all Scandinavian languages: "I do" vs. "I'm doing"

Discussion in 'Nordic Languages' started by Gavril, Apr 19, 2013.

  1. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    Hello,

    In English, present-tense action is normally expressed by a construction involving to be + -ing: e.g., I’m writing a letter. On the other hand, the conjugated “present tense” form of a verb is most commonly used for a habitually-occurring action: I write a letter every day.

    Do the Scandinavian languages (Danish/Norwegian/Swedish) normally use the conjugated form of a verb (“I write”) to express an action occurring in the present, or do they tend to use a composite construction (analogous to English I’m writing)? Or, are both options possible?

    Thanks for any info,
    Gavril
     
  2. henbjo Junior Member

    Valencia, Spain
    Norwegian
    The short answer is that unless the main message you want to convey is that you are currently in the process of doing something, we use the conjugated form (at least in Norwegian, but I'm 99% sure that it applies for Swedish and Danish as well).
     
  3. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Danish:

    To express the idea that something is happening now, i.e. the present continuous in English, you may use 'er ved at' in Danish.

    What are you doing? (Hvad laver du?)
    I'm writing a letter. (Jeg er ved at skrive et brev) Alternatively, the simple present tense of the verb may be used as well: Jeg skriver et brev.

    I'm writing a letter every day (A habitual action) (Jeg skriver et brev hver dag)

    Bic.
     
  4. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    Swedish also lacks a literal translation that corresponds to the English present progressive (although you see L2 learners make attempts to apply direct translations here every now and then). There is a modal verb (att hålla på) that roughly translates to be occupied with or be in the process of which can be used to stress that an action is continuously taking place as one speaks.

    While many languages have separate forms for present habitual and ongoing actions, I think the English construction is rather unique.
     
  5. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    If you did want to emphasize the "ongoing-ness" of an action, what construction(s) could you use in Norwegian?
     
  6. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Norway
    Polish
    In theory you could use a construction like "jeg i ferd med å skrive et brev", but this is rather seldom used.
    In the present it's more common to say " jeg skriver et brev akkurat nå" (i'm writing a letter just now).
    The construction (note that it is not classified as compund tense) is more often used while talking about the past "jeg var i ferd med å skrive et brev da jeg hørte at noen ringte på døra" (I was writing a letter when I heard that somebody rang at the door).
     
  7. henbjo Junior Member

    Valencia, Spain
    Norwegian
    A quite common composite construction is "å holde på med + infinitiv/infinitiv".

    "Jeg holder på med å skrive et brev" (I'm writing a letter), "Jeg holder på med middagen" (I'm making dinner)
     
  8. Þröstur New Member

    Reykjavík
    English, UK
    Danish has several ways of translating so called -ing forms:
    simple present tense: the most common way of translating -ing forms
    i gang med/i færd med: often used when you want to emphasise that something is happening right now. Roughly analogous to "to be in the middle of"
    mens: used when translating sentences such as "walking down the stairs, he realised he'd forgotten his keys", "mens han gik ned ad trapperne opdagede han, at han havde glømt sine nøgler"

    Danish does have a present participle, formed by appending -ende onto infinitives. It is only used in adjective form, for example "a crying woman", "en grædende kvinde", and with verbs of motion to specify a mode of transport, e.g. "jeg kom cyklende på arbejde", "I cycled to work".

    Hope this helps clarify things.
     
  9. JohanIII

    JohanIII Senior Member

    Switzerland
    Swedish
    Swedish also has the alternatives (to "håller på med") "är i [gång/färd] med".
    There färd is somewhat more unusual, perhaps old-fashioned (or is at least used for variety's sake of older/more versatile speakers, [ahem, I happen to like it :) ]).

    About past tense with "färd", as per Ben Jamin's example in Norwegian, is fully translatable to Swedish too; also the "akkurat nå" with it being "just nu" in Swedish.

    We also have the "en gråtande kvinna" (Þröstur, just above here).
    Though strictly speaking "jag kom cyklande" is not present tense?

    Now, "i gång" resembles "att ha kommit igång med" (having [just] started), and so has it's meaning and use influenced by that resemblance.
    To otherwise emphasize that you just have started, just add "just" (sic!): "håller just på med", "är just i färd med" (the first again being the more usual, and again the second more likely to be used with past tense).
     
  10. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    It does, thanks, but what about the ved at-construction (Jeg er ved at skrive et brev)that Bicontinental mentioned above? Is it equivalent in meaning to the simple present, and is it (relatively) often used in place of the simple present if so?
     
  11. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    The verb at være ved at [verb] is equal to at være i gang/færd med at [verb] (and Swedish att hålla på att [verb] and att vara i färd/gång med att [verb]) and is used to stress that the action is ongoing.

    Regarding the distribution of the Danish verbs, I don't know, but can only assume that some prefer the one, some the other, and some all of them. As for the Swedish ones, I find all but but att hålla på att old fashioned.

    When exactly one feels the need to stress that an action is ongoing is of course arbitrary, but obvious cases that come to mind included responses to direct questions and cases where the action is supposed to produce a result.
    For instance, when being asked in a phone call what one is doing, the progressive aspect could be used to signal that the speaker intend to finish the action, such as when cooking or eating a meal, doing laundry or performing some other more or less necessary task. Similarly, using the normal present form could indicate that the speaker opens the possibility of terminating the action or that it is not continuous for some other reason. Examples includes more or less anything the speaker does in lack of better options.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2013
  12. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    In Norwegian the two form can be summed up by these examples:
    1) Jeg skriver brev (habitual) = I write letters
    2) Jeg skriver et brev (current) = I am writing a letter
     
  13. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Hi Þröstur,

    I just have a few comments to your post :)

    I gang med is certainly used in colloquial, modern Danish. It’s actually a quite versatile and useful little construction, whose precise meaning changes according to the verb that introduces it; at være i gang med noget (to be in the process of doing something) or at skulle i gang med noget (to be about to do something), at i gang med (to get started with-on something) just to mention a few. It is the construction with the verb være that works as a translation for the continuous tenses in English.
    At være i færd med sounds quite dated or at least formal in Danish… certainly in spoken Danish. More contemporary versions would include at være ved at or at være i gang med at.



    Mens (imens), is a conjunction which means while. It introduces a dependent clause, as shown in your example above, so I’m afraid it would not be an option in the translation of the example in the OP, I’m writing a letter.

    Bic.
     
  14. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    While I of course agree that these examples (and their literal Swedish translations) describe habitual and present progressive actions respectively, the distinction is made by the absence of the indefinite article resulting in the noun being interpreted as plural, rather than by the verb form (which is what this thread is about, I believe).

    If you call your friend, whom you know has loads of pen pals, ask what she's doing and get the reply "Jeg skriver brev", wouldn't you interpret it as a present progressive action?
     
  15. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    If she said "jeg skriver brev" I would interpret that as something she is doing on a regular of even professional basis. It is something she does, regardless of time and place. Likewise - "jeg kjører bil" as opposed to "jeg kjører en bil"
     
  16. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    That’s how it could be interpreted in Danish, Tjazhi. It can be used in a habitual context and to indicate what’s going on right now, but the distinction in Danish is based on the context:

    What are you doing [now]?:
    I’m writing a letter= jeg skriver brev, jeg skriver et brev, jeg er ved at skrive brev, jeg er ved at skrive et brev, jeg er i gang med at skrive brev/et brev.

    I write a letter every day = jeg skriver brev hver dag, jeg skriver et brev hver dag.


    At skrive brev is, of course, an infinitive. The lack of an article before the noun makes it very generic… and emphasizes the act of letter writing much like the corresponding gerund (brevskrivning). Other similar verb-direct object constructions include, lave mad, spille klaver, køre bil, fange mus etc. In my opinion, these generic constructions can all be used about habitual as well as current ongoing/progressive actions.


    Bic.
     
  17. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    Well, the context I provided was supposed to describe a telephone conversation in which a person known to write letters on a regular basis is asked about her activity at the time of (her receiving) the call. The point obviously being that there are contexts in which jeg skriver brev could describe a "current" action, just as jeg skriver et brev hver uke describes a habitual action. The normal present tense does not by definition distinguish between habitual or present progressive, it's determined by context. If one wants to stress that an action is in fact progressive, modal verbs are used. As such, jeg holder på med å skrive et brev should always describe a present progressive action. Or can you imagine a context where it's not?
     
  18. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    I agree. In a similar vein, there is no inherent, distinguishing factor in the generic jeg skriver brev and its more specific version jeg skriver et brev that would help you differentiate between habitual and ongoing events. The context is the determining factor also in Danish (I cannot speak for Norwegian).



    No I cannot.
    Bic.
     
  19. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    In Norwegian, it would be reasonably evident that jeg skriver brev is a habitual action, whereas jeg skriver et brev is specific to the situation. Even if you called up someone who was in the middle of writing a letter and asked them what they were doing, the answer would not be jeg skriver brev, but jeg skriver et brev.
     
  20. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    I agree that jeg skriver et brev would be an ongoing action, but I have to say that I disagree when you claim that the lack of an article necessarily implies that it's a habitual action. First of all, in this specific example it could be plural. Second, the alternation cannot be transferred that easily to other similar constructions. I have no problems imagining both jeg baker ei kake/jeg baker kake as an answer to the question in question.

    You also mention jeg kjører en bil versus jeg kjører bil as an example of the same thing, but this meaning difference involves a lot more than a simple change of aspect. If I were to call up a friend to ask what s/he is doing, the answer jeg kjører en bil would be highly unlikely even though they are driving the car in the moment of speaking.

    Gavril asked for verbal means of expressing aspect in Scandinavian and that's done with various verbal constructions holde på med å/drive å/være i ferd med å etc. I would also like to add sitte/ligge which I also think is used in Danish too.

    Jeg sitter/ligger og leser - I am reading
    Jeg sitter/ligger og ser på tv - I am watching tv.

    These latter two add another dimension as you specify whether you are sitting or lying while doing something, but it's clear that it's an ongoing action.
     
  21. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    Hi myslenka! Whereas I agree that kjører bil/kjører en bil is a poor example (for the reason means of transportation rarely take articles)(like occupations and games/sport/instruments), I find the habitual vs. current to be not as much a question of the verb, as of the particles surrounding it. When asked (and presumably you are a pastry chef) what you are doing for a living, you can say jeg baker kake. When asked what you are doing right now, you can say: jeg holder på å bake en kake/jeg er i ferd med å bake en kake (inf). or jeg driver og baker en kake/jeg sitter og baker en kake (pres), and countess others I am sure. However, in very many cases, these are merely elaborations on jeg baker en kake.
    My point is not to discredit the many ways of expressing this, but that the article makes more of a difference than the verbal expression in many cases. If we return to Gavril's original statement, and try to answer the question: What do you do at work? There can be no doubt about the difference between jeg skriver brev (or: baker kake) and jeg skriver et brev (or: baker ei kake). The first one may is habitual, and the second one is not. If one chooses to say holder på med å skrive/driver og skriver/er i ferd med å skrive/ligger og skriver/sitter og skriver/står og skriver et brev it represents no qualitative difference from simply jeg skriver et brev. However, jeg skriver brev is a different story all together
     
  22. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Yes, I forgot about those...this construction works in Danish as well: Hvad laver du? Jeg sidder og skriver, jeg står og laver mad, jeg ligger og læser...etc.
    Bic.
     
  23. bicontinental Senior Member

    U.S.A.
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Hi NYC,
    That seems to be an interesting difference between Norwegian and Danish: For most "job descriptions" the plural would be used in Danish… What does a (fill in the blank) do?

    En bager bager kager. En vinduespudser pudser vinduer. En forfatter skriver bøger. En tømrer bygger skabe. En dikter skriver dikte... and so on.
    As you mention, there are exceptions to this pattern including means of transportation, instruments, etc., where the singular is used also in Danish.
    Bic.
     
  24. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    I think Norwegian is sort of in between here. You would say en baker baker kaker; however, jeg pusser vindu/jeg baker kake/jeg lager film/jeg dyrker potet etc. is perfectly fine, but does not refer to what a profession does, but what the subject is doing. That being said - this is a more recent phenomenon in Norwegian.
     
  25. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    Well, you face one problem if you say that the particles surrounding the verb determine its aspect: it doesn't carry over to the past tense. Jeg skrev et brev does not necessarily mean that the action of writing was ongoing the way it would be in the present tense. You could of course adopt a system where particles determine the verbal aspect in the present tense while various verbal expressions determine the verbal aspect in the past but it's not a very economical description of aspect in Scandinavian. Moreover, the aspectual interpretation you claim that the particles give rise to, is easily cancelled by adverbials as in jeg skriver et brev hver uke. The verbal expressions mentioned so far can be used in the past tense and I find it hard to combine them with adverbs expressing habituality. Jeg holder på å skrive et brev hver uke sounds rather clumsy.
     
  26. jette(DK) Senior Member

    Copenhagen
    Danish
    As noone seems to have mentioned it, I would like to expand a bit on the Danish way of expressing an ongoing action. (When I taught English many years ago, this was a common source of mistakes for the student when they tried to translate, too litterally, the Danish sentence they had in mind):
    I'm writing a letter = Jeg sidder og skriver et brev ("I'm sitting writing a letter")
    I'm cooking dinner = Jeg står og laver mad ("I'm standing cooking dinner)
    I'm reading a book = Jeg ligger og læser en bog ("I'm lying reading a book)

    So what we often do, is expressing our position in space as a way of indicating that the action is taking place at that moment and has a certain duration in time.
     
  27. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    Jeg skrev brev til kjæresten min hver da jeg var i militæret / Hun bakte kake til hver eneste bursdag.
     
  28. Þröstur New Member

    Reykjavík
    English, UK
    Indeed, I mean most commonly the simple present tense would be used unless there was a specific need to emphasise the fact that something was happening right now. And yes, i færd med is definitely a bit dated but nevertheless used. I would perhaps just be aware of this construction as it may crop up, but to be honest I would just use i gang med.

    I added mens simply for completeness, although it cannot be used in the OP example it is used for translating certain types of -ing statements.
     
  29. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    Yes, these are describing habitual actions in the past but you needed an adverbial to get that reading unambiguously. However, your claim was

    1) Jeg skriver et brev - I am writing a letter.
    2) Jeg skriver brev - I write letters

    that 1) describes an ongoing action while 2) would be habitual becase of the lac of an article. If you put these in the past tense without adverbials, no such effect arises.

    3) Jeg skrev et brev. (Ongoing?)
    4) Jeg skrev brev. (Habitual?)
     
  30. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    Myslenka - I think we are talking a little past each other here. I am not exactly sure what you are trying to tell me, but what I am saying in essence is that by omitting the article, one in many cases creates a habitual action, and that "jeg driver å...", "jeg står å" etc. baker en kake, are merely elaborations on jeg baker en kake.
    As for your second point - it creates the same effect without the adverbial: "Hva gjorde du i går?" "Jeg bakte en kake" ("jeg strikket ei lue") // Ha gjorde du i den forrige jobben din?" "Jeg bakte kake" ("Jeg strikket lue").
     
  31. AutumnOwl

    AutumnOwl Senior Member

    Sweden
    Swedish - Sweden, Finnish
    Swedish also uses the plural in these cases.
     
  32. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    Yes, you are right and I never denied that. But you also said that
    and it is possible I misunderstood this, but it seems that you are saying that the particles are more important than the verbs in creating aspectual differences. I am not saying they can't be used, but whatever aspectual interpretations they give rise to, these are easily cancelled by adverbials. The verbal expressions on the other hand describe ongoing actions regardless of adverbials.
     
  33. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    Ah - I see. Yes, you are indeed correct. This is material for misunderstandings. I think what I meant to say is that article CAN change this, not that they are the primary tool for the job. Thank you.
     

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