Archive for September 2007

What’s the difference between Aspect and Aktionsart?

September 26, 2007

In her introduction, Galia Hatav (see bibliography) briefly mentions that in recent semantic studies the term aktionsart has generally been reserved for the description of aspectual notions, such as events versus states, which are NOT morphologically marked in the language (ie by some sort of verbal inflection). In contrast, aspect is the term used to describe these morphological distinctions. In my reading and class discussions, I have found that these two terms are often misunderstood and confused, but there is actually a good reason for that.

While the differences between tense and aspect were discussed generally by Greek and Roman thinkers, in modern linguistic thought aspect was formally distinguished from tense by Russian linguists. The term “aspect” is a calque from the Russian vid meaning “view”. At first it was treated as part of the tense system, but began to be distinguished as its own formal category by the early 1900’s. Meanwhile, German grammarians were being influenced by the Russian work. Aspect was also described as the “circumstance of the action” leading to the German term Aktionsart. At this point, both Vid and Aktionsart seem to have been broad terms describing the general notion of “aspectuality” in distinction from tense.

As the study of “aspectuality” progressed, the Slavic linguists realized that it was indicated broadly in the external morphology of the verbal forms (perfect/imperfect) but also more exactly by some inner quality of the verb itself. Thus within “aspectuality” the aspect, marked externally, became distinguished from the aktionsart, the inner quality. However, German linguists questioned whether the narrow definition of aspect as a binary perfect/imperfect distinction could be applied to Germanic languages, or whether it was a feature of Slavic languages. Further, while the basic distinction of aspect and aktionsart became accepted within Slavic linguistics, much work remained to formally define the two categories.

The German linguists moved toward the position that notions of aspect can be expressed in different ways in different languages. While some early work tried to apply the Slavic notion of perfective/imperfective, aspectuality in Germanic languages seemed to be realized in many different ways and in many different categories such as terminative/aterminative, telic/atelic, bound/unbound, etc. Thus, the distinction of aspect from aktionsart is not strictly based on morphological criteria. This Western tradition seems to elevate semantics over morphology.

The Slavic linguists focused on morphologically marked pairs indicating aspect, but aktionsart was more difficult to define. While aspect was seen as the subjective view of the speaker, aktionsart was seen as an objective lexical quality of the verb. Further, aktionsart is not constrained by binary opposition. Under the opposition of perfective/imperfective are several categories such as ingressive, iterative, etc.

So what does this mean for you? Well, it is important to recognize that there are two major traditions of linguistics which treat aspect vs aktionsart slightly differently. To perhaps oversimplify, the Germans focused on the semantic nature of aktionsart, but had a difficult time formalizing aspect, while the Slavic linguists focused on morphologically marked aspect, but had a difficult time formalizing aktionsart. More confusing, older German works may still use Aktionsart in the more general sense of “aspectuality” in distinction from tense, rather then in distinction to “aspect”. Lastly, while it is intuitive that there is a distinction between aspect and tense, there is still much work being done on how aspect is realized in any given language and what the formal categories of aspect are. For instance, Hatav prefers a semantic truth-condition approach over the pragmatic approach which emphasizes the subjective view of the speaker. Aspect is also being investigated in relation to discourse function, etc. Don’t be too quick to assume you know what an author means when they begin to talk aspect.


Hatav, Galia. The Semantics of Aspect and Modality: Evidence from English and Biblical Hebrew. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1997.

September 21, 2007

Hatav argues that the TAM (Tense-Aspect-Mood) system of a language should be described from Semantics, specifically the truth-condition perspective, rather than Pragmatics. Pragmatic perspectives tend to describe aspect based on the perspective of the speaker, however Hatav argues that it is temporality that is important. This can especially be demonstrated in Biblical Hebrew, which does not specifically mark tense. Tense is only interpreted by the help of adverbs or other context. Especially important are the relative relationships between S(peech)-time, E(vent)-time, and R(eference)-time. R-time represents the relative location of the speaker within the discourse. For example, in “I had seen John (when you called me)” even though the S-time is after the E-time (when you called me), the R-time precedes it. The choice of aspect then is not based on the speaker’s attitude toward the nature of the action, but it is a function of the interval between S-time and R-time and the necessary truth conditions.

Hatav describes three basic aspects: sequence, inclusion, and perfect. A verb marked for sequence (wayyiqtol and wqatal) moves R-time forward. A verb marked for inclusion (progressive) describes a situation which includes its R-time. If the R-time is not the S-time, then it must come from the context or else such a sentence will be ill-formed. A perfect verb is used for anteriority, simultaneity, and backgrounding. The perfect is a “parasitic” aspect, meaning that a clause in the perfect depends on some other situation’s R-time or an explicit adverbial time expression for temporal interpretation.

In BH the yiqtol and wqatal can be used to denote both simple future and past habitual propositions. This is because modality does not follow from R-time relations, but the notion of possible worlds or branching options. Thus conditionals and habituals should be analyzed as modals. Traditionally, modality has been reserved for volitional statements expressing wishes or desires of the speaker (a Pragmatic perspective).

Tense, Aspect, Aktionsart, etc

September 12, 2007

Interested in the distinctions between tense, aspect, aktionsart, and related matters? I was searching on the history of the their study and happened across this website: Project on the Annotated Bibliography of Contemporary Research on Tense, Aspect, Aktionsart, and Related Areas by Robert I. Binnick. Works are subdivided by topic and by language. I haven’t stumbled onto the “annotated” part yet, but it seems to be a helpful starting point.

Rabin, Chaim, “The Genesis of the Semitic Tense System”, in John Bynon (ed), Current progress in Afro-Asiatic linguistics, Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science, Series IV, Current issues in linguistic theory v. 28 (Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984), 391-397.

September 10, 2007

Rabin breathes new life into the discussion of the development of tense/mood/aspect (TMA) systems of the older Semitic languages by dropping two long-held assumptions: 1) That proto-Semitic was an absolute beginning and must represent a simple original stage of verbal inflection, and 2) That Classical Arabic was more or less identical in its structure and forms with proto-Semitic. Instead, Rabin suggests that Classical Arabic represents the final stages of a process that began in a situation exemplified by Akkadian.

At first both “perfect” (Akkadian preterite) and “imperfect” (Akkadian present/future) were expressed by prefixed forms while the suffixed form served a separate function outside of the TMA system (Akkadian stative). All later languages built the suffix form into the TMA system, but in different ways, and they also differed in how/if they maintained the old prefix “perfect” form. Wherever two prefix forms are maintained, the “imperfect” is distinguished by being longer either by internal additions (Akkadian, Ethiopic) or by adding a final vowel (West-Semitic).

This may also help explain the vexing use of the suffixed form as an apparent “imperfect” in Biblical Hebrew weqaṭal constructions. If the qaṭal “perfect” form indeed developed from a form similar to the Akkadian stative which did not originally mark time or aspect, then it makes more since that an “imperfect” weqaṭal form could have emerged contemporary (or even prior) to this rather than see weqaṭal as a later development from the qaṭal form as some type of conversion in analogy to wayyiqṭol.

Blau, Joshua, “Short philological notes on the inscription of Meša’”, Maarav 2/2 (1979-80), 143-157.

September 6, 2007

Blau makes several comments on interesting linguistic features from the Mesha inscription. On the use of the direct object marker ‘t Blau suggests an original form *’iyyāt to account for the consonantal y in Phoenician ‘yt and the doubled y in Arabic ‘iyyā-. In Hebrew and Moabite the y elided despite its doubling, which is not unexpected for a grammatical marker. Blau also analyzes the usage of ‘t, describing it as “facultative”. It is clear that the common Mesha construction ‘nk plus perfect is never followed by ‘t which seems to be a stylistic feature. In contrast, ‘t is attested after the perfect which appears alone in lines 18-19: wmlk.yśr’l.bnh ’t | yhṣ. Blau tentatively suggests that ‘t is only used preceding persons as a direct object with the purpose of distinguishing subject from object, since persons are more naturally subjects. This tendency is seen in Biblical Aramaic where l as a rule introduces determinate personal objects. In the Mesha inscription this also includes place names. Interestingly, this suggests that the enigmatic ‘r’l dwdh from lines 12-13 most likely refers to a person and not an object since it is marked with ‘t. If this thesis is correct, it would also corroborate the assumption that the case endings had dropped since this would be the prerequisite for ambiguity between subjects and personal objects.

Blau, Joshua, “On some Arabic dialectal features paralleled by Hebrew and Aramaic”, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 76 no 1 (1985), 5-12.

September 5, 2007

In this article Blau traces the development of certain linguistic features in Arabic to suggest possible explanations for similar developments in Hebrew and Aramaic. On the reasons for the loss of the determining force of the definite article in Eastern Aramaic, Blau adduces examples from the Arabic dialect of Daragozu and the modern Western Aramaic dialects of the anti-Lebanon. In these dialects it is the subject and not the object in which the determinate noun is not differentiated from the indeterminate. This seems to follow from the fact that the determination of the subject is based mostly on context and does not need to be marked for the purpose of communication. More important is the distinction between subject and object. Since subjects are naturally definite, it is definite objects which are most likely to be mistaken for subjects. Thus Daragozu maintains the definite article only with definite objects, but indefinite objects and all subjects are left unmarked. In the Anti-Lebanon definite objects are marked by a special form of the verb. In Eastern Aramaic the use of le and/or an anticipatory pronoun to mark definite objects allows ambiguity of the emphatic state.