Ranto Appendix – Q


Aspect is the less famous partner of tense.  Where grammatical tense systems deal with whether an event is objectively in the past, present, or future, aspect systems are concerned with fuzzier questions such as whether it is in the foreground or background of the narrative.  Although it has traditionally been confused with tense, or at best treated as an obscure variant, in worldwide terms it's tense that's relatively minor – a good proportion of languages don't have any special tense marking, while languages similarly lacking in aspect marking are rare (although as it happens the one good example is German).  Even Mandarin Chinese, otherwise uninflecting, has affixes for flagging aspect.

Different languages concentrate on marking different aspectual oppositions, but the most basic one is the distinction between perfective and imperfective (not to be confused – some hope! – with perfect vs. imperfect):

an individual event given the spotlight, often implying that this action was completed as a single step in the narrative.  Example: I got in my van, drove to the city, and met them.
a general state viewed as the frame to the narrative (seen from “inside” and emphasising its internal structure).  Example: As I drove the rain was still getting heavier.

Those two example sentences might be describing the same drive from alternate perspectives; the difference is a matter of narrative emphasis rather than objective scheduling.  The languages of the Slavic family make considerable use of this distinction, but they signpost it in an unusually messy way: each verb in the dictionary is one of a canonical perfective vs. imperfective pairing, like Russian skazat'/govorit' = “to speak” or napisat'/pisat' = “to write”.  They're often distinguished by prefixes, but it's an irregular, seemingly derivational process, unlike the simple inflectional alternation common in other aspect‐marking systems.

Plenty of other occasionally used aspectual oppositions exist; here are some summaries (but bear in mind that you could write entire books about the subtle details):

more a matter of different kinds of word in the dictionary (“lexical aspect”) than of different uses of a given verb.  Dynamic situations necessarily involve change, while statives deal with ones that naturally persist (and may even be a special category of adjectival verbs).
(situations viewed as) isolated incidents, regular customs, or universal truths; occasionally marked by regular inflections, though never (as far as I know) a systematic three‐option alternation.
presents an event as (suddenly) starting, as ongoing/recurring (“I am driving”), or as coming to an (abrupt) end; this can easily be mistaken for tense, but each one may be set in the past, present, or future.
perfect is just a traditional bad name for retrospective (or sometimes even for perfective); several continental European languages have further muddled the situation by recycling their perfect construction as a plain past tense.  The “imperfect” is just whatever's left over.
distinguishes (things presented as) sharply delimited, momentary events from more prolonged or open‐ended ones.  Durative verbs are often stative and atelic, but we're sinking! for instance is neither.
highlights the immediate present implications rather than the events themselves; for instance where it broke is simply past tense, it has broken has resultative overtones implying that it remains unfixed.  The same idea can apply either to (usually recent) past or (imminent) future.
one‐shot as opposed to repeated events; Old English had a frequentative suffix still visible in pairs like spark/sparkle.
divides processes with an inherent goal or end‐point (swam the river) from ones that can just carry on unlimitedly (swam backstroke).  Where this is inflectional rather than lexical aspect (and/or if it also implies a cessative) it tends to be labelled as “completive”.  This doesn't cover the idea of trying and failing, which is usually treated as imperfective.

English sentences are often ambiguous with regard to aspect, and when they do mark it, it's usually by way of optional periphrastic forms, as in you ARE going/you HAVE gone/you USED TO go.  None of those constructions are anything you'd want an auxiliary language to copy, but the general idea of using catenated verbs as in fini iri = “to finish going” and kutimi iri = “to be accustomed to going” could easily be expanded to cover all of the above shades of meaning via one standard mechanism.  What Esperanto uses instead is a mess of different bolted‐on afterthoughts.