Verb aspect: Definition

June 23rd, 20121:55 am

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Verb aspect: Definition

Aspect is quite different from tense. The difference in English between he was reading and he read is’ not one of tense, since in both cases we have absolute past tense. It is in this sense that we speak of aspect as being dis­tinct from tense, and insist on such an opposition as that between perfective and imperfective being treated as aspectual. As the general definition of as­pect, we may take the formulation that aspect is different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation, i.e. aspect is semantically related to the status of an action in regard to its beginning, continuance, repetition, conclusion, etc. We may illustrate this definition briefly by con­sidering one of the differences between the aspectual forms given above as examples of aspectual distinctions in the following sentence: Mary was singing when I came in. Here the first verb represents the background to some event, while the second verb presents the situation without reference to its internal temporal constituency. Verbal forms that do not make any divide into the various phases that make up the action, will be said to have perfective meaning (expressing Perfective Aspect). The other forms, i.e. those referring explicitly to the internal temporal constituency of the situa­tion, are referred to as Imperfective.

In discussing aspect, it is important to grasp that the difference between perfectivity and imperfectivity is not necessarily an objective difference be­tween situations, nor is it necessarily a difference that is presented by the speaker as being objective. It is possible for the same speaker to refer to the same situation once with a perfective form, then with an imperfective one, without in any way being self-contradictory, e.g. I watched the talk-show yesterday; when I was watching it, some interesting ideas occurred to me. The different forms of the verb to watch all refer to the same situation of watching. In the first sentence, however, watching is represented as a com­plete event, without further subdivision into successive temporal phases; in the second case, this event is opened up, so that the speaker is now in the middle of the situation of watching, and says that it was in the middle of this situation that some event took place.

From the discussion of the previous paragraphs, it will be evident that aspect is not unconnected with time. However, although both aspect and tense are concerned with time, they are concerned with time in very differ­ent ways. As noted above, tense is a deictic category, i.e. it locates situations in time, usually with reference to the present moment, though also with reference to other situations. Aspect is not concerned with relating the time of the situation to any other time-point, but rather with the internal temporal constituency of the situation.

Many authors, however, when discussing the issue of finite verb forms, did not see any connection between tense and aspect and never analyzed these categories in their correlation. Henry Sweet, for example, interpreted tense forms as tense forms only, though he included in his work a para­graph on aspect. He viewed the progressive forms as conveying an aspec­tual meaning but he never went so far as to suggest their interconnected status. It was the research of the category of aspect in Slavic languages that urged researchers of Germanic languages to consider whether this category could be found in their field of studies. Jakob Grimm was the first to bring up this question after reading the Serbian grammar by Vook Stefanovich. Streitberg, who was the first to devote his book to the aspectual category in the Germanic languages, claimed that his book appeared under the influence of Slavonic scholar Leskin.

The majority of linguists endorse the opinion that the meaning of indefiniteness, reiteration and the meaning of single occurrence, completion, beginning are shades of meanings specific for Imperfective and Perfective Aspects respectively. The main meaning of the perfective form is considered to be the meaning of a limit, whereas the imperfective form is distinguished due to the absence of this limit.

Verb aspect: Definition – Part 2