Reading Aubrey’s Thesis (3)

Are you having fun yet? You can read parts 1 and 2 first.

Today we pick up at section 3.2.1, in which Aubrey talks about 2 approaches to categorising up how the perfect ‘fits in’ to languages. But I’m going to flip things up a bit by talking about the second approach (3.2.1.2) first. The second approach Aubrey discusses is by Bhat, who suggests an idealised model in which languages give more prominence to either aspect, tense, or mood. So imagine there are these 3 ‘ideal’ (almost Platonic) languages, one which privileges Aspect above all else, the other raises Tense to the same degree, the third treats Mood with this importance. Each actual language doesn’t match on of these ideals, but it will triangulate and lean towards one of these more than the others.

How do you know which element is more prominent? Features like: grammaticalisation (i.e. is the element embedded into the grammar of the language?), obligation (i.e. are speakers given no choice about whether to express the element or not. e.g. in some languages one must indicate whether something is perfective or imperfective in aspect, there is no non-aspect-marked form), systematic and pervasive (i.e. is the element featured throughout the language’s [verbal] system without significant gaps).

So a language that forces and features past vs. non-past may be tense prominent, a language that obliges perfective vs. imperfective is more likely to be aspect prominent, etc..

Aubrey discusses this model second for certain reasons, that Bhat manages to encapsulate ideas from Bybee-Dahl in a way useful for RRG. But in my view Bhat is a lot easier to understand than Bybee-Dhal and thus to explain. Bhat also (p59-60) suggests that some elements may be ‘re-explained’ within an language from one type of system to another. This can be seen in the Future. Is the future ‘tense’ modal (expressing ideas like desire, obligation, ability) or temporal in its operation? This differs from language to language, but it also differs diachronically, and this is certainly true for Ancient Greek. Some have analysed the future as deriving from a PIE desiderative suffix (p61), while offers argue that it derives from a perfective aspect suffix. So, the question then becomes, ‘Historically, did the future tense-form arise from a modal form or an aspect one?’ Regardless, with reference to Dionysius Thrax, Aubrey points out that Ancient Greek grammarians analysed it as aspectual.

Similarly with the perfect. For tense-prominent languages (still p61), perfects can be analysed temporally, a “past even that has current (present) relevance” (quoting Bhat). This certainly works quite well for English. On the other hand (p63) an aspect-prominent language has a perfect form that is aspectual, not temporal, in both its formation and its general significance.

Okay, now that we’ve got our heads around Bhat, let’s step back to 3.2.1.1, Bybee-Dahl. These two sideline categories like tense and aspect, and instead look at “grams”. What are “grams”? Imagine you just came up with a word that signified varies tense-forms or aspect-forms or mood-forms, but you wanted it not to mean any of them in particular, just all those varieties of putting a verb into a particular ‘form’. That’s a gram (I think!), or a “grammatical morpheme” – it’s a tag or structure that identifies a particular grammatical feature, but remember we’re dealing with verbal systems. So it’s when we analyse these grams that we go looking for their tense/aspect/mood in relation to their semantic content.

This frees us to look at grams more broadly, and consider how a range of notions: aspectual, temporal, modal, aktionsart-ish, and so on, can or could be realised in a language’s systems. There’s a great, difficult to summarise, illustrative diagram on p55.

One of the advantages of this model is that it sidesteps ‘beginning’ with the Perfect. instead, they present ‘gram-types’ such as “resultatives, completives, and anteriors” which have “similar paths of grammaticalization” that typically result in “perfect” forms. But it allows both synchronic and diachronic analysis of what that perfect means, its semiosis.

By dispensing with the tense-aspect-mood categories as a starting point, it allows a better approach to the individual systematisation of languages, however the disadvantages are a lack of engagement with some other linguistic theoretical elements (p57) such as that grammaticalisation of tense is usually distinct from grammaticalisation of aspect as a system. The failure is largely a result of tending to look at things from a more micro rather than macro perspective.

So Aubrey moves on in 3.2.2 to talk about how using these approaches, we must discuss mortphosyntactic and semantic tests (p64). How does the perfect line up with tense grams and aspect grams? How do we categorise actual grams in a particular language? We need some tests! Tests for grammatical prominence are something I talked a little bit earlier in this post: grammaticalisation, systematic organisation, obligatoriness, pervasiveness. The second step to is test for tense and aspect in particular. We must consider whether a particular gram functions within the paradigm of the tense system or aspect system, unambiguously or not. In some languages tense/aspect is always ambiguous, or better yet intertwined.

Aubrey talks through a number of other types of tests, which are summarised in a table on p70. Finally he talks about tests suitable for perfect-like grams (p71), which is the focus of the study. Bybee et alii set out two morphosyntactic tests for anterior and reultative grams: anteriors will take temporal adverbs likejust or already, but not still (prior state-of-affairs vs. persistent situation). Anterior grams are likely to be tense-oriented.

Resultative grams function in reverse: they should take still but not just and already, and resultatives are aspect-oriented. Sadly, Aubrey notes, Bybee et alii don’t have any more good tests for these 3 grams. Instead, some test need to be derived. Resultatives, by their semantic content, “require a normally telic verb”, so there’s a test waiting to happen. Completive grams tend to “correlate closely with change of state predicates”; these, and a few others, result in 7 tests (p74) for Aubrey to apply to perfect-like grams in Greek.

Great! In our next post we’ll get to work on understanding how Aubrey went with applying this to the Greek perfect

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