The present perfective paradox across languages
This talk starts from the observation that, in many genetically and geographically unrelated languages, there is a remarkable restriction on the use of the present tense to refer to dynamic or perfective situations that are happening at the time of speaking – a phenomenon called the ‘present perfective paradox’ (Malchukov 2009; De Wit 2017). With stative and imperfective situations, on the other hand, there are no such alignment problems. In English, for instance, it is ungrammatical to employ the simple present to refer to present-time events (e.g., *Be quiet, I write), whereas present-time states do allow the use of the simple present (e.g., I feel sick). Similar interactions between the present tense and aspect have been attested in language-specific studies of, among others, various Slavic languages, creole languages, Bantu languages, Niger-Congo languages and Japanese. In these languages, the so-called present tense (when combined with perfective/dynamic verbs) is primarily used to report future, past or habitual rather than present-time events.
In this presentation, I will analyze the manifestation of this present perfective paradox in English, French, the English-based Surinamese creole language Sranan, and a variety of Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian), thereby adopting an epistemic approach to temporal and aspectual categories (e.g. Langacker 1991). The analysis starts from the assumption that there is a cognitive constraint 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 is difficult to use present perfective constructions with dynamic verbs to report present-time events. On the basis of a detailed study of corpus data and native-speaker elicitations, I argue that languages have developed a variety of strategies to tackle this alignment problem. One solution is to insert a construction that, like the progressive, has the capacity to imperfectivize originally perfective situations. Another solution is to assign a non-present interpretation to present perfective constructions: a past interpretation (‘retrospective strategy’), a future interpretation (‘prospective strategy’), or a habitual/generic interpretation (‘structural strategy’). I will propose a variety of diachronic, contact-related, and cognitive explanations to account for which specific strategy is chosen and for the cross-linguistic variation in this respect.
De Wit, Astrid. 2017. The Present Perfective Paradox across Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Volume 2: Descriptive application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Malchukov, Andrej. 2009. Incompatible categories: Resolving the "present perfective paradox". In Cross-linguistic semantics of tense, aspect and modality, ed. by Lotte Hogeweg, Helen de Hoop & Andrej Malchukov, 13-31. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
About the ACLC seminar series
The ACLC seminar series is a two weekly lecture series organized by the ACLC, the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication.