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Aorists and Perfects

Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives


Edited by Marc Fryd and Pierre-Don Giancarli


Cahiers Chronos (Book 29)

Leiden/Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017

Hardcover.288 pages. ISBN 978-9004326644. €51


Reviewed by Chad Howe

University of Georgia






In contemporary linguistic studies, work on periphrastic past forms—referred to more generally as the perfect—is typically cross-disciplinary, drawing from a range of different analytical and methodological approaches. This timely volume, edited by Marc Fryd and Pierre-Don Giancarli, falls squarely into this tradition and offers readers a set of works that, taken together, constitute a state-of-the-art commentary concerning a topic that continues to intrigue, and in some cases baffle, linguists of all persuasions. With the exception of the chapter by Claude Manuel Delmas, who describes the Tahitian TMA particle ’Ua, the volume focuses on analyses of perfect forms in Indo-European languages and explores different themes, many of which cast a long shadow in the field, like typological classification and use in speaker narratives. Considering these topics in tandem avoids the common pitfall of relying too heavily on any single analytical perspective, particularly problematic when it comes to the perfect, which has been discussed across the gamut from formal (i.e. syntactic and semantic) to functionalist (i.e. pragmatic and sociolinguistic) models. What unfolds during the course of this volume constitutes a critical list of perfect-related research objectives, some entrenched in the literature, like compatibility with past-denoting adverbials, and others with a shorter list of references, like omission of auxiliaries, and all blended together to offer an up-to-date view of the questions and answers that continue to intrigue (and frustrate) scholars. In the following remarks, I will discuss each of the papers included in this volume, taking each in turn, though not in the volume’s listed order, and attempting to explain how the phenomena addressed therein relate to the broader narrative of the collection.

Following the editors’ brief introduction to the volume’s contents, the opening chapter by Bridget Drinka sets a high standard for the remaining works. Drinka opens with an overview of the foundational work of Squartini and Bertinetto (2000) whose proposals have shaped the landscape of perfect studies in Romance during the last twenty years. Their notion of ‘aoristic drift’, widely cited in the literature (see, e.g., Howe 2013), explores and extends Harris’ (1982) proposal concerning the development of periphrastic past forms in Romance Languages, which, according to Harris, can be explained via a four-stage model that relies on language-specific features of these forms, such as use in different perfective past (preterit) contexts. Drinka’s chapter, a highly condensed version of her insightful (2016) monograph, revisits the ‘aoristic drift’ as a viable explanation of language change and provides an alternative explanation for typologically similar patterns of development in European languages. In short, Drinka argues for a socio-historical perspective on this issue, one that relies crucially on “the political and social ties established during the time of Charlemagne [8th and 9th centuries]” and, importantly, one that questions the “persuasive value” of Squartini and Bertinetto’s claims regarding the ‘aoristic drift’ [23-24].

Among the remaining chapters, there are two that fit specifically within the set of topics introduced by Drinka, both dealing with patterns of usage of the perfect in dialects of Spanish. In her chapter on the present perfect in Peruvian Spanish, Margarita Jara lays out an ambitious agenda to answer various questions, linguistic and social, that have thus far not been convincingly treated in the literature. Regarding the linguistic issues, Jara’s work explores constraints on the use of the perfect (vis-à-vis the preterit) in a collection of oral interview data with speakers from Lima, Perú and utilizes variationist quantitative methods to uncover statistically significant correlations. For instance, her analysis corroborates previous studies, such as Howe and Schwenter (2003), by showing that the perfect in these data is favored over the preterit with, for instance, cases of indeterminate temporal reference and use with adverbials of specific temporal reference (e.g., ayer ‘yesterday’). Perhaps the most intriguing finding of her chapter is that speakers use the perfect, almost categorically, in narrative evaluative contexts, further illustrating what others have observed in Spanish (Hernández 2004) and English (Engel & Ritz 2000; Fryd 2015). The second of the chapters that discuss Spanish is by Carlos Henderson who offers his own take on how to tease apart distinctions between the simple and periphrastic (or compound) past forms. Like Jara, Henderson analyzes oral interviews, gathered from Chilean and Uruguayan university students. Following a brief overview of the canonical meanings of the perfect in these varieties (e.g., universal and experiential), Henderson provides an alternative perspective based on how speakers conceptualize events referred to using these forms. More specifically, the periphrastic past is used with what Henderson (following, e.g., Langacker 1991) refers to as summary and sequential scanning functions, allowing the speaker to toggle, via the contrast with the preterit, between a largely atemporal presentation of past events to a reference that “establishes a temporal anchor in the profiled [temporal] succession” [105], a use characteristic of the simple past. Henderson’s view offers much needed nuance to earlier proposals that the simple/periphrastic past distinction in Spanish was primarily a reflection of temporal indeterminacy, a view proposed by Schwenter and Torres Cacoullos (2008) and examined by many subsequent studies.

A second natural class of papers that emerges from this collection are the papers by Jim Walker, Philippe Bourdin, Yuri Yerastov, and Marc Fryd, all of which explore topics related to the English present perfect. The chapter by Walker discusses what he refers to as an “emergent use of the present perfect in British English,” specifically the so-called narrative use of the HAVE-perfect (e.g., have entered). Following Ritz’s (2000) proposal that the narrative perfect expresses mirativity, Walker begins with the “more or less indisputable” claim that the HAVE-perfect occurs with specific time reference and in sequenced narratives, particularly in what he refers to as “non-standard native English” [26]. In fact, Walker provides evidence that the HAVE-perfect in these varieties can be interpreted with (perfective) past reference even in the absence of an explicit past-time adverbial, a claim that does indeed suggest novel functions in these varieties. Walker’s primary contribution in this work can be best understood in the context of his attempt track the emergence of the narrative meaning using a corpus of trial transcripts ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the Old Bailey Corpus. Regrettably, this endeavor does not produce the type of confirmation that Walker is expecting, namely that the narrative use of the HAVE-perfect in dialectal English has a much longer history than is attested in the literature. And though he finds other “occasional intriguing oddities” in the data examined (which ends up expanding to examples solicited via Google), Walker concludes that the narrative use of the perfect should be characterized as an emergent phenomenon in British English. Taking a similar, dialectal perspective, Yuri Yerastov offers a corpus-based analysis of BE-perfect constructions in varieties of Canadian English that, unlike ‘standard’ varieties of North American English, are commonly used without prepositions, as in Are you finished your question? [example 1e : 179]. Yerastov’s review of the literature provides a concise and coherent diachronic overview of this structure, observing influences from Gaelic, Scots, and even Pennsylvania German and attestations of patterns in the U.S. Southern Atlantic States and Pennsylvania. To explain this structure, Yerastov analyzes tokens from two newspaper sources, one from Canada and one form the United States, as a control, and both representing contemporary texts (i.e. 1977 to 2014). The first, and admittedly expected, finding is that the U.S. corpus produced not a single instance of the target structure, despite its larger size in relation to the Canadian texts. The quantitative analysis of the data reveals that the frequency of the target structure varies by region (province and municipality) but, in general, has been steadily increasing in use during the last half century. Finally, Yerastov makes the case that this phenomenon is not an innovation but rather should be understood as retention of an older pattern inherited via the influence of early Scottish settlers in North America.

The remaining two chapters that discuss English both take a structural view. In his analysis of English have just V-en and just V-ed, Phillippe Bourdin revisits the well-trodden category of ‘Hot News’, which, as he appropriately observes, has been described from a variety of different perspectives and languages and using a range of labels—e.g., such as the ‘perfect of recent past’ and the ‘passé immédiat’. Bourdin’s focuses his attention on the role of just in these structures, assigning to a meaning that is captured by the novel label ‘[R]estricted [R]elevance anteriority’. The first and second sections of Bourdin’s chapter explain, respectively, the syntax and semantics of RR-anteriority just with the result being a methodically presented explanation of why just has been mischaracterized in the literature. For example, Bourdin takes issue with the claim that just and recently should be characterized as members of the same class of elements that refer to the immediate past, noting that the meaning of RR-anteriority just simply cannot be modeled by the same notion of recency. After laying out this and other revisions to previous approaches, Bourdin embarks on an effort to find typological evidence for RR-anteriority markers, evoking Haspelmath’s (2010) notion of a ‘comparative concept’ in determining crosslinguistically generalizable categories. Following a series of examples from more than two dozen languages, including French, German, Indonesian, Welsh, Malagasy, Japanese, and Lithuanian, Bourdin concludes that “[w]hat justifies this typological configuration is the discursive or textual status assigned to the eventuality, namely the fact that its relevance is closely tied to some transitory aspect of the situation” [170]. At the center of Marc Fryd’s paper is an effort to provide empirical support for and extended discussion of perfect constructions in English that do not display an overt HAVE auxiliary, as in (Have) You spoken to Mary yet [example 4a : 204]. Fryd notes that the omission of the auxiliary is “a standard feature of informal English,” offering a range of different structural and informational contexts in which a HAVE-less perfect is licensed. Like Walker, Fryd walks the reader through examples intended to illustrate the difficulties inherent in an analysis that assumes that auxiliaries are deleted in these cases, particularly when considering the dialectal evidence—e.g., from New Zealand and U.S. English—that several, largely stigmatized, verbal forms can serve as preterits, as in I seen her ghost, ain’t I? [example 6a : 208]. The lion’s share, and certainly the more thoroughly documented piece of Fryd’s contribution, is focused on HAVE-less perfects in non-finite forms, such as modals. In this portion of the paper, Fryd offers a litany of examples (over 100 cases!), originating from Old English onward, to illustrate the distribution of this structure and to provide some preliminary view of its evolution. To round out his comprehensive overview, Fryd provides additional evidence from Germanic languages (e.g., German and Swedish) before summarizing his findings and concluding with the astute observation that “only a broad panchronic approach [to language change] may yield sufficiently rich data in order to account for the synchronic strata which can be observed at any one moment of the history of a language” [239].

For the first of the final two papers, Claude Manuel Delmas examines the TMA particle ’Ua in Tahitian, which he describes as “semantically flexible”, capable of expressing functions akin to the English present, present perfect, pluperfect, or simple past. Tahitian, an Oceanic language with unmarked V+S(O) word order, has a system of what Delmas refers to as “detached, verbal particles belonging to a closed class” [112], which includes ’Ua and its use as marking “positively asserted present perfect or past situations”, as in ’Ua ha’apau ’oia i te uaina ‘He has finished the wine’ [example 1 : 112]. After his review of previous work on ’Ua, Delmas introduces his theoretical framework, which turns out to be a multi-faceted approach drawing from typological perspectives (Dahl 1985) and more formal approaches (Smith 2003). With this groundwork established, the rest of Delmas’ work makes the case that ’Ua can express the same breadth of meanings attested with “classic perfects”, including resultative meaning, recent past, and hot news and even moving beyond these functions to its compatibility with perfective and evidential meanings. Delmas repeatedly points to the semantic underdetermination of ’Ua as an explanation for what is clearly wide-ranging functional diversity within the Tahitian TMA system. Counterfactual uses of the present perfect in Scandinavian languages are the focus of the chapter by Kristin Melum Eide, which begins with an introduction of the data used in the paper and a presentation of target examples from Fosen, Norway, located on the western coast in the middle of the Scandinavian peninsula. Such examples—as in Harden [bunkeren] blitt bygget I dag, har den ikke havnet der ‘If it were being built today, it wouldn’t have ended up here’ [example 1a : 246]—are not considered standard in modern Norwegian where, similar to English, the pluperfect is preferred in counterfactual conditionals. Using grammaticality survey data from the Nordic Syntax Database, Eide observes that, despite being at odds with prescriptive norms, the “use of a reduced ha or present form har of the perfect auxiliary ha ‘have’ in a present perfect structure” was judged by many participants, including those in the Fosen area, as acceptable, creating a clear isogloss between the southern and northern parts of the Scandinavian peninsula. In the remainder of the chapter, Eide explains the meaning of these forms, both in terms of their semantic and syntactic properties and their evolution from Old Norse. Regarding the latter, one key factor in understanding the development of this structure, and its subsequent dialectal diffusion, is what Eide refers to as the ‘irrealist infinitive’. According to Eide, this seemingly innocuous item “plays the part of a modal agreement marker in counterfactual constructions of all the relevant varieties [of languages in the Scandinavian peninsula]” [283]. 

What these brief, and admittedly incomplete, summaries highlight is that, as editors, Fryd and Giancarli view this volume as a resource for readers interested in a substantive view of linguistic research on present perfect forms that spans both linguistic and disciplinary boundaries. The reader will undoubtedly find that the primary shortcoming of this volume is the fact that there is not more of it. Additional chapters, perhaps covering a wider range of languages, would have served to highlight and expand the issues addressed by an already cogent set of works. Aorists and Perfects stands as an important reminder that, for those of us who have invested considerable time exploring the cross-linguistic mysteries of perfect forms, questions, more so than answers, need to be revisited from time to time and from the perspective that dynamicity of analytical perspective is key in continuing to make progress. Having curated a collection that invigorates the reader through a series of thought-provoking papers constitutes an important accomplishment for these researchers. This accomplishment deserves its place among the canon of works dedicated to this important topic.

Works cited

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Drinka, Bridget. 2016. Language contact in Europe : The periphrastic perfect through history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engel, Dulcie M. and Marie-Eve A. Ritz. 2000. The use of the Present Perfect in Australian English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 20 :119-140.

Fryd, Marc. 2015. The narrative Present Perfect in English. In Juan Rafael Zamorano-Mansilla, Carmen Maíz, Elena Domínguez, María Victoria Martín de la Rosa (eds.), Thinking Modally : English and Contrastive Studies on Modality. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing : 185-202.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3) :663-687.

Hernández, José Esteban. 2004. Present Perfect Variation and Grammaticalization in Salvadoran Spanish. University of New Mexico PhD Dissertation.

Howe, Chad. 2013. The Spanish Perfects : Pathways of Emergent Meaning. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Howe, Chad and Scott A. Schwenter. 2003. Present perfect for preterite across Spanish dialects. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 9(2) :61-76.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Concept, Image and Symbol : The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schwenter, Scott A. and Rena Torres Cacoullos. 2008. Defaults and indeterminacy in temporal grammaticalization : The ‘perfect’ road to perfective. Language Variation and Change 20 :1-39.

Smith, Carlota. 2003. Modes of Discourse. Cambridge: University Press.

Squartini, Mario and Pier Marco Bertinetto. 2000. The simple and compound past in Romance languages. In Östen Dahl (ed.), Tense and aspect in the languages of Europe. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter : 403-439.


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