Aspect (perfective, imperfective verb)

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by gaer, Sep 20, 2006.

  1. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Moderator edit: This thread was split from another but it need not revolve around the topics and examples mentioned in the first couple of posts. Please feel free to tell us how you express aspects in your languages and - if you are unfamilliar with the concept (which is the case with a high probability) - do not hesitate to ask for clarification. :)


    I just did a search for "perfective verbs", and this is what I immediately saw:

    English-Belarusian Dictionaries: Grammar: Perfective VerbsEnglish-Belarusian Dictionary provides a searchable database and some older English-Belarusian word lists.

    Czech verbs - aspect (vid), perfective and imperfective verbsPerfective verbs are often formed by adding a prefix, such as s-, za-,

    Perfective verbs of motionThe normal Perfective partner of идтО/ходОть, Ѕхать/Ѕздить, летЅть/лет¬ть is formed with the prefix по- on the One-way verb.

    If you wish you can start a thread in the English forum about this term, but I believe you will find out that most native speakers of English will be highly confused by the terms "perfective" and "durative". I'm not saying that they do not exist, but I have never seen them used, and they are really not at all helpful for English.

  2. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Gaer, people usually don't know much about aspects like perfective and imperfective verbs until they occupy with a Slavic language. This is a feature of them, which does not exist in any other language family, as far as I know.

    Venenum, I don't know too much about the aspects and can't use them myself actively. So, I'd like to ask Jana: Does the reflexive verb "zdokonalit se" exit? It would be rather ridiculous to say that "sich verbessern" is perfective or non-progressive.
  3. beclija Senior Member

    Boarisch, Österreich (Austria)
    No, aspect exists in many languages, although few have such a regular morphological expression of it as the Slavic languages. But take for example the past tenses in Latin, they express aspectual notions as well.
  4. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Nevertheless, aspects are usual in the present tense in some Slavic languages, too. I think, it works for Czech, but not for Russian. Only past and future actions can be catogorized into perfective and imperfective in Russian, right?
  5. beclija Senior Member

    Boarisch, Österreich (Austria)
    I am not too firm about Russian minutia, but I guess you know... I think even in Slavic languages that allow in principle perfective verbs to occur in present contexts, there use will be quite restricted. But we are driving off topic...
  6. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    Yes, it exists.

    Perfective: Zdokonalit se - to achieve an improvement (action completed, which is what the Latin word actually means)

    Imperfective: Zdokonalovat se - to be working on an improvement (action in progress)

    Why would it be ridiculous to say that "sich verbessern" is perfective?

    Zdokonalil jsem se v angličtině. Ich habe mich im Englischen verbessert. I improved my English skills.

    I would understand if the imperfective verb were perceived as ridiculous by you.

    Byl jsem v Londýně a zdokonaloval jsem se v angličtině. I was in London and I was working on my English. (roughly)

    It does not mean that I did not succeed and that my English is still poor. The result is simply not expressed. There is nothing in German to capture this nuance unless you resort to a causal construction like (in English) "I went to London to improve my English", which is imprecise. So why is the former ridiculous? :confused:

  7. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Jana, I think the most important point here is that each language, even individual languages within a group with many things in common, are able to describe certain things easily with great precision that other languages can't do with a great deal more work.

    This to me is the great thing about languages. Learning them opens our eyes to other ways of thinking and gives us a huge insight into other cultures.

    I would be very interested to find out if you (or others) can describe a bit more precisely (or on a more elementary level) what it is that is expressed with such verb forms or types of verbs that is lacking in English.

  8. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    OK. :)

    To some extent, English can express the nuance by progressive tenses. But you take the same verb and an auxiliary, while we have two sets of verbs that are conjugated on their own. Which is why learners of Slavic languages struggle hard to learn aspects. With a bit of practice, it is not extremely difficult to distinguish perfective and imperfective verbs, but correct usage is a problem even for extremely advanced speakers.

    What follows holds for Czech. I know that it is even more complex in Russian, but probably not very different.

    Before I start, let me briefly sketch the relevant Czech tenses (all examples for 3rd person masculine) for the verb "to write":
    Imperfective - psát:
    present - píše
    future - bude psát

    Perfective - napsat:
    present - napíše (morphologically present but has a future meaning)
    future - N/A

    Now what it is all about: Perfective verbs (in Czech "finishing" verbs) describe a result, imperfective verbs describe a process.

    It follows that perfective verbs cannot have a present tense. You cannot be doing something that has already been accomplished or something that will be (as if suddenly) accomplished later.

    About writing a letter:

    IMPERFECTIVE: Bude psát dopis. - At some point in the future, he will be spending his time writing a letter (maybe he will finish it, maybe he will trash the draft, who knows - but the purpose is NOT to imply uncertainty about the result. The result is just not an issue at all.). He will be writing a letter.
    PERFECTIVE: Napíše dopis. - At some point in the future, the letter will be written/finished (nothing is implied or said about the process; only the result is signalized). He will write a letter.

    But we use the imperfective aspect much more often than English speakers use "will be -ing". In fact, they do it only when they really want to stress the process or contrast it with something, while we do it absolutely automatically without meaning to emphasize something.

    A girl to her lover who is going abroad:
    Každý den (every day) ti budu psát dopis. - Message: I will take the time to write a letter every day.
    Každý den ti napíšu dopis. - Message: You will get a letter a day.
    No particular difference in the meanings. Neither necessarily implies more or less love.

    Precisely the same principle works in the past tense (see my post above).

    Now if will do/will be doing and did/was doing can be thought of as equivalents of our aspects, let's look at the present:
    He is writing = on píše (to express explicitly that it is happening now, you have to use adverbs like "just", "at the moment" etc.).
    He writes = on píše (again, adverbs and adverbial constructions are used to give details, such as "every day", "occasionally" etc.).

    Confusing simple present and present continuous is therefore one of the typical Slavic mistakes. But we are probably not really unique. ;)

    Czech pupils use a simple trick to determine the aspect. They say "budu (the auxiliary for the future tense) + infinitive". If it sounds fine, the verb is imperfective. Otherwise perfective. A Czech native speaker, even an uneducated and/or illiterate (very rare in our latitudes :)), can determine whether it sounds fine or not with certainty.

    Well, a bit longer than I had thought. :)

  9. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    An addition - closely related to the above but it might provide you with some more insight:

    We often use perfective verbs for single events and imperfective verbs for repetitions.

    To visit (I will use the verb although it would be more fluent to say "come and see" or "to attend"):

    Perfective - navštívit
    past - navštívil
    future (morphologically looks like present) - navštíví

    Imperfective - navštěvovat
    past - navštěvoval
    future - bude navštěvovat

    Navštívil mě, když jsem byl nemocný. - He visited me (once) when I was ill.
    Zítra mě navštíví. - He will visit me tomorrow.

    What is perfective about the latter: He will visit me once and that's it.

    Navštěvoval mě, když jsem byl nemocný. - He used to visit me when I was ill.
    Každý čtvrtek bude navštěvovat jazykový kurz. - He will visit (=attend) a language course every Thursday.

    What is imperfective about the latter: No particular limit is specified, it can seemingly go forever (i.e. never completed).

    Unlike the example with love letters above where - as I said - the meaning is not particularly different, navštívit/navštěvovat are not interchangeable in the green examples at all (grammatically wrong) and they obviously change the meaning of the green sentences.

  10. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Oh my! :confused:

    First, thank you so much for taking the time to explain this. So far Czech sounds as alien to me as Japanese, and at least I know a bit about Japanese (from very hard work), but I'll attempt to follow along.
    So far it seems to me that this may be why those who speak Slavic languages may look for things that do not exist in other languages (much the way English-speakers attempt to form progressive tense structures in German.

    Ich bin sprechen, ich bin sprechend…
    (I can think of some verb structures that cause problems in English even for people who are very advanced.)
    "Perfective" seems to add something…
    I will be writing three letters or emails as soon as I finish answering this. But I am focusing on the writing. I am not saying what I will do after I finish. In fact, it is not even clear so far if I will finish. Perhaps I will write part of all three and finish them at another time. Perhaps I will delete them and try again if I am unable to say what I wish to say.
    I will be write three letters or emails as soon as I finish answering this. (This is true, in fact.) I will definitely finisht them, and I will send them.
    Hmm. That's hard, but I think I understand theoretically. And I can see this is VERY difficult to explain.
    Yes. "I am writing you" is not specific enough. I might, for instance, write this if I received a notification of a PM while writing you a letter:

    "Jana, I'm taking a moment to answer your PM, but look for more complete information in a few minutes. I'm writing you an email right now and will send if off very soon."
    So in the end it comes down to "feel" for most natives, and this is what makes it so hard for people learning?

    Again, thank you for your time, Jana,

  11. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית
    Gaer, let me illustrate Jana's point may be better understood in a modified form; perfective verbs cannot have a progressive form. I am going to explain it with a Japanese example.

    Aspects are coded at semantic level in Japanese verbs. That is to say, perfective verbs are morphologically the same with other verbs. The Japanese verb shiru means "to know" and is a perfective. The form shiru cannot be used when expressing an idea, "I know the author of this book."

    * この本の著者を知る。 (kono hon-no chosha-o shiru)
    OK この本の著者を知っている。 (kono hon-no chosha-o shitteiru)

    The former is grammatically impossible.
    With regular verbs such as taberu (to eat), verb stems suffixed with teiru signify progressive:
    I am eating breakfast.

    But it is not the case with perfective verbs. With them, teiru signify resultative, or a continuous state as the result of the action of the verb. In the latter illustration, 知っている means "I know" as opposed to "I am knowing."
  12. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Very interesting. And yes, in Japanese I can follow the logic.

    Thank you!

  13. cajzl Senior Member

    I should say that the closest equivalents to the Czech (Slavic) perfective verbs are the English perfect tenses as the name suggests. It is true particularly in the temporal (time?) subordinate clauses.

    For example:


    (past) (Když/Jakmile) napsal dopis... (When/As soon as) he has (had) written a letter...

    (present) ---

    (future) (Až/Jakmile) napíše dopis... (When/After) he will have written a letter...


    (past) (Když) psal dopis... (When) he was writing a letter...

    (present) (Když) píše dopis... (When) he is writing a letter...

    (future) (Až) bude psát dopis... (When) he will be writing a letter...
  14. cajzl Senior Member

    Hmm... Now I have discovered that:

    The Future Perfect cannot be used in clauses beginning with "when," "while," "before," "after," "by the time," "as soon as," "if" and "unless".
  15. DrWatson

    DrWatson Senior Member

    We have a similar imperfective/perfective construction in Finnish, but instead of expressing it with the verb, we usually use noun declension.

    Kirjoitin kirjeen "I wrote a/the letter". The word letter is in accusative case: the action was completed and the letter is ready.
    Kirjoitin kirjet"I was writing a/the letter". The word letter is in partitive case: the action was started but not completed, the letter's unfinished.

    Although, there exists a nominal verb construction that corresponds somehow to imperfective. In my experience it's commonly used e.g. when translating English continuous verbs literally, instead of using the form described above.

    Olin kirjoittamassa kirjettä "I was writing a letter"
  16. Thomas F. O'Gara Senior Member

    English USA

    In Russian anyway, the standard word for "while" (пока) is normally used with verbs in the imperfective.

    When it is used with a verb in the perfective in the negative, it translates into English "until" with the English verb in the present tense in the affirmative.

    Logical, yes?
  17. beclija Senior Member

    Boarisch, Österreich (Austria)
    There is, I think, a similar sort of test in German and English as to wether a verb is used perfectively or imperfectively (as for semantic analyses or simply working out into which member of a pair to translate it): When you can say "for two hours" (or "zwei Stunden lang"), it is imperfective/durative, if you can say "in two hours" ("in zwei Stunden") it is perfective/telic. It is not 100% accurate because aspect in Slavic covers more than telic/atelic distinction, but I think it often helps to capture the difference.
  18. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    I'd say that all languages have verb forms that show aspect as well as time.

    In modern Greek (I leave ancient Greek out of it to keep things simpler) there's no perfective form of the present tense (for obvious reasons).

    The present tense by itself implies the imperfective aspect of the action and is used as Present Perfect Continuous too although the use of Παρακείμενος (Parakeimenos) = Present perfect emphasises this aspect with the use of the verb "start" (I have started washing the dishes an hour ago).

    Present Perfect is obviously imperfect and is formed by present of have + infinitive of the Aorist (much like the English really)

    The past has 3 tenses allocated to it

    Simple Past (Παρατατικός/Paratatikos) which is the same as the simple past in English. While one could argue that anything past is by nature perfective this one is considered imperfective (both "I wrote" and "I was writing" are expressed in Simple Past although another verb is also translated as "I wrote" see below)

    Aorist (Αόριστος) That confuses many who learn any form of the English language since it has a perfective aspect and cannot be translated properly into English.

    Έγραφα ένα γράμμα χτες ( I wrote/was writing a letter yesterday) Simple Past

    Έγραψα ένα γράμμα χτες ( I wrote a letter yesterday) Aorist. It's an action done once and it's most definitely over and done with.

    A better example might be
    I cried all day yesterday
    ( Έκλαιγα όλη μέρα χτες) that's in simple past and, while I am obviously done crying, the meaning it carries is that of continuity whereas
    (Έκλαψα όλη μέρα χτες) means the same really if you think about it but with the meaning that crying is over and done with.
    Can't explain it better I'm afraid.

    There's also the Past Perfect (Υπερσυντέλικος) which doubles as Past Perfect continuous too and the difference of aspect is shown by the choice of words. (formed with past of have + infinitive of Aorist)

    Future has another group of 3 tenses

    Future simple (called continuous in Greek) which is imperfective and the same as "I will write"( formed by future particle θα + subjunctive of the present tense)

    Future perfective (called instantaneous in Greek). This one is translated as "I will write" but is perfective in aspect and means an action which will be finished in a certain point in the future. ( formed by future particle θα + subjunctive of the aorist tense)

    Future perfect. Same as the English one, perfective and showing that an aspect will be finished before another one. ( formed by future particle θα + present of have + infinitive of Aorist)
  19. !netko! Member

    Croatian, Croatia
    In Croatian, ''to write'' is both: ''pisati'' and ''napisati''. ''Pisati'' is imperfective (to write continuously) and ''napisati'' is perfective (to write, but under the condition that you finish the action). Both verbs can be used in every tense (Present, Future 1st (Simple Future?), Future 2nd (Conditional Future?), Perfect, Plusquamperfect, Imperfect, Aorist). Their meaning is different, but extremely close.
  20. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    Just to add to Irene's account of Greek, Greek (of any kind) also marks the imperative for aspect, which seems very rare. I was wondering if any of the Slavic languages, or any other language, does that as well.

    I don't know if I can think of an example to explain the difference, but maybe from διαβάζω "to read":

    imperfective διάβαζε: read!, study!, "be reading!"
    perfective δίαβασε (το): read (it)!

    (I guess English can do something similar, but I'd say something like "be reading" is extremely rare -- I doubt I've ever heard or said it in a normal context.)

    And more generally, I've been reading about aspect lately and it's ridiculously complicated, and there seem to be very few standard definitions of things and the terminology does not seem to be fixed across languages. I read the following Russian example (in the book, the questions are in English and the responses in transliteration)

    Q: What did your brother do after dinner yesterday?
    A: On pisal pis'ma (He wrote letters)

    and found it very odd that the imperfective "pisal" must be used. And I've never understood how "to be" can have a perfective aspect in some languages, so it does seem pretty bewildering.
  21. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    Yes, the aspects work in the imperative as well.


    to go
    jdi! - e.g. go away
    choď - go to English classes regularly

    to read
    přečti! - e.g. read this letter and tell me what you think about it
    čti! - read to be educated, to improve your vocabulary etc.

  22. cyanista

    cyanista законодательница мод

    Spanish also has the means for expressing the perfective/imperfective aspect - at least in the past tense. It is done with the help of two different past tenses: indefinido and imperfecto. The verbs in indefinido correspond to the Russian past perfective verbs (and imperfecto, logically enough, to imperfective verbs). Once I got my head around this, all exercises were a piece of cake. :)

    By the way, Jana: if I remember rightly, perfective verbs in Russian are, in contrast to Czech, viewed as having only past and future tense forms.
  23. lazarus1907 Senior Member

    Lincoln, England
    Spanish, Spain
    They are still used: Many foreigners believe that the difference between these two past tenses in Spanish is related to how long ago something happened, but the difference is that imperfect is durative, whereas the indefinido is perfective.

    These concepts are very useful to understand lots of things in Spanish grammar. Verbs can also be divided intro perfective and imperfective, but this division is not as important it might be in other languages.
  24. !netko! Member

    Croatian, Croatia

    Croatian does the same thing with imperatives. My guess is, so do other Slavic languages.

    Čitaj! - read
    Pročitaj! - finish reading it (this translation is a bit clumsy but I can't think of a better one)

    Also, I'm not a speaker of Russian, but I think that the imperfective ''pisal'' was used because he was writing the letters for a certain amount of time. You can, at least in Croatian, use the perfective form ( I think it's ''napisal''), but then the meaning would be a bit different.

    ''To be'' has a perfective form in Croatian - budem, budeš, bude, budemo, budete, budu (the imperfective form is: jesam, jesi, jest, jesmo, jeste, jesu). We use the perfective form as the auxiliary in the Conditional Future tense.
  25. cyanista

    cyanista законодательница мод

    Sorry lazarus, I didn't mean to suggest that these tenses are no more used. I actually meant that Spanish makes this distinction in the past tense. I even wrote it but deleted the word "tense" because it interfered with my next sentence where I talked about tenses as a narrower notion. :p Sorry for the confusion, I'm going to edit my post now.
  26. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    I do not think there is a contrast. I am sure many people would dispute my classification and put the verb into the field future, with N/A in the present tense category. I decided for the morphological structure just for the sake of the argument, but I said elsewhere that perfective verbs cannot have a present meaning by definition.


  27. cyanista

    cyanista законодательница мод

    Your post led me to believe that it was the "normal", or "official" classification, now I see it's your original invention. :) What are children taught at school then? They have to learn such things, at least we had to.

    I wish I hadn't written anything at all - I managed to create twice as much confusion as I did clarity. :eek:
  28. Maja

    Maja Senior Member

    Binghamton, NY
    Serbian, Serbia
    In Serbian, perfective and imperfective aspects are called "svršeni i nesvršeni vid".
    Perfective can be formed by adding a prefix "po" to imperfective form like čitati / pročitati; jesti / pojesti; gledati / pogledati; tražiti / potražiti ... but there are other examples like pevati / otpevati; pisati / napisati; pitati / upitati...
    Imperfective are smt translated with continuous tense. As far as I know, but don't hold me to that, they both can form all the tenses.
  29. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Do cognate verbs in slavic languages have the same perfective/imperfective pair?

    e.g. if I know both of the verbs in a Russian imperfective/perfective pair, and I know the cognate of one of these verbs in Serbo-Croatian, does this mean that I'll know the other verb in the Serbo-Croatian pair?

    Of course I'm only talking about cognates, if they use etymologically unrelated words to express the same action it shouldn't be predictable.
  30. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    Vince, only now do I see your question. But I am not sure I understand it well. Anyway, this thread may help. :)

  31. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    What about Arabic? It has aspects, too.
  32. Lemminkäinen

    Lemminkäinen Senior Member

    Oslo, Norway
    Norwegian (bokmål)
    I'm currently studying Russian, and when I found out that aspect was generally the same difference as the French passé composé and imparfait it got easier getting the idea (of course, in French it's only used in the past tense).

    We don't have aspect in Norwegian (though the meaning can of course be conveyed by adding qualifiers or rewriting), but I find it really fascinating.

    For instance, in Norwegian you'd say:

    1) Jeg leste denne boken i går

    which in Russian can be translated as either:

    2) Вчера я писал эту книгу
    3) Вчера я написал эту книгу

    Where 2) indicates that I did some reading in the book (imperfective), and 3) that I finished it (perfective).
    If you want to convey the semantic sense in 3) in Norwegian, you'd have to say:

    4) Jeg leste ut denne boken i går

    Using the adverb ut will in a lot of instances give the verb a perfective meaning.
  33. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Does it? As far as I know, Arabic tenses are limited to perfect (= past) and imperfect (= present). Subjunctive, jussive, imperative, future particles do not count as aspects, Qcumber. ;)
  34. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    I was taught Arabic had no tenses, only aspects. Is that all changed?
    Besides, I happen to have an excellent French grammar of Classical Arabic. The authors (Blachère & Gaudefroy-Demombynes, 1952) use the terms "accompli" for fa3ala and "inaccompli" yaf3alu. Such terms refer to aspects. Were these authors wrong?
  35. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I differentiate them like the past and present tense in English. :)
  36. Spectre scolaire Senior Member

    Moving around, p.t. Turkey
    Maltese and Russian
    This is an important discussion about a phenomenon which exists in most of the world’s languages, but which does not have a morphological expression in most of the languages that are normally being taught in Western Europe. It is difficult to immagine why this is so, but the fact remains that aspect was first “discovered” (among linguists) in Slavic languages – the reason for which participants having a Slavic language as their native tongue, or those learning a Slavic language, always have an acute understanding of what aspect is all about. In Russian and in all the other Slavic languages aspect is built into the verbal stem – one simply cannot avoid grappling with it.

    It is my firm belief that whenever a foreign language presents something radically different on the scale of f.ex. aspect (like in Russian or Modern Greek) or sentence structure (like in Turkish, Tamil or Japanese), one can talk about a real mental hurdle. It is not possible to imagine this hurdle unless you have tried to overcome it, which of course means to learn such a language. Then you will also discover that it takes time – often a long time - to be able to “run 110 m hurdles”. A language is uttered like a quick sequence of words put into a conventional shape and/or order – in a language like Chinese it is “only”[!] a matter of order... You are supposed to perform this task without stumbling, which means choosing infallibly the right aspect – or “agglutinating freely”. Natives don’t think consciously about their choices, foreigners have to – until they can mentally carry out the same operation. Natives don’t make errors, foreigners do indeed – even if they teach the language in question at university level. The later you start learning such a language – having f.ex. English as your native tongue – the more difficult it is. Still it is not impossible, but developing native skill in these areas is a very demanding task.

    So, why is this such an important discussion? The answer is, I would say, that aspect is not sufficiently focused on! Most of the discussions in the WordReference fora are of lexical or idiomatic nature. Nothing wrong about that – this is “practical execution” of “how-do-you-say-this?” in Dyirbal or “how-do-you-say-that?” in Myirbal. There is also a lot of focus on fields like (macro)sociolinguistics, contrastive lexicography and etymology. No objections! You can’t avoid finding interesting stuff!

    Note, however, that the deeper you go into the “mental execution” of a sentence, the less it is being discussed. Many links are even pure compilations. Even such an exercise can be rewarding, especially in the framework of collecting stamps or ancestors which quite a number of people actually do. The problem is how to discuss these things in such a way that “mental hurdles” in language acquisition can be lowered. Not an easy task, and I don’t know how to supply good answers.

    I am glad the moderator introduced this link by stating (paraphrastically) that “it is highly probable that most people are unfamiliar with the notion of aspect.” This is definitely the case – and also the reason why the subject is important.

    With all respect, I’d like to comment on ireney whose contributions I always read with great interest. But here she seems to be a bit off the point. And it is not her fault! As I said initially, aspect was “discovered” in Slavic languages, and it was Slavicists who brought it to Modern Greek – sometimes in the 1950s. Most of what ireney writes above has nothing to do with aspect. Aspect in Modern Greek (MG) is theoretically based on a very simple distinction – it is only the application of it that is difficult, both morphologically (because the verbal system is unpleasantly irregular), and “mentally” (because of what I have said above).

    Let me use a verb with a non-sigmatic aorist – “sigmatic” is like γράφ-ω – έ-γραψ-α [γraf-o] – [e-γraps-a]. The fact that the chosen verb (δέρνω) – from an indoeuropean point of view – is equally sigmatic, is of no interest here.

    ***present: δέρν-ω [δern-o] - [δern] is the morpheme of imperfective aspect. –o is 1st pers. sing. of “primary endings” [in active]

    ***aorist: έ-δειρ-α [e-δir-a] – [δir] is the morpheme of perfective aspect. e- is an “augment”, -a is 1st pers. sing. of “secondary endings” [in active]

    In Class. Gr. augment is compulsory for all past tenses (except for “injunctive” in Homer). In MG the existence of augment is basically depending on the syllabic structure of a word. More than three syllables, no augment. There are many exceptions to this rule in modern dialects.

    The intelligent question here is why I am talking about “past tenses” when I should be talking about aspect. In fact, Greek has both – consider f.ex. what ireney calls παρατατικός. She is right in not using “imperfectum” because of its fatal link with “imperfective” aspect. Unfortunately, nobody has so far come up with a better word than translating “imperfectum” into Greek and calling it paratatikos. Have a look at our verb in this tense:

    ***paratatikos: έ-δερν-α

    Obviously, paratatikos must have the same verbal stem as present because both tenses (sic) have imperfective aspect.

    So, tenses in MG are f.ex. present/paratatikos and aorist, the difference between the three being grosso modo like in French présent/imparfait and passé simple. In fact, it is not – excuse me for the pun - that simple, but I think we should not go into that discussion here. As ireney indicates, there are more tenses in MG, but they are not relevant for describing the basic distinctions of aspect.

    It is in subjunctive that we really see what aspect in Greek is all about. Subjunctive doesn’t have any distinctive morphological expression in MG – that is distinctive from indicative - a fact which already in the 1930s made a Greek linguist ask the question whether subjunctive really exists in MG. The question provoked a great deal of uproar because in katharevusa – this hybrid officialese which never seems to “resign” – a morphological distinction is made [in script], notably in those cases of the verbal paradigm where it does not change the vernacular pronunciation; where it does, they pretended it did not exist.

    In subjunctive there is no augment because the augment indicates tense. The verbal stem, however, indicates aspect.

    1. [perfective aspect:] Παρακάλεσε τον πατέρα της να μην τον δείρει. [parakalese tombatera tis na min ton diri] She begged her father not to beat him.

    2. [imperfective aspect:] Παρακάλεσε τον πατέρα της να μην τον δέρνει. [parakalese tombatera tis na min ton derni] She begged her father not to beat him.

    [dir-i] (which can not stand alone) and [dern-i] both have “primary endings”. The latter is identical with the indicative form, cf. above δέρν-ω, 3rd pers. δέρν-ει.

    The m in [tombatera] should either have a punctum subscriptum or it should be raised as f.ex. nd in 2nd.


    1. implies that her father has not beaten him before; he should not think of doing such a thing.

    2. implies that her father is constantly beating him up; this practice should stop.

    A propos mode: The verb is here in active. MG also has medium and passive, the last two with the same morphological expression in MG. Things get a bit more complicated in medio-passive, but only from a morphological point of view. The basic distinction of two verbal stems expressing aspect still obtains, and so does “primary endings” in subjunctive which means that medio-passive has “borrowed” active endings in subjunctive whereas there is a distinctive set of endings in paratatikos medio-passive.


    The morphology of a language – even the most abstruse one – can always be learned through a concerted effort. Aspect can only be learned by reading tens of thousands of pages of literature and through practising the language regularly over a number of years.

    Unless you are a child. Most of us are not when we start learning a new language...

    The discussion has shown that in languages where aspect is not built into the verbal stem, it can still be expressed, cf. Norwegian lese boken vs. lese ut boken – ex. taken from Lemminkäinen. This is called Aktionsart, a German word in English. The problem with Aktionsart is that it is basically an ad hoc lexical expression, which makes it extremely difficult to pin it down in terms of grammatical rules. That should perhaps remind us that much of the lexical discussions going on in these forums may in fact be of great importance to understanding grammar.

    *) Footnote: Dimotiki was formally recognized in 1976 as the language of the State, but the present Constitution doesn’t say a word about language and the patriarch in Istanbul is still conducting official correspondance in stiff katharevusa.
  37. palomnik Senior Member

    In my experience, every language must have some way to express aspect. The Slavic languages are the ones that express it most clearly as a grammatical issue, but Japanese also does, as we have seen, and so does Arabic (the basic verb forms are aspectual, not temporal) and actually, so do Spanish and Portuguese (compare yo sabía with yo supe). Spectre goes in to some considerable detail about Modern Greek, a language I'm not very familiar with, although I know Classical Greek fairly well and it has always been pretty clear to me that the aorist and, normally, the future in Classical Greek are perfective aspect forms, which explains in part why there is frequently a similarity in the aorist and future roots of Classical Greek verbs.

    In English, the distinction is sometimes made by the use of progressive vs. continuous tenses, but frequently it is made by using different verbs (speak vs. say). If you look at the matter lexically, many English verbs can only occur in one aspect, based on their meaning.
  38. Lugubert Senior Member

    Too many for me interesting aspects to cover in one post.

    I tried Slavic languages to get a feeling for aspects. Failed so far. I fully agree with Qcumber that there's aspects in Arabic (and Bible Hebrew): perfect vs. imperfect is a misleading choice of names for them.

    Chinese also substitutes aspects for tense. In pinyin (without tones): Women chi fan-le qu kan dianyingr "We eat-finish go watch movie." Could be yesterday (When we had eaten, we went...), or in a few minutes, or tomorrow (When we will have eaten, we'll go to watch...), unless you add clues like yesterday, as soon as, tomorrow, and/or other suitable context.

    For Hindi, you could discuss for ages what is (using the German terms) Tempus, Aktionsart, or Aspekt.
  39. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Cantonese also has aspects, and like Mandarin they are indicated by words called "particles". Unfortunately it has a more complex system than Mandarin, e.g. there are three different sub-aspects that correspond to "perfective" in Slavic languages. (saai, yuen, and jo), and two (or more?) for progressive aspect.
  40. Alijsh Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    Persian has also separate tenses for perfective, imperfective and continuous forms:

    miraft - imperfect form
    rafte ast - perfective form
    mirafte ast - imperfect form of perfective form
    dâšt miraft - continuous form
    dâšte [ast] mirafte ast - perfective form of continuous form

    mi- is imperfective prefix. All past tenses of Persian are conjugated regularly. We have also subjunctive tenses.
  41. Spectre scolaire Senior Member

    Moving around, p.t. Turkey
    Maltese and Russian
    Just a small comment and a note of corrigenda to my too long contribution #36.

    The last first: Indicative and subjunctive are moods, active and medio-passive are voices.

    “A propos mode” should be read as: “A propos voices” – mode does not mean anything. If there are other errata or unclear points, please tell me!

    My comment is reserved for vince who mentions Chinese. Aspect in Chinese is fascinating. So far I only have an idea as to how it works in Mandarin, but I see a complexity which is very different from the one in Slavic languages and in Modern Greek. I think, at one point, one would have to look into Classical Chinese – at least to see how the content of the characters denoting aspect has developed.

    A difficult thing about aspect is the very different form it takes in different languages. This often boils down to a question of terminology. But so far, there is no consensus as to a general theory of aspect – even if there are a couple of monographies on the subject, the “classical” one being written by Bernard Comrie. Unfortunately, this book is presently about 8000 km away from me.

    PS: Being a neophyte to this forum, I experience some problems with the fonts. I have no idea why the first part turned out in bold.:eek:
  42. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Cantonese and Mandarin/Written Chinese have very different aspect systems, although a small number of them evolved together (e.g. - guo: to have done before). Many aspects are similar in function (e.g. Mandarin's perfective -le vs. Cantonese's -jo) but I think that Cantonese makes finer distinctions, e.g. there are several aspects that can be considered "progressive" or imperfect, and several that can be considered "perfective". The interesting point, which may make comparison with Classical Chinese hard, is that many of these aspectual particles are only used in either Mandarin/Written Chinese or Cantonese, and not both. However I'm sure that the character chosen for the particle (at least for the Mandarin ones) might give a clue to their origin. The grammar of aspect in Cantonese is also different, for example, the particle must immediately follow the first verb in Cantonese and unlike in Mandarin/Written Chinese can never be moved to the end of the sentence or phrase. This is not true for non-aspect particles.

    It is very interesting how closely related languages can have such different aspect systems. e.g. How French lacks progressive aspect while Spanish distinguishes both progressive and imperfective/perfective. French also lost its remote past tense in the spoken language (try saying "Hier je mangeai une pomme" to a French person hehe).
  43. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    Moderation Note
    The following 14 posts have been moved from a similar thread in LA. Latin, Greek, English, German, Czech and Spanish evidence is under examination but discussion needs not be limited to those languages.
    Flaminius, moderator

    Are you aware also of the English past tense 'timeless' aorist commonly used in hypothetical conditional sentences.
    In English, when a conditional seems so hypothetical as to be little short of pure fantasy, there are two ways in which the protasis is expressed.
    (rather 'educated'): If I were to say such a thing, you would think me mad.
    (colloquial) : If I said such a thing, you would think me mad.
    These two sentences are identical in meaning and the colloquial use of the past tense is plainly aoristic, or, as you and Whodunit might say, "gnomic".
    Best wishes
  44. virgilio Senior Member

    English UK
    Whodunit and modus.irrealis,
    Can you please explain something to me? I see that you seem to see both some similarity and some distinction between "tense" and "aspect". I'm a simple soul and don't understand words like "aspect". I know the Latin verb, of course, from which it is derived but I can't see how "tense" (from "tempus") could get mixed up with "aspect".
    Please answer, if you will, in words not exceeding three syllables in length, if possible, because long words make my head spin.
    Thank you

  45. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I disagree with that interpretation. I see nothing generic about the protasis you've got there. I'd even say that, from a semantic point of view, that's one of the clearest forms of subjunctive.
  46. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Hm, it's actually very easy to understand the term aspect, once you've learned English as a second language, because it is used in English, too, much more than in any other Germanic language, I daresay.

    My favorite example is I was writing a letter. The aspect of this sentence is imperfective, because the action is not completed at the moment I say the sentence. The perfective counterpart in English would be I wrote a letter, because the action was already completed when the sentence was spoken.

    In German, as you might know, there are no aspects. They are, as far as I can tell, possible in some Romance languages grammarwise, but usually not taught to students of these languagas. The Italian Stavo scrivendo una lettera is imperfective and Avevo scritto una lettera sounds perfective to me.

    In many languages, aspect and tense could technically be used interchangeably, but they shouldn't in Greek nor in the Slavic languages, because every tense can be used with the perfective and imperfective aspect, which has different declensions.

    I hope this was not too confusing. :)
  47. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I agree that English is quite "aspect-minded". Except that the past simple and the present perfect kind of muddy the waters between "perfect" and "perfective"... whatever it is the two terms mean, precisely.

    I would call that a progressive. The dividing line between the two can be a thin one...
  48. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I hope I didn't say anything else. English has no aspects, but they can technically be found in English, if one really wants to.

    Another term would be continuous. However, you're right that the line between a "progressive tense" and an "imperfective aspect" is only a very thin one.
  49. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Not a very traditional point of view. Why do you say that?
  50. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    English, Canada
    I guess hypothetical could be seen as timeless, and Greek similarly uses the aorist indicative in these kind of conditional sentences, but it also uses the imperfect indicative, so it wouldn't be a distinguishing feature of the aorist (plus with English, as long as people still say "If I were," I think you have to recognize that this is the past subjunctive as Outsider says). In the end though I think any of the timeless uses of the aorist (or of the English past) are derived from the principal, and most frequent, use, which is as a definite past tense.

    Just to add to the other responses, one way to think of it is that "tense" describes the time of an action, while "aspect" describes how the action is being presented (is it complete?, is it ongoing?, etc.) -- obviously not a good definition (and there's all sorts of things that are called aspects) but I think examples are better.

    If you think of Greek, how would you describe the difference between the present and aorist subjunctives, the present and aorist infinitives, the present and aorist imperatives, and so on? The difference is clearly not one of tense, so you really need the concept of aspect to describe it correctly.

    And with Latin, how would you describe the difference between the imperfect and perfect -- in terms of tense, both of them can refer to the same points in time, but the latter is used for events that are complete (whether they have relevance for the present or not), while the former do not, and that difference is often called aspect.

    English has been brought up too, and I would think that the difference between progressive and non-progressive is basically one of aspect since "I wrote" and "I was writing" can refer to the same event, so there's no difference in the times they can refer to, and aspect is the name applied to the difference (although it's a different difference than the one in Greek or Latin -- e.g. "I knew" would normally be translated by an imperfect). But with English it's even more complicated because "perfect" is also considered an aspect but you can have "perfect" and "progressive" at the same time ("I have been writing"), so I'm not sure it's appropriate to say they're both aspects, but that's the terminology that's in use.

    I didn't quite manage the three-syllable thing, but hopefully that helps a bit :).

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