Aspect in the past

DCblog: On `boilt’

Yesterday, I was discussing aspect in Catalan with my supervisor. It’s all very complicated – more so than you might think. More so than my brain get comprehend, anyway.

So it is with interest that I come across what appears to be a distinction in aspect in synthetic forms (i.e. ‘one word’, not ‘made up, invented’) in certain verbs in British English. The -t form (e.g. burnt) is more focused on a completed action, that only happened the once and it’s over and done with (The house burnt down, to give Crystal’s example) and the -ed form is for more continuous actions, perhaps it’s more describing a state: The house burned for hours (again using Crystal’s example). Anyway, the point is that the -t form appears to correspond to the Catalan preterite tense and the -ed form, only where there is an alternative -t form, corresponds to the Catalan imperfect tense. Yet another complication to add to the list provided by Wheeler, Yates and Dols (1999). It’s possibly reasonably safe to say that this would also to apply to other Romance languages.

Wheeler, M. W., Yates, A. & Dols, N. (1999). Catalan: a comprehensive grammar, Routledge Grammars, Routledge, London.

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3 thoughts on “Aspect in the past

  1. I hadn’t thought about the burnt/burned distinction but it certainly works for me.

    I’m struggling, though, to find another example where a -t/-ed alternation is used to contrast perfective and imperfective.

    Is there a semantic difference between “the house burned for hours” and “the house was burning for hours”? They are both imperfective in aspect but perhaps the latter is more marked for past tense.

    For me, at least, only the -t form can be used adjectivally; i.e. “the burnt toast” vs “*the burned toast”.

    What’s really interesting, though, is that the ability to distinguish -t from -ed is both morphologically and phonologically conditioned. The verb has to be a weak verb and has to phonologically allow for the -t/-ed alternation.

    Weird. It’s these kinds of things that make linguistics fascinating and frustrating at the same time 🙂

  2. I commented before reading Crystal. I guess he gives some more examples. For me, burnt/burned is the clearest, though.

  3. Yesterday, I was reading a little of Comrie (1976), where he explains the difference between tense and aspect, perfective and imperfective.

    Tense specifies a situation (state, event or process) in time relative to another situation, either this moment (absolute) or to another one (relative). In English, absolute tenses are given by finite verb forms and relative tenses by non-finite verb forms.

    Aspects are “different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation”. Perfective and imperfective are aspects; the perfective looks at the situation as a whole from the outside, whereas the imperfective is looking at it from the inside so you can see the beginning (if there is one), the middle and the end (if there is one).

    With that in mind, burned is an absolute past tense, whereas the progressive, was burning, is a relative past tense. So, perhaps this is what you’re thinking of when you say the latter is “more marked for past tense”.

    As far as the semantics go, as you say, your examples are both imperfective, so the semantics are the same aspectually, but because there is that difference in absolute/relative time reference, there is a semantic difference in when the event occurred.

    I’m playing with these sentences:

    The house burnt for hours after it was set alight.
    The house burnt for hours while the firemen fought it.

    The house burned for hours after it was set alight.
    The house burned for hours while the firemen fought it.

    The house was burning for hours after it was set alight.
    The house was burning for hours while the firemen fought it.

    The house burnt down.
    The house burned down.

    The house burnt down slowly.
    The house burned down slowly.

    The house burnt down yesterday.
    The house burned down yesterday.

    The house burnt for hours until the firemen put it out.
    The house burned for hours until the firemen put it out.
    The house was burning for hours until the firemen put it out.

    Although there’s probably loads more, involving while and after and other things.

    Then, of course, you have the perfect/nonperfect distinction, which messes everything up…

    I totally agree with you about the adjectives. And about linguistics doing your head in—in a good way 😉

    Comrie, Bernard (1976) Aspect, Cambridge: CUP

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