Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

Tense and Aspect in English and Spanish Past Forms

Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

Tense and Aspect in English and Spanish Past Forms

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This paper offers an account of the structure and the meaning of English and Spanish past forms. This account is based on several assumptions: a) a functional category for grammatical aspect is present in both synthetic and analytic forms, b) grammatical aspect and lexical aspect interact, making up the final aspectuality of the event, c) be and estar 'to be' are aspectual auxiliaries that add a locative feature to [-perfective] aspect, and d) have and haber 'to have' are temporal auxiliaries that add a temporal feature to [+perfective] aspect.

We also explore how a systematic comparison of the structural properties of the past forms in the two languages may serve to explain some grammatical phenomena that are relevant contrastively. Finally we briefly point to some implications of the analysis for the fields of first and second language acquisition. *

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1. THE EXPRESSION OF TEMPORALITY. In the expression of temporality two concepts are crucial: tense and aspect. TENSE is a deictic category that locates the event in time, whereas ASPECT characterizes the internal temporality of that event. (1)

Clear-cut though this distinction may seem, things are not so neat when we consider the actual facts. So interconnected are the two that Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik (1985:188) contend that 'aspect is so closely connected in meaning with tense that the distinction in English grammar between tense and aspect is little more than a terminological convenience'. Many grammarians have also frequently noted the difficulty of differentiating between aspect and tense in a given form in Spanish (see, among others, Lazaro Carreter 1971, Rallides 1971 or Roca Pons 1958).

This leads to frequent disagreement on how to classify the different verbal forms. For example, the periphrastic form haber + past participle is generally included within the inventory of tenses in Spanish grammars, whereas most English grammars will see the auxiliary have in this form as a marker of grammatical aspect. On the other hand, estar + present participle is treated as a manifestation of analytic aspect. Similarly, the contrast between the Preterite and the Imperfect Past in Spanish has been treated as either the opposition between two aspects of the same tense (see Bull 1960, Alarcos 1970, RAE 1973, Comrie 1976, or Slawomirski 1983) or as the opposition between two different tenses (see Coseriu 1976, Cartagena 1978, or Rojo 1990). In this, as in many other issues, the decision is largely theory-internal. Facts will fall to one side or the other depending on the precise notions of tense and aspect that are adopted.

We want to follow in this respect the standard two-fold opposition between what may be termed EXTERNAL TEMPORALITY and INTERNAL TEMPORALITY--the 'situation-external' and the 'situation internal' time of Comrie (1976:5). External temporality places the event on the objective time axis, situating it with respect to the moment of speech in so-called ABSOLUTE forms, and to another temporal reference in the RELATIVE ones. On the other hand, internal temporality focuses on how the event is seen internally and is comprised of at least two notions: the lexical aspect of the predicate and the grammatical (i.e. morphological) aspect of the verbal form. The interaction of the two makes up the final ASPECTUALITY of the event (see De Miguel 1999, from whom this term has been taken).

Beginning with lexical aspect, Aristotle can be credited with first introducing the relevance of the inherent temporal make up of verbs in a grammatical description. His distinction between KINESEIS-VERBS (verbs that need to reach an end like build or arrive) and ENERGEIAI-VERBS (like travel or work) has been somehow present in the different aspectual classifications that have been adopted in grammatical studies. Among them, one of the most widely discussed (and revised) has been Vendler's (1957) distinction among STATES, ACTIVITIES, ACCOMPLISHMENTS and ACHIEVEMENTS. …

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