Grammatical aspect


In linguistics, grammatical aspect is a property of a verb that defines the nature of temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In most modern Indo-European languages, including English, the concept of aspect has become conflated with the concept of tense, although aspect is still marked independently of tense in modern Slavic languages such as Russian. Older Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, and Classical Greek all mark aspect, as do many non-Indo-European languages such as Finnish, Hungarian, Chinese, and Arabic. Moreover, certain pidgin dialects of English such as Hawaiian Creole English and African-American Vernacular English emphasize aspect at the expense of tense.

The classical Indo-European aspects are aorist aspect, perfective aspect, and imperfective aspect, although it is possible to create grammatical models that use additional or different aspects with Indo-European languages. As linguistic tense-forms often convey distinctions of both time ('past', 'present', 'future') and aspect ('aorist', 'perfective', 'imperfective'), many discussions of grammar conceive of aspect and time as mutually distinct, yet subsumed together under tense.

It is somewhat difficult to explain the idea of aspect in English or in most other modern Indo-European languages, since they use the same patterns to encode in tense both the time and the aspect of a verb together. Time signals whether an action or event happens in the past, present, or future. Aspect signals the duration that the event covers (and perhaps its commencement, continuation, completion, or repetition, etc.); for example, whether the event was/is/will be of some fixed range of time, or whether it was/is/will be an ongoing process. Time and aspect do not necessarily have to be represented together; but any clear distinction has long been lost in English, where the verb tense-form now encodes both aspect and time together. For example, "I had eaten" normally expresses both past time and perfective aspect (an action represented as completed), whereas "I was eating" normally expresses both past time and imperfective aspect (an action represented as ongoing or unfinished).

Several other naming schemes have been created in English grammar; perfective aspect is sometimes referred to as completed, imperfective aspect as continuous or progressive, and aorist aspect as simple. Another aspect that does survive in English, albeit latently, is the frequentative, which conveys the sense of continuously repeated action; while prominent in Latin, it is omitted from most discussions of English grammar, as it suggests itself only by Scandinavian suffixes no longer heard independently from the words to which they're affixed (e.g., "blabber" for "blab", "chatter" for chat", "dribble" for "drip", "crackle" for "crack", etc.).


Usage of aspects

In some languages, aspect and time are very clearly separated, making them much more distinct to their speakers. There are a number of languages that mark aspect much more saliently than time. Prominent in this category is Chinese, which differentiates a whole slew of aspects but relies exclusively on (optional) time-words to pinpoint an action with respect to time. In other language groups, for example in most modern Indo-European languages (except Slavic languages), aspect has become almost entirely conflated, in the tense system, with time.

In Russian, aspect is more salient than time in narrative. Russian, like other Slavic languages, uses different lexical entries for the different aspects, whereas other languages mark them morphologically, and still others with auxiliaries (e.g., English).

Arabic shows a contrast between dynamic and static aspect. For example, the concepts 'ride' and 'mount' are shown by forms of the same verb rukubun, static in the former case and dynamic in the latter.

Aspect and Aktionsart

Some linguists (particularly German and Slavic linguists) draw a distinction between the grammatical phenomenon of aspect and the semantic concept which they call Aktionsart (German for manner or method of action). In these terms, aspect is a specialized grammatical category for the expression of Aktionsart. Aktionsart can be expressed in all languages, but the grammatical category aspect is only found in very specific languages.

In English linguistics, the term aspect is often used for both meanings, and so it is on this page.

Aspect in Slavic languages

In Slavic languages there are two grammatical aspects: perfective and imperfective. Perfective aspect allows the speaker to describe the action as finished, completed; imperfective aspect does not present the action as finished, but rather as continuing or repeating.

An example will be made of the verb "to eat" in the Serbian language. The verb translates into Serbian either as "jesti" (imperfective) or "pojesti" (perfective). Now, each aspect could be used with each tense of Serbian. For example:

Ja sam jeopastimperfective
Ja sam pojeoperfective
Ja sam bio jeopluperfectimperfective
Ja sam bio pojeoperfective
Ja ću jestifutureimperfective
Ja ću pojestiperfective

Ja sam pojeo signals that the action was completed. Its meaning can be given as "I ate (something) and I finished eating (it)"; or "I ate (something) up".

Ja sam jeo signals that the action took place (at a specified moment, or in the course of one's life, or every day, etc.); it may mean "I was eating (something)" or alternatively "I used to eat (something)".

Aspect in Finnic languages

Finnish and Estonian, among others, have a grammatical aspect contrast between telic and atelic. Telic sentences signal that the intended goal of an action is achieved. Atelic sentences do not signal whether any such goal has been achieved. The aspect is indicated by the case of the object: accusative is telic and partitive is atelic. For example, the (implicit) purpose of shooting is to kill, such that:

  • Ammuin karhun -- "I shot the bear (succeeded)"; i.e., "I shot the bear dead".
  • Ammuin karhua -- "I shot (towards) the bear"; i.e., "I shot the bear (and I am not telling if it died)".

Sometimes, corresponding telic and atelic forms have as little to do with each other semantically as "take" has with "take off". For example, naida means "to marry" when telic, but "to have sex with" when atelic.

Also, derivational suffices exist for various aspects. Examples:

  • -ahta- "do suddenly by itself" as in ammahtaa "to shoot up" from ampua "to shoot"
  • -ele- "repeatedly" as in ammuskella "to go shooting around"

Aspect in English

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system is considered to have strictly only two basic times (since no primitive future tense exists in English, and the futurity of an event is expressed in English through the use of the auxiliary verbs "will" and "shall", by use of a present form, as in "tomorrow we go to Newark", or by some other means). But present and past are expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which is then modified further by one or more non-simple aspects; i.e., either progressive/continuous, perfect/completed, or both. Each tense is named according to its combination of aspects and time.

So we have for the present tense:

  • Present Simple (not progressive/continuous, not perfect; simple): "I eat"
  • Present Continuous (progressive, not perfect): "I am eating"
  • Present Perfect (not progressive, perfect): "I have eaten"
  • Present Perfect Continuous (progressive, perfect): "I have been eating"

...and for the past tense:

  • Past Simple (not progressive/continuous, not perfect; simple): "I ate"
  • Past Imperfect (progressive, not perfect): "I was eating"
  • Past Perfect (not progressive, perfect): "I had eaten"
  • Past Perfect Continuous (progressive, perfect): "I had been eating"

(Note that, while many elementary discussions of English grammar would classify the Present Perfect as a past tense, from the standpoint of strict linguistics and that elucidated here it is clearly a species of the present, as we cannot say of someone now deceased that he "has eaten" or "has been eating"; the present auxiliary implies that he is in some way present (alive), even if the action denoted is completed (perfect) or partially completed (progressive perfect). Such is the distinction between time and aspect, now obscured in English by being conflated within the mechanisms of tense.)

As well as the two basic times of present and past, English has a certain number of auxiliary verbs that are combined with the infinitive to convey a variety of senses, including those normally expressed in other European languages by the future and conditional tenses, such as:

  • capacity: "I can swim."
  • permissiveness: "I may swim."
  • willingness: "I will swim."
  • futurity: "I will swim" or "I shall swim."

When combined with these auxiliaries the infinitive form changes to accommodate the same combinations of aspect available for the two genuine tenses, providing English speakers with, among other semantic possibilities, a working future "tense":

  • He can/may/will do (not progressive, not perfect)
  • He can/may/will be doing (progressive, not perfect)
  • He can/may/will have done (not progressive, perfect)
  • He can/may/will have been doing (progressive, perfect)

One ought not to derive the impression from the above that auxiliary verbs in English serve only to convey aspect; they additionally, and principally, serve to convey differences in mood, and for that reason they have been referred to as "modals". Indeed, "can", "will", and "may" all normally express indicative mood, corresponding respectively to the conditional modals "could", "would", and "might". It should further be noted that, while this correspondence works elegantly in theory, with the obscuring of mood and aspect in English, its gradual extinction of the subjunctive mood, and the further complicating optional usage of the first person "shall" and "should" auxiliaries (to distinguish willingness from futurity), the English system of modals has become quite loose, at times ambiguous, and difficult to formalize so as to reflect common, accepted practice.

It is to be stressed that these are the structural expressions of aspect and can convey meanings that would be expressed by separate and different aspects in other languages. The typical contrasts of aspect in many languages can, arguably, only be distinguished in English with the aid of phrases. Some of the many aspects found in the world's languages are exhibited below:

Examples of various aspects rendered in English

  • Habitual: 'I walk home from work.' (every day)
'I would walk [OR: used to walk] home from work.' (past habit)
  • Perfective ("perfect"): 'I have gone to the cinema.'
  • Imperfective: 'I'm going home.' (the action is in progress)
  • Progressive: 'I am eating.'
  • Prospective: 'I am about to eat' OR: 'I'm going to eat."
  • Inceptive: 'I am beginning to eat.'
  • Continuative: 'I am continuing to eat.'
  • Terminative: 'I am finishing my meal.'
  • Inchoative: 'The apples ripen.'
  • Cessative: 'I am quitting smoking.'
  • Pausative: 'I stopped working for a while.'
  • Resumptive: 'I resumed sleeping.'
  • Punctual: 'I slept.'
  • Durative: 'I slept for an hour.'
  • Delimitative: 'I slept for a while.'
  • Protractive: 'The argument went on and on.'
  • Iterative: 'I read the same books again and again.'
  • Frequentative: 'We chatter.' (contrasted to "We chat.")
  • Experiential: 'I have gone to school many times.'
  • Intentional: 'I listened carefully.'
  • Accidental: 'I knocked over the chair.'
  • Generic: 'Mangos grow on trees.'
  • Intensive: 'It glared.'
  • Moderative: 'It shone.'
  • Attenuative: 'It glimmered.'
  • Captitive: 'I fish.'
  • Semelfactive a.k.a. momentane: 'The mouse squeaked once.' (contrasted to 'The mouse squeaked/was squeaking.')

Languages which contrast intentional and accidental aspect are extremely rare; one such language is Bats, which distinguishes this aspectual difference for just six verbs. Compare so wodze I fell down (through no fault of my own, accidentally) and as wodze I fell down (through something I did, or on purpose).



pl:Aspekt (gramatyka) de:Aspekt (Linguistik) zh:体 (语法)


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