The Phylogenesis of Aspect in English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents:

1. Definition of ‘Aspect’ and ‘Phylogenesis’

2. ‘Aspect’ in Old English (OE)
2.1. Distributive Habitual
2.2. Progressive
2.3. Perfect

3. ‘Aspect’ in Middle (ME) and Early Modern English (EME)
3.1. Distributive Habitual
3.2. Progressive
3.3. Perfect

4. ‘Aspect’ in Modern English (ModE)
4.1. Progressive
4.2. Perfect
4.3. ‘Aspectual Oppositions’ on a Semantic Level in ModE

5. Frequency Table

6. Conclusion: Process of the Evolution of ‘ Verbal Aspect


Starting with a definition of ‘aspect’ and ‘phylogenesis’ in this term paper I will try to give an overview of the development of the grammatical category of ‘aspect’ throughout the history of the English language.

1. Definition of ‘Aspect’ and ‘Phylogenesis’:

According to Comrie, ‘aspect’ can be defined as follows: “As the general definition of aspect, we may take the formulation that ‘aspects are different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation’.” In contrast to ‘tense’, which is a deictic category, ‘aspect is not concerned with relating the time of the situation to any other time-point [...]?”[1]

WordNet, a lexical database for the English language, defines ‘phylogenesis’ as follows: “Phylogenesis: ((biology) the sequence of events involved in the evolutionary development of a species or taxonomic group of organisms)”[2] Therefore, in connection with linguistic purposes and ‘aspect’ the term ‘phylogenesis’, usually used in biological and evolutionary terminology, can be understood as the diachronic development of the grammatical category of aspect from Old English (OE) to Modern English (ModE).

2. ‘Aspect’ in Old English (OE):

2.1. Distributive Habitual:

Just like in ModE, habitual activities normally have no special overt verbal form such as an auxiliary:

Or. 20.16 7 se cyning 7 þa ricostan men drincað myran meolc.

If the preposition involves a main be verb and habitual aspect, then beo - is preferred over wes - or weorþ:

Or. 20.19 þær is (always) mid Estum ðeaw, þonne þær bið (whenever there is) man dead.

2.2. Progressive:

Typically the progressive also has no overt form in OE. As a consequence, there may be ambiguities between habitual and progressive aspect. However, usually the context makes the aspect clear. If progressive has an overt form, it is a be verb (beo-, wes-, weorþ-) requiring –ende as the PrP on the main verb, as in:

Or. 19.33 þæt scip wæs ealne weg yrnende under segle.

“The BE-verbs beon, wesan and sometimes weorþan are used with V-ende in what is often called ‘the expanded form’ of the verb to indicate that an action is ongoing, or to provide the frame of reference for some other activity.”[3] In addition, it can be said that wes- is favored over beo- as the expression of nonpast progressive, except in predictions, when beo- is favored. “In Old English the progressive appeared only in the past and the non-past and after modals.”[4] In his detailed study of the progressive in Germanic, Mossé (1938) found out that in translations the progressive is most commonly found with verbs denoting movement. This is why it seems that right from the start the progressive has been primarily associated with action verbs:

Or. 8.14 of Danai þære ie, seo is irnende of norþdæle.

Or. 12.35 þæt seo ea bið flowende ofer eal Ægypta land.

In ModE we would prefer the simple nonpast since a generality that always holds true is being described in the first instance and distributive habitual in the second. It must be mentioned that “there is disagreement among modern scholars as to the precise function(s) and meaning(s) of the OE progressive. Some examples correspond well to modern usage, but often the progressive is used in OE where it could not now be used, and conversely.”[5] The progressive was often used in OE to translate perfect deponent verbs in Latin texts. This is why the progressive has often been considered as a Latin-influenced construction:[6]

Bede 1 4.32.7 and hraðe þa gefremednesse ðære arfæstan bene wæs fylgende

Lat. … consecutus est…

2.3. Perfect:

In older Germanic the prefix ga- (OE ge-) had been used to signify, among other things, perfective aspect. Therefore, the use of ga- as a word-formative signaling “entirely, completely,” even “achieve by” seemed to be common. This is why we find such verb pairs as OE bind- ‘tie’, gebind- ‘tie up’. As a consequence, such a sentence as He hit geband was ambiguous between ‘He has tied it’ and ‘He tied it up’. From earliest OE times ge- was therefore not a very efficient realization of perfect and other forms were found to express it.

One possibility was to use adverbs:

Ælf. Gr. 130.13 “amabam” ic lufode . . . “amaui” ic lufode fulfremedlice.

Another way of expressing perfect was to extend the use of certain main verbs and use them as auxiliaries in segmentalized verbal phrases. The segmentalized phrases for perfective are of two types:

a) A be verb requiring PP on the following verb (the be verbs are beo-, wes-, weorþ-). Such perfects are used only with verbs denoting some kind of change (so-called ‘mutative verbs’), e.g. cum- ‘come’, far- ‘go, travel’ (involving change of place), and geweorþ- ‘become’ (involving change of status).

b) Habb- + PP (the ancestor of our have + PP) which is used with other verbs.

Some examples:

Chron. 86.16 (894) wæs Hæsten þa þær cumen mid his herge ... hæfde Hæsten ær geworht þæt geweorc æt Beamfleote 7 wæs þa ut afaren on hergaþ.

Or: 222.8 on þæm swicdome wearþ Numantia duguð gefeallen.

Both sets of perfective auxiliaries were genuine OE constructions that go back to our earliest records. They coexist with, and in certain cases are ambiguous with, two rather different constructions from which they were derived. The origin of the segmentalized be perfects is to be found in adjectival constructions, for example, we wæron gecumene“we were (in the state of having) come”, where gecumene is an adjectival form of the verb cum - agreeing in number, case, and gender with the subject we. The development of the other perfect auxiliary, habb- + PP, is more complex, but also involves adjectival participials. In earliest OE we do not find habb- + PP in perfective constructions, only in possessive ones like Ic hæfde hine gebundenne, where gebundenne is an adjectival form of the verb with the accusative masculine singular adjectival inflection –ne agreeing with hine. The possessive construction continued in use. By the eighth century, however, the perfective had developed from it and coexisted with it. Just as the He wæs gecumen construction split into two giving an adjectival and a perfective construction, so the sentence type Ic hæfde hine gebundenne split into two. Habb- was reinterpreted as a marker of perfectiveness and the adjectival nature of the participial was lost.

In addition, it can be mentioned that the absence of sentences with groups of auxiliaries like He may have seen her is a noticeable feature of OE. They did not develop until ME.


[1] Bernard Comrie. Aspect. An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems. (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 3ff.


[3] Elizabeth Closs Traugott. In: Hogg R.M. (Ed.) The Cambridge History of the English Language.The Beginnings to 1066. (C ambridge: Cambridge U.P.Vol. 1., 1992), 187.

[4] Traugott. In: Hogg (Ed.), 1992, 255.

[5] David Denison. English Historical Syntax: Verbal Constructions. (London: Longman, 1993), 381.

[6] Cf. Denison, 1993, 382.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Phylogenesis of Aspect in English
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
The Syntax and Semantics of the English Verb Phrase
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Phylogenesis, Aspect, English, Syntax, Semantics, English, Verb, Phrase
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Andreas Keilbach (Author), 2008, The Phylogenesis of Aspect in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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