktionsarten of verbs with no single system ever having gained prominence. But also as with aspect, aktionsarten can be basically classified as either durational or non-durational, and perfected or non-perfected. It is important to remember that aktionsart is an attribute of the verb as used in an utterance. It is therefor inherent in the actual meaning of the word. If however, a verb has more than one possible meaning, it may likely also have more than one possible aktionsarten depending on how it is used. Regardless of classification scheme used (if any is used at all), all verbs within an utterance can be defined in terms of a combination of durative (having duration or not) and telic (perfected or not) qualities. For example, Live has a naturally durative aktionsart in all forms, yet is not naturally telic, but lived (past tense) is (ie ‘John lives in Texas’ — the ‘living’ is done over an undetermined duration of time, yet no information is given regarding whether it is finished or not — but, in ‘John lived in Louisiana’ the ‘living’ is completed while the duration is still unknown. Yet, we know that there was a duration purely from the fact that a person can’t live somewhere for merely a moment in time). Sneeze and cough are naturally telic and have a non-durational aktionsart (because sneezes happen, then they are done (perfected) and if need be to talk about multiple sneezes over a period of time, the form of the durational aspect ‘John is sneezing’ must be used). It is the connection between aktionsart and aspect that tend to determine the structural and temporal nature of an utterance. The aktionsart of the verb (as a combination of duration and perfection) determine the temporal nature of the utterance (which will match that of the inclusive verb) unless, the aspect of the utterance (which remember uses the structure of the utterance to determine temporal nature) or the perfection of the utterance overrides that aktionsart of the verb. For this reason, when determining the nature of information conveyed in an utterance, the aktionsart of the verb must first be analyzed, and then the aspect and perfection of the utterance analyzed on top of that.
Continue reading Tense
Tense is one of three primary temporal attributes of language (temporal meaning related to time). The other two are aktionsart, which is the temporal nature of a verb, and aspect — the temporal nature of an utterance. They are used together with perfection and mood to express time in all languages. *Remember, an utterance is the linguistic term for any formation that has a subject, verb and/or object and expresses a complete thought.
Tense represents the contrast between two measurements along the timeline of an utterance, with one of those measurements being the Time of Utterance TUTT (the time at which the actual utterance is made). TUTT is always the primary point of reference for tense. There are three additional references to which TUTT can be contrasted: TAST — the Time of Assertion, TCOM — the Time of Completion, and TEVL — the Time of Evaluation; these are secondary references. Which type is used for the secondary reference is determined by aspect and type of utterance.
TAST – Time of Assertion: This is the time at which the action of the verb takes place. It can be a single point in time (in non-durational aspects) such as in “I had dinner at 5pm.” Or, it can be a range of time (in durational aspects) such as “I was eating dinner from 5 till 7.”
TCOM – Time of Completion: This is the point in time at which a verb is completed. TCOM is used with perfected forms. In perfected non-durational aspects it represents the time by which a verb is finished, as in “I have eaten dinner.” In perfected durational aspects it represents either the time at which a verb is finished, or more normally, a time up to which the verb is completed (but that it may continue beyond); this function of allowing for interrupting of the verb is the more standard use of this form and allows the duration of the verb to be measured up to a given point (TCOM). Consider “I had been eating for 2 hours by 7pm,” in which an action (eating) has a duration, of which two hours of it is completed, as of 7pm.
TEVL – Time of Evaluation: Some utterances do not support measuring a specific action. Instead, they express a change in state, a generalization, or perhaps an habitual truth. These utterances express an idea that is evaluated as true or not. The earliest point in time at which the idea expressed (called the attestation) can be evaluated as true is the TEVL. Consider “Birds fly.” In this utterance a generalization is made (in the present) about birds and it can be immediately evaluated (present) as true. Likewise “I used to drink coffee everyday,” refers to an habitual action that was true in the past so that the TUTT is present (it is said now) but its TEVL is the past.
Present, Past, & Future
A common misconception is to mistakenly speak of the “three tenses”. Actually, aside from the true present (saying something right now that is happening right now) which can be a point (that point being right now), tenses are ranges. These ranges refer to the contrast between the primary TUTT and the secondary TAST, TCOM, or TEVL.
If the primary and secondary references occur at the same point on the timeline, an utterance is said to be in the present tense. If the primary reference occurs after the secondary reference (TAST, TCOM, or TEVL is to the left of TUTT), then that utterance is said to be in the past tense. And, if the primary reference occurs before the secondary reference (TAST, TCOM, or TEVL is to the right of TUTT), the utterance is said to be in the future tense.
The Time of Utterance is almost always the present. The only instances in which TUTT occurs in the past or future is when dealing with reported speech, i.e. “John said “He is the murderer,” (TUTT in the past)” or “John will say “He didn’t do it.” (TUTT in the future)”. Note in even these examples that the primary TUTT of the whole utterance is present, but the TUTT of the quoted utterance is in the past or future as reported.
It is best to refer to present tenses, past tenses, and future tenses rather than just tense because utterances can occur in the immediate present, general present, near future, distant past, etc with the differences in these subcategories within a range of tenses being the relative distance along the timeline between the two temporal references — the greater the distance between TUTT and TAST, TCOM, or TEVL, the farther in the past or future the tense.
Tense does not Equal Time
The word tense is often mistakenly used to refer to time in general or for anything related to time within language. Tense is not time. It is merely a contrast between temporal references as explained above. A verb cannot have tense. Verbs alone are just words. Tense is an attribute of an utterance, and a verb outside of an utterance cannot express tense because there is nothing to compare it to.
This is not to say that verbs don’t have temporal qualities. They certainly do. In fact, all verbs have a temporal nature. This temporal nature of verbs is called Aktionsart. Aktionsart in some verbs are very strong so that they generally occur in one aspect more than another such as statives or actions. Utterances also have a temporal nature, and like aktionsart does for the verb itself, aspect determines the temporal nature of the utterance itself. In English, aspect determines whether the utterance expressed duration through its structure or not. Verbs can also be completed, this is called perfecting. Verbs can be naturally perfected via their aktionsart (such as verbs that naturally occur in an instance such as die, or sneeze). Utterances can also be completed through perfecting their aspects (have eaten, have been eating).
With all this talk of aspects and aktionsarten (the plural of aktionsart (it’s German)) and perfecting, it is important to remember that while these all deal with time, they are not tenses. So, there is no such thing as the “present perfect tense” or “present progressive tense” or the “past continuous tense” or the “subjunctive tense” or “the perfect”. An utterance can occur in the perfected durational aspect in the past (I had been eating) but ‘in the past’ is the only part of that description that deals with tense.
Continue reading Tense, Part II: Present
This is the second of 5 areas of focus for the TAMPA series on Time and Language, along with articles on Tense, Mood, Perfection, and Aktionsart. The introduction to this series can be found here. It is recommended that the entire series be read in order from the beginning before reading this article
In the previous chapter it is said that tense is nothing more than a way of describing the contrast between two temporal reference points on the timeline of an utterance. The form of that reference though, particularly the type of temporal reference used in establishing tense, is determined by aspect, perfection, and aktionsart, all of which convey the actual nature of the time information conveyed. Just as tense cannot be properly analyzed without awareness of an utterance’s aspect, perfection, and aktionsart, aspect must be considered within the context of the aktionsart of the inclusive verb within the utterance. OK, lot’s of words there, repeated and used together, so let’s begin with a quick review:
Utterance — remember this is the linguistic term for any complete speech formation. That is, an utterance is the generic name for a sentence, clause, phrase or such that has at the least a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought. Utterances can be questions, statements, commands, or exclamations; regardless of type, they are all utterances.
Timeline — time is a key attribute of any human communication. Regardless what is being discussed, some time information (when, how long, etc.) is always included. Because time is always a key bit of the information communicated within an utterance, this means that any utterance can be shown appearing within a timeline on which the temporal references of the utterance may be plotted.
Temporal Reference – because every utterance conveys the same types of time information, they all have similar characteristics (although these characteristics may take very different forms). One characteristic that all utterances share is that they each temporal references (or standard, identifiable things that can be plotted on their timeline). The temporal references are used to determine tense by contrasting the primary temporal reference with a secondary temporal reference. The primary temporal reference for all utterances is called the Time of Utterance (abbreviated TUTT). This is simply the time at which the information conveyed by the utterance is communicated. TUTT is always contrasted with a secondary temporal reference in determining tense, and the type of secondary reference — Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Evaluation (TEVL), or Time of Completion (TCOM) is determined by the aspect, aktionsart, perfection, and mood of the utterance.
Tense — regardless of what type of secondary temporal reference the utterance requires, tense represents a contrast between the secondary reference and the primary one (TUTT). If the secondary reference coincides with TUTT, the tense is present; if it occurs before TUTT, tense is past; and, if it occurs after TUTT, the tense of the utterance is future. In regard to tense, past and future are ranges and the degree of those tenses is determined by the distance between TUTT and the secondary reference on the timeline of that utterance (close together = near past/future, far apart = distant future/past).
So, tense as described above is the name given to a way of describing the contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance. Tense however, has nothing to do with the type of time information given or the nature of the information conveyed by the utterance, it is merely a manner of describing the above explained contrast between TUTT and the secondary reference. Tense is an attribute of an utterance, not of any element within that utterance (meaning that verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions cannot be said to ‘have tense’). Tense though is only one of the five attributes which every utterance in every language uses to express time. These attributes together form the mnemonic TAMPA (for tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart). Whereas tense has nothing to do with the nature of information conveyed by an utterance, aspect, perfection, and aktionsart revolve entirely around this.
Like tense, aspect is an attribute of the utterance (and not of any component within that utterance). Again, this is important in that the concept of aspect is something that reflects a quality of the entire utterance. This means that every utterance expresses aspect, but that while specific components within the utterance may take on forms specific to the aspect used, that nothing that is less than a full utterance carries aspect (so verbs, adjectives, prepositional phrases, etc will never ‘have aspect’).
Aspect refers to the use of structural elements to express certain attributes of the temporal nature of an utterance.
The term aspect means literally ‘how it’s looked at’ when referring to language. It is derived from the Latin aspectus – ‘a view’, from the verb aspicere — ‘to look at’. In selecting the term aspect in relation to languages, linguists had chosen a term to describe how a verb is looked at or viewed within the context of the utterance in which it appears. Thus aspect came to be used to describe how the structure of an utterance (the actual grammatical forms used) determined the role of the inclusive verb within that utterance.
In considering the various attributes of aspect for any given language, it is necessary to first consider the history of the study of aspect in general. Tense and aspect have long been a topic of debate and research among linguists with philosophical debate on these fronts long predating linguistics as a separate field of study. Much of the meaning currently assigned to aspect had been seen originally as the domain of tense, with tense being an all encompassing term for anything involving time. The study of tense has not always been as clearly defined as is currently, with tense dealing with temporal contrast within the utterance (the relevance of TUTT to TAST, TCOM, or TEVL – see Tense above) as being within the range of present, past, or future. Study of tense began in earnest with declined languages of learning such as Latin and Greek in which tense is marked with affixes (endings) and declensions (changes in form that convey a specific meaning). The original function of these tense markings in many languages was not that of temporal contrast (present, past, and future) but actually of aktionsart, perfection, or aspect which convey temporal nature.
The study of aspect (and later perfection and aktionsart) as independent of tense began to develop in the early 20th Century, mostly through the work of Russian linguists studying Slavic languages. These early proponents of a separate grammatical category dealing with the circumstances of the verb, or more precisely as they saw it, its viewpoint within the utterance as independent from true tense of the utterance focused primarily on languages (Russian, Latin, Greek) in which aspectual characteristics tend to occur in opposing pairs. The roots of this system are still quite obvious today with binary systems such as perfective versus imperfective (not to be confused with ‘perfected’ and perfection), telic versus atelic, etc. In attempting to apply these more clear-cut assessments of aspect into other languages, German linguists found this system did not effectively convey the what was happening in Germanic languages. They recognized that just as aspectual characteristics of the language had been shown to be separate but related to tense, that there existed an even further differentiation within language between nature of the action inherent in the meaning of a verb and that inherent in the structure of the utterance itself. Their solution was the proposal of a dual system in which the temporal nature of the verb itself, which they named aktionsart (literally translated as action-type) operated as separate yet complimentary to the temporal nature of the utterance in which it appeared – for this, they retained the term aspect.
Thus, within TAMPA temporal nature is determined by both the Aspect of the utterance and the Aktionsart of the verb within that utterance. Whereas aktionsart is universal to a specific usage of a verb (in other words whenever a given verb is used within the context of a specific meaning (say work meaning to function) it will have the same akionsart regardless of the utterance in which it appears), aspect is just the opposite; it is an expression of temporal nature determined entirely by the structure of the utterance and thus remains the same regardless of the inclusive verb (although affected by it –see Aktionsart below).
Aspect as Related to other TAMPA Elements
Aspects can be divided into durational and non-durational varieties. Within this division, further classifications may be used to determine the type of information conveyed. These types of information can show whether something is meant to be purely informative, whether it is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, an accomplishment, or simply to show that any of these others occur with a prolonged measurable duration. Multiple systems of classifying and naming aspect within various languages exist and while little agreement has been achieved toward a universal system, the common points of all are that all aspects (regardless of what they are called) are either durational or non-durational, and that they are a method of using the specific structure of the utterance (word order, auxiliary verbs, special forms, etc) to override any lexical attribute of verbs (aktionsart) used within that utterance. It should be noted that aspect cannot be considered without awareness of the aktionsart of the inclusive verbs, and also with perfection as this too is tied to aktionsart as well, and also expressed via structural forms.
The important thing to remember is that tense and aspect are separate from each other with tense being merely a contrast of temporal references. The temporal references used to establish tense are determined by the temporal nature of the utterance. That temporal nature is determined first by the inherent temporal nature of the inclusive verb itself (a characteristic of the verb as part of its meaning) as either durational or non-durational, and also within that division as various types of verb as described in the paragraph above, and also, as naturally completed or not naturally completed (telic and atelic); these are attributes of the individual verb(s) used within an utterance and are collectively called aktionsart. These attributes inherent in the verb are universal and remain the same regardless of the utterance in which the verb is used so long as the meaning of that verb remains the same (in languages where one verb can have multiple meanings, in other languages each word/verb can only have a single meaning and thus the aktionsart for specific verbs within that language is always the same for that verb). Those aktionsart attributes may however be overridden or enhanced by using the structure of the utterance in which the appears to express this same type of information. Within the context of the utterance, it is the structure of that utterance that expresses such information. And, structural expression always overrides lexical expression (or, attributes of the utterance trump attributes of the verb). Whether a verb is completed/finished or not may be determined by the meaning of the verb as aktionsart (as either telic or atelic, the terms for a verb being naturally completed (like ‘kill’ or ‘finish’ — no additional killing or finishing goes on once the verb is accomplished) or lacking that quality). It may also however be determined by the structure of the utterance. This is called perfection. Perfection expresses completeness of the verb through structural forms. These are often referred to as ‘the perfect’, but this is not quite correct as all utterance express perfection as either perfected (which forms like ‘I have eaten’ or ‘I have been eating’ express — in English perfected forms consist of the auxiliary ‘have’ conjugated for agreement with person, number, and tense with the past participle form of the verb), or non-perfected (which all other forms such as ‘I eat’ or ‘I am eating’ express). If the verb within an utterance is atelic, perfecting that utterance overrides that aktionsart and completes the verb. If that verb is already telic however, perfecting the utterance with structure may not be necessary as the verb is already completed but perfecting an utterance with an already completed verb can further emphasize that completion or draw specific attention to the exact point of completion.
Other temporal attributes such as duration may also be determined not only by the inclusive verb’s aktionsart, but by the structure of the utterance. When the structure of the utterance is used to express a quality of temporal nature other than completion, this is called aspect. The primary domain of aspect in most languages is in expressing duration. Some languages have only a single durational and a single non-durational form. Some actually have no specific form for duration at all and rely on the aktionsart of the inclusive verb or merely context to establish durative qualities. Most however have one or more durational and one or more non-durational aspects. English has a single durational aspect (either called the progressive or the continuous and having the form auxiliary ‘be’ plus present participle of the verb, i.e. ‘I am eating’ or ‘She had been driving’), and four non-durational aspects which while structurally identical may express different types of information such as being purely informative, whether something is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, or an accomplishment; the type of non-durational aspect is often heavily influenced by the aktionsart of the inclusive verb. Still, the important thing to get from this discussion is that aspect refers to the use of the structure of the utterance to determine temporal nature (mostly duration or lack of duration) other than completion, which is also structural but referred to as perfection.
Continue reading Perfection
A Logical Classification of English Aspects is the third in a series of five papers dealing with the basic grammatical structure and behavior of verbal constructions in modern English. These five works: Voice in English: Semantic Implications of the Passive-Active Paradigm (2007), Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (2007), A Logical Classification of English Aspects (2007), Structural Classification of English Modals (2009), and An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity (2009) are intended to provide a holistic overview of the core functions of the language and their inherent interactions so that a better understanding of modern English grammar may be attained.
In years of teaching English and sitting in classes trying to learn other languages, one thing that has become evident to me is that most people do not understand the role of Aspect in language. This is quite obvious when language learners are used as a thermometer against which to measure native speaker production errors. There are quite well-known instances of widespread misuse of tense/aspect combinations. North American English speakers are known to use forms such as ‘I saw’ when ‘I have seen’ is called for. Likewise British speakers tend to use ‘I have seen’ nearly universally, even when ‘I saw’ or ‘I had seen’ would be the ideal forms. It’s difficult to classify such happenings as error because grammar guides generally lack a clear explanation of the features, purpose, and usage of these many forms. Those that do attempt to provide guidance, do so with a slew of competing ‘rules’ based on traditional prescriptive guidance or misperceived standards of usage.
The role of aspect in English is the one key attribute of the language which separates it from most other tongues, especially other Germanic languages. The dynamics of aspect as both semantic and syntactic systems within English are complex and understanding of these processes are integral to fully understanding the grammar of the language. It is my hope that this paper provides the historical and general linguistic background to understand the aspectual system of English, and that the proposed classification system for Aspect within the language may lead to a greater understanding and easier method of explaining the grammar and nature of the various forms of English conjugations.
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