The Present Perfective Paradox across Languages

Date: 23 April 2014

Venue: UAntwerp - Hof van Liere - Willem Elsschotzaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerp

Time: 3:00 PM

Organization / co-organization: Faculty of Arts, Department of Linguistics

PhD candidate: Astrid De Wit

Principal investigator: Prof Johan Van der Auwera

Short description: PhD defense Astrid De Wit - Faculty of Arts, Department of Linguistics

Abstract: I investigate the interaction between present-tense marking and aspect in English, French, the English-based creole language Sranan (spoken in Surinam) and a variety of Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian). My analysis starts from the assumption that there is a cognitive restraint on the alignment of bounded situations in their entirety with the time of speaking, and that this constraint is linguistically reflected in the fact that it is difficult to use present perfective constructions with dynamic verbs to refer to present-time events. Instead, dynamic verbs that are given a present perfective construal receive a variety of temporally non-present interpretations. This phenomenon is called the 'present perfective paradox'.

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Astrid De Wit: "My dissertation sets out to show that languages have developed different strategies to deal with this present perfective paradox. For each of the languages under investigation, I list the various uses of their present-tense constructions on the basis of existing descriptions, corpus data and native speaker elicitations. On the basis of these data, I propose to analyze both the simple present in English and the zero verb marker in Sranan as present perfective constructions. Consequently, they cannot be used to refer to present-time dynamic situations - barring some exceptional contexts, in which it is possible to fully view an event at the time of speaking. Instead, dynamic verbs that receive simple-present marking in English are typically interpreted as referring to habitual/generic situations, whereas zero-marked dynamic verbs in Sranan are normally taken to refer to the past.

Thus, English exploits, what I call, the 'structural strategy', whereas Sranan resorts to the 'retrospective strategy' in response to the present perfective paradox. In Slavic, in which aspect is marked derivationally on the verb, perfective verbs can receive present-tense inflection. As my data show, such present perfective verbs can receive a variety of interpretations - typically, future (in northern Slavic) and habitual/generic (especially in western Slavic). Yet, again, an actually present reading is hardly ever attested. Hence, northern Slavic mainly exploits what I call the 'prospective strategy', whereas western Slavic makes use of the 'structural strategy'. Despite the attested restrictions on the use of the English simple present, of zero in Sranan and of the present perfective in Slavic to refer to present-time events, I argue that, in each case, we are still dealing with basically present tenses."

"In French, the simple present is aspectually ambiguous (perfective/imperfective). With dynamic verbs, it takes on an imperfective value, thus zooming in on a segment of the denoted event, which is then made to coincide with the time of speaking. English, Sranan and Slavic languages need to resort to dedicated progressive, habitual and imperfective marking (in the form of a grammatical construction or, in Slavic, in the form of lexical derivation) to create such an imperfective viewpoint. In addition, speakers of English can use the present perfect to enable present-time reference."

"My data on English, French, Sranan and Slavic thus show that the interactions in these languages between temporal reference, perfective aspect and dynamic verbs leads to a variety of seemingly very diverging patterns. In my dissertation, I offer diachronic and contact-related explanations to account for this cross-linguistic variation, while at the same time retracing the attested patterns to a single concept, viz., the present perfective paradox, which is responsible for (the restrictions on) the range of uses of the present-tense constructions under investigation."

Entrance fee: Free

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