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Linguistic geekery

March 13th, 2007 (12:44 pm)

current mood: excited

I'm starting to think I should've taken a linguistics course in college. Yesterday I found out about a whole facet of language that I'd never heard of. In all the languages I know (English, Latin, Spanish, German), verbs have tense, mood, person, and number. It turns out there's a whole other dimension I've never heard of: aspect. The Wikipedia summary defines it as "the grammatical aspect of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state". The common example is the imperfect tense ("I was swimming" instead of "I swam"). The distinction between imperfect and perfect is called the progressive aspect.

But aspect can get a lot more complex. In Chinese, there are no tenses, only aspects; instead of "I went to Beijing", one says, e.g., "I go to Beijing yesterday". (I'm not convinced that there are no tenses, actually; apparently, there are "aspectual particles" which can mean, essentially, "I go to Beijing in the past", in which case you've effectively got a tense expressed via an auxiliary word, as in English's "will" and "did".) In Arabic, the are dynamic and static aspects ("to mount" and "to ride" are the dynamic and static forms, respectively, of the same verb). In Finnish, there's an inchoative aspect ("I am beginning to X"), and a telic aspect ("I succeeded in X"). There are dozens of these things, and most of them are concepts that I would never have considered making into first-order grammar.

(One amusing bit about the telic aspect. Wikipedia says that sometimes the telic form has little obvious relation, semantically, to the non-telic form; the example they give is that the Finnish verb for "to marry" is the telic form of "to have sex with". Makes perfect sense to me. :-)

Oh, and, in some languages, verbs come in pairs, with and without some aspect. In Slavic languages, the aspect pair perfective/imperfective maps to verb pairs, and the verbs of a pair are not syntactically related; you just have to learn them.

This leads into the coolest bit: the frequentative aspect. A verb with the frequentative aspect indicates that the event it describes happens over and over. Why is this so cool? Because it's present in English, but it's fossilized. We don't make frequentative forms any more, but we have lots of verbs ending in "-le" or "-er" (with a doubled consonant), which are frequentative forms. "Chat" became "chatter"; "crack" became "crackle"; "flick" became "flicker"; "scribe" became "scribble".

I'd love to revive the frequentative aspect in its own right. To post repeatedly is to postle; to hack continuously is to hackle; to tap impatiently for attention is to tapple. I'd have a great new source of Scrabble words.

...and, of course, by back-formation, it becomes clear that "to take one's turn in a Scrabble game" is "to Scrab". :-)


(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: March 13th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)

We're taught that "I was going" and "I went" are the same

Yeah, I never heard of the imperfect tense until I took Latin.

Posted by: lauradi7 (lauradi7)
Posted at: March 13th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Imperfect

I was taught that they were distinct, with different names for the grammatical differences. They feel very different to me anyway. It's one of the things people who aren't native speakers but are otherwise fluent in English often mess up. Just make up an example. Ask what someone did yesterday. If s/he says "I was going to the grocery store" you would wait for the rest of the sentence. If the response was "I went to the grocery store," it would feel complete.

Native speakers of Mandarin who are learning English have claimed to me straight-faced that there is no tense in Mandarin, and given that as an example of why English is so hard. I'll have to try to ask about other distinctions.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: March 13th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)

One might perhaps render your LJ username as "geekle" :-)

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