Why French has no progressive be + gerund form

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Beachxhair, Jul 3, 2013.

  1. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    The other Romance languages developed a progressive aspect, to be + present participle/gerund, whereas French didn't. I know it has the imperfect tense, as do the other Romance languages, but whereas Spanish has the periphrastic forms estuve hablando con mis amigos/estaba hablando con mis amigos as well as hablaba con mis amigos, French only has the imperfect tense in the past. And of course, it has no present progressive.

    I've always wondered why French differs from the other Romance languages in this respect. What are the theories as to why it has no progressive be + gerund form?

    Thank you :)
     
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    We do say: je suis en train de parler, not with gerund, but with the infinitive.
     
  3. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    Thanks for replying. 'Etre en train de' is a periphrastic expression though. I'm asking why French doesn't have the 'be + gerund' progressive aspect, as in English 'I am speaking', Spanish, 'estoy hablando' etc.
     
  4. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    All of those are periphrastic expressions of aspect.

    You can find examples of estre + pres. part. in Old and Middle French, and even today in regional speech. One consideration is that French does not have two different be verbs like Spanish, so it's not always clear if this structure is meant to be a verbal periphrasis, or an adjectival construction. And there have been various alternatives for expressing progressive aspect (être à/après + inf., aller + participle, etc.) before the eventual triumph of être en train de.

    You might be interested in reading this Master's thesis by Johanna Toivanen:
    Les périphrases verbales progressives en français et en espagnol. Etre en train de + infinitif / Estar + gérondif. Aller + participe présent / Ir, andar, venir + gérondif.
     
  5. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Two small observations:
    - In most Romance verbs it is with verbs derived from stare. Except maybe in Spanish, this is closer to to stay (which is also derived from stare) than to to be.
    - In English, the continuous form uses to present participle, not the gerund.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2013
  6. hadronic Senior Member

    New York
    French - France
    Moreover, French "être en train de " is never mandatory, whereas the present continuous is in English. "Je fume" means both "I smoke (I'm a smoker)" and "I'm smoking (right now)".
    How does Spanish behave in this respect ?
     
  7. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    Precisely. To characterise the use of "être en train de" as expressing the progressive aspect is rather like insisting that English has grammatical classifiers because you can say "a bunch of grapes". "Être en train de" is no more than equivalent to "to be in the middle of". It may be useful to employ "être en train de" in an explanation of the continuous tense to French speakers learning English, but it would be going too far to suggest that every instance of the continuous tense can or should be translated into French using "être en train de".

    Roughly on a par with English. However, the non-continuous forms can usually be used without being "wrong". In standard Spanish, the continuous forms cannot be used (a) if the action is not in progress at the time of speaking (b) (generally) to describe what are states or conditions, rather than actions or (c) with estar, ir and venir.
     
  8. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    You wouldn't say It's in the middle of raining or I'm in the middle of arriving, but Il est en train de pleuvoir and Je suis en train d'arriver are perfectly natural. I don't think it can be seriously disputed that être en train de expresses progressive aspect. The difference with respect to English is not that the progressive is "never mandatory" in French, but that the simple present is also capable of expressing the progressive in French.

    And I would suggest that être en train de is required in some contexts, for example with future reference, wih predicates for which the simple future typically implies accomplishment/completion. Je serai en train d'apprendre le français is not equivalent to J'apprendrai le français.
     
  9. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    These are two sides of the same coin. If the progressive is grammaticalized, i.e. grammatically required for progressive meanings, the mere non-usage of the form has has an implication which it hasn't, if the progressive is not grammaticalized.
     
  10. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    I don't agree that "grammatical/grammaticalized" necessarily implies "required". One could argue that English be + pres. part. is more grammaticalized than French être en train de (because there are additional semantic restrictions on the English simple present), but both are grammaticalized expressions of the progressive. Similar remarks can be made for the German am/beim + inf. and Dutch aan het + inf. constructions. They are definitely grammaticalized, but they are not the only ways to express progressivity in those languages.
     
  11. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In English the expression of progressiveness as such is grammaticalized in the sense that each verb form is assigned a progressiveness value whereas in German, Dutch and French there is no category of progressiveness in the system of verb forms but certain constructs can be used to insert progressiveness where needed.
     
  12. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    But is that any different from saying that in English "I have a bunch of grapes" is not the same as "I have some grapes"? The latter can include the former, but you cannot say the former if what you have is some grapes which have been picked off their stalks.

    It seems to me that the problem is that there tends to be confusion between on the one hand a language having a form called x and on the other the function that x performs, which leads to a situation where if the function x can be expressed in another language you assume there has to be a form x which expresses it. That in turn leads to the tricky question of whether a language can be said to have a function if there is no form to express it. No one would, I think, seriously argue that English has an "intensive" form of the verb, but that does not mean that intensiveness cannot be expressed in English; it is just not expressed by a grammatical form. There is no section on "intensive verbs" in any English grammar book, but you will find one in an Arabic grammar book (or to be strictly correct one on a form of the verb which expresses among other things intensiveness). No didactic French grammar book I have ever seen has a section on how to express progressiveness just as it has no section on how to express intensiveness.
     
  13. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    I think we all agree about the usage, but it's not true that English verb forms are assigned a progressiveness value. The simple present can express progressivity (I'll cook dinner while you play on the computer), and the be + participle structure can express meanings other than the progressive (As soon as I get home, I'm killing him). All of these languages have grammaticalized constructions than can be used to explicitly insert progressivity where needed; they just have different rules about when this is needed (in English, very often but not always; in the other languages, relatively rarely but not never).
    Any good French grammar book will discuss the usage of être en train de, along with other periphrastic constructions (venir de, futur proche, etc.). If you just mean that an English grammar book will emphasize that the -ing form is obligatory in many cases, while a French grammar book will only say that en train de can be used to explicitly express progressivity, we are obviously not in disagreement.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2013
  14. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I think it is understood that in English the continuous form expresses something not usually connected with progressiveness, namely the distinction what you currently do as distinct what you habitually do. The precise meanings of grammatical labels are never the same from language to language, though in both German and French the progressive forms also express this. What I mean are things like this: If you say he lies you accuse him of being an habitual liar merely by not saying he is lying. In niether of the other mentioned languages does non-usage of a progressive form have such an implication.
     
  15. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    As I said, we are not in disagreement about these elementary facts about English vs. French usage. We have a superficial terminological disagreement, about what it means for the progressive to be grammaticalized, and possibly a deeper disagreement about whether the grammatical system of French (German, Dutch) contains the category of progressivity at all.
     
  16. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    I think it has to be a question of degree. <..>
     
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2013
  17. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    I know that 'Etre en train de' is a periphrastic expression, but it doesn't involve the gerund/present participle (which is the same morphological form, and only context determines which it is). In Spanish, the present participle directly follows 'estar', as a verbal form. My question was why this form doesn't exist in French.
     
  18. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    A valid question. But just that I can understand what you're aiming at, I'd like to ask a counter-question: Why do you think it should?
     
  19. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    I don't think that it 'should', I just wonder why it doesn't, because there must be some reason why such a form did not develop in French, when it did in other Romance languages (Spanish, Italian).
     
  20. hadronic Senior Member

    New York
    French - France
    I'm gonna ask another question : why did it develop in Spanish in the first place?
     
  21. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    That's a good question. It also exists in Italian, and Portuguese I think. French is often the exception to the rule with the Romance languages, it seems.
     
  22. Ёж! Senior Member

    Русский
    Not necessarily.
     
  23. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    But surely, whatever factor(s)/phenomenon in the histories of Spanish and Italian lead to the development of a progressive tense (be + gerund construction), must have been either absent in the history of French, or the same factor(s) was/were present, but they didn't lead to the development of such a tense for whatever reason?
     
  24. Ёж! Senior Member

    Русский
    But how do we know there was a factor? It could be just casual. When a number of ways are possible, always there are some who choose one way, and others who choose another.
     
  25. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    It could just be casual, yes, but even if it was, I'm curious as to how it came into being.
     
  26. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Late Latin had various ways to express progressive aspect, one of them was stare+ablative gerundive.
    They are morphologically merged only in French and Spanish. In Italian they aren't and it is clearly a gerundive and not a present participle in Modern Italian: sta parlando = he is talking. In older Italian you also find essere+present participle, è parlante = he is talking (if my Italian isn't failing me, è parlante has a different meaning in modern use, namely he is able to talk), which is corresponds to the continuous form in English and also to a popular form found in Late Latin.
    The may be just small a sample. These forms (derived from stare+ablative gerundive) dominate in Spanish and Italian and some varieties of Portuguese but not in all Romance languages except French. E.g. you don't find it at all in Romanian. It would be interesting to know the situation in other Romance language, like e.g. Sardinian.
    In Occitan there is èsser+a+infinitive: es a parlar = he is talking (Source). This form also existed in older French (not "old French"; not that long ago).

    In summary, there is a wide variety of forms to express the progressive in the history of Romance languages and some forms survived in some languages and others not. Here and here are two articles on the evolution of forms expressing the progressive aspect in Romance that relate to your question.
     
  27. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    Spanish also has an -nte participle.

    agua corriente = running water

    agua corriendo = water running
     
  28. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Thank you. I wasn't sure, if it was still actively used. So, is it like in Italian that the original participle form is mainly used for lexicalized verbal adjectives while uses as a verb form are largely replaced by the gerund(ive)?
     
  29. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    Yes.
     
  30. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    Thank you!
     
  31. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    Isn't the -nte form a purely adjectival form in Modern Spanish?
     
  32. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    See #28 and #29. A participle is always an adjective (including nominalized and adverbialized adjectives). The difference is that in modern Italian, and as Hulalessar confirmed it's the same in Spanish, the use of the participle is confined to lexicalized verbal adjectives.
     
  33. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    According to the first article posted by berndf, the Old French progressive periphrases, morphologically identical to those in Italian and Ibero Romance, declined in usage and had virtually disappeared by the end of the 16th Century. Any ideas as to why they disappeared?
     
  34. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Could be because the verb ester disappeared altogether, except in the special meaning it has in courts of law. But that's just a guess.
     
  35. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    Yes, possibly. I wonder whether there are any books/articles written on the subject? :confused:
     
  36. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    What I could find I posted already.:(
     
  37. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
  38. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    The periphrastic forms involve estre, not ester. Ester has never been part of the auxiliary system and there is no reason for its disappearance to have any effect on the use of estre.
     
  39. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Thank you for the info.
     
  40. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    In this link I posted before, on page 119, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zTa23cfRGzMC&pg=PA112&lpg=PA112&dq=why+French+progressive+periphrases+disappeared&source=bl&ots=ycMZN-4c3D&sig=usFBxzI84ShbAxnIBiYImTYSHB4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Ig7fUY-IIPCM0wWPw4C4DQ&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=why%20French%20progressive%20periphrases%20disappeared&f=false It says that any distinction between the descendants of Latin stare and esse is blurred in French, and that "the result of this phenomena" is that the construction with 'Etre + present participle' is completely eliminated nowadays. How did the blurring between stare and esse lead to the disappearance of the progressive tense?
     
  41. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    See my post #4 above. In a language with only one be verb, the potentially ambiguous be + pres. part. structure will tend to become specialized either as a verbal periphrasis (as in English) or as an adjectival structure (as in French). In Spanish and Italian the two functions of the participle can be maintained since they can be distinguished through the choice of be verb (estar/stare ​for the progressive periphrasis, ser/essere​ for the adjectival construction).
     
  42. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    Thank you :)
     
  43. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    I think there is some variability even within standard Spanish (perhaps also within standard Port./Italian) in regards to how common the "estar" + "-ndo" construction is. E.g., I seem to recall that Iberian Spanish speakers often use the simple verb form ("hablo") in preference to the periphrastic form ("estoy hablando").
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2013
  44. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    I think the position can be summed up by saying that in Spanish the use of the progressive approaches the optional rather than the compulsory. It tends to be used for emphasis. What are you doing? could be ¿Qué haces? or ¿Qué estas haciendo? The latter suggests something like "What are you doing? If you meet someone in the street you are likely to say ¿Qué haces aquí? where the question is a general enquiry. However, if you come across someone doing something and you do not know what it is they are doing, you are more likely to ask ¿Qué estas haciendo? which implies "I can see you are doing something, what is it?

    Even if you do not use the progressive where you should not (see post 7) but otherwise use it where English requires it you are going to be overusing it.
     
  45. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    I've heard that some Spanish speakers only use the progressive when the really want to stress that an event or action is "in progress" at one specific moment in time, as opposed to the obligatory nature of the English progressive aspect, even when an action is actually iterative and habitual. Whereas English speakers must say, if they are currently reading the book (on separate occasions, an iterative action) "I am reading a book...", in Spanish it's acceptable to say "leo" in this context.
     
  46. aefrizzo

    aefrizzo Senior Member

    Palermo, Italia
    italiano
    It depends also on the question, at least in Italian.
    Q: Cosa fai? A:Leggo. (Now, tomorrow, on sunday, usually..)
    Q: Cosa stai facendo? A:Sto leggendo. (Right now).
     
  47. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    That's not quite true. The present participle is lexicalised as verbal adjective only in Spanish.
    In Italian, the present participle can be followed by direct objects, especially in relative clauses, which means it is not a verbal adjective. E. g. "L'uomo traversante la strada nel luogo sbagliato fu investito dall'automobile che stava passando". This use is quite rare, rather literary (or even bureaucratic) and may sound artificial, but it exists.
     
  48. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    I think that this overuse is becoming more widespread in US Spanish, due to English influence. E.g., I knew a fluent Spanish speaker who was originally from Perú but had lived most of her life in the US, and who would sometimes say things like, "Cómo te ha estado yendo?"

    I wonder if the -ndo forms are growing in popularity even in certain parts of Mexico, due to Mexico's proximity to the US (and the forms of Spanish spoken there)?
     
  49. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    English-England
    In English, the present participle can be an adjectival structure, in cases such as the dying flower, they are annoying, just like the French la fleur mourante and ils sont énervants. English seems to have retained both the verbal and adjectival functions....Does anyone know why this might be?
     
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2013
  50. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    I partially agree with what CapnPre said in post #4 but I'd say that the confusion between verbal periphrasis and adjectival construction can arise because French didn't conserve a true gerund form.
    In Classical Latin the gerund was used for declining infinite mood (as it is today in English, so "făcĕre, făciendi, făciendo, ad făciendum, făciendo" was equal to "do, of doing, at doing, for doing, with doing") and the progressive tense was formed by sum + future participle (sum facturus = I'm going).

    During the passage from Classical Latin to Romance Languages this happened.
    In all Romance Languages the future participle disappeared.
    Italian, Spanish and Portuguese retained the gerund ablative case (facendo, haciendo, fazendo, with doing or by doing, mood complement) that has a strong verbal function. The present participle mood lost his verbal meaning and survived as lessicalized name (presidente, from presiedere) or adjective (intrigante, from intrigare).
    So gerund was used for replacing explicit subordinate clauses (conditional, causal, temporal, modal subordinate clauses) and for progressive tense (stare/estar + gerund). It has an exclusive verbal function.
    The present participle has an exclusive nominal and adjectival function.

    French completely lost Latin gerund and mantained the only present participle that was used as both verb and adjective. It is used, as in English, for replacing subordinate clauses (all except modal clauses which need the gerund "en + present participle") and for the former progressive form. It is used as an adjective.

    "Je suis séduisant" can have these different meanings: "Sono seducente" (I'm seductive) and "sto seducendo" (I'm seducing).

    So the lack of a true gerund in French leads to this ambiguity.

    I think that the lack of progressive form in French is due to avoid this confusion.
    English needn't it because often the adjectives have a different form and this avoids the confusion.
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2013

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