Tense and Aspect Systems in Hiberno-English

Their use and development

Textbook, 2000

152 Pages

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Table of Contents


Table of Tables


1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background

3. Data and method

4. Tense in Hiberno-English
4.1. Present tense
4.2. Future tense
4.3 Past tense
4.3.1 General properties
4.3.2 The preterite in Hiberno-English

5. The Perfect
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Perfectivity
5.3 The perfect category cross-linguistically
5.4 The perfect in Standard English
5. 5 The perfect in Hiberno-English
5.5.1 The Standard English perfect in Hiberno-English
5.5.2 The ‘Indefinite Anterior’ Perfect
5.5.3 The ‘Extended-Now’ Perfect
5.5.4 The ‘Medial Object’ Perfect
5.5.5 The Be -Perfect
5.5.6 The after- Perfect
5.6 Summary

6. Imperfective Aspect
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Progressive aspect
6.2.1 Introduction: the progressive in Standard English
6.2.2 The progressive in Hiberno-English
6.3 Habitual Aspect
6.3.1 Introduction
6.3.2 The present tense habitual category in Hiberno-English
6.3.3 Past time reference
6.4 Summary

7. Conclusion

8. Abbreviations




This study investigates the tense and aspect systems in use in Irish English, which is also called Hiberno-English. Against the background of previous research, corpus material mainly consisting of Dublin English is discussed. The corpus consists of nearly a quarter of a million words, collected manually mainly from written text, with some additional examples from participant observation. In addition to investigating the tense and aspect forms in use, possibilities for the geneses of the categories are discussed and the potential influence from Early Modern English and Late Modern English is assessed, as well as the potential input from the Irish language. It is suggested that the tense system corresponds to that of Standard British English, whereas the aspectual system differs to varying degrees in perfect, progressive and habitual marking. It is further argued that the majority of the specially used aspectual categories in Hiberno-English could have been influenced in their development by influence from both the Irish language – i.e. Gaelic, and by influence from earlier British English language structures which were in use during the formative stages of the variety. This is not the case for the distinctive Hiberno-English after -perfect, however, which is entirely modeled on a corresponding Irish language structure.

Table of Tables

Table I. Nonstandard preterite forms in the present corpus

Table II.: Grammaticalisation schema of StE Perfects in HE according to Kallen (1990: 123)

Table III. Tense-Aspect distinctions in StE and HE according to Harris (1991: 203)

Table IV: Table of Perfect usage in the Kearns-corpus according to professions

Table V: Distribution of IAP in the corpus

Table VI.: Frequencies of MOP compared to StE perfect (From: Filppula 1996: 43)

Table VII. Freuencies of after-perfects (from Filppula 1999: 101)

Table VIII.: Frequencies of MOP and after-perfect (according to Filppula 1999:101 and 109)

Table IX: Table of the semantics of after-perfects in the Kearns- corpus

Table X.Governing factors for the choice of HE perfect markers (Kallen 1990: 133)

Table XI. Simple versus expanded forms according to Taniguchi (1972: 76)

Table XII. Nonstandard progressive forms in the corpus


Happily, after decades of sporadic research on Irish English, an increasing number of studies has been appearing from the 1980ies onwards, and more research, both corpus based and theoretical, is under way. This particular contribution is a version of a Master’s Thesis which was presented at the Department of English of the University of Marburg in 1999 and it has been slightly modified and updated since its original submission.

I gcuimhne m’athar is mo mhathar.

1. Introduction

This study describes the temporal and aspectual systems which are in use in the English spoken in Ireland, also termed Hiberno-English (HE). The research questions investigated are in what respect the Hiberno-English tense and aspect systems differ from (British) Standard English, and which influences have played a role in their development. Here the potential influence of the Irish language is assessed, as well as that of relevant varieties of British English at use during the formative stages of the variety.

The approach is structured as follows: in chapter 2, the genesis of Hiberrno-English is sketched briefly and the basic distinction between temporal and aspectual categories is demarcated. After describing data and method of the investigation, the temporal categories in use in language in general, and in English and Hiberno-English in particular, are illustrated in chapter 4. Chapter 5 and 6 examine the relevant aspectual categories cross-linguistically and in the Standard (British) English language. Against this background the particular Hiberno-English systems are discussed. Thus chapter 5 investigates perfect aspect, and imperfective aspects, namely the progressive and the habitual, are considered in chapter 6. Conclusions are drawn in chapter 7. The full attestations of the examples and their provenance are given in the appendix.

Each section initially discusses previous research, then corpus material of mainly Dublin English is analyzed (for a description of the corpus see chapter 3), and finally the potential development of these structures is assessed. For this, both earlier English and structurally parallel expressions in the Irish language are taken into account. For Irish, examples are adduced from Old Irish(700-900 AD), Middle Irish(900-1200 AD), Early Modern Irish(1200-1600 AD), and Modern Irish (since 1600 AD). Where comparable categories exist in the dialect of English spoken on the Hebrides, Hebridean English, research on this variety will also be sketched as similar developments can be assumed to have taken place in these varieties influenced where influence by the very similar Irish Gaelicand Scottish Gaeliclanguages has been exercised.

2. Theoretical background

2.1 Genesis of Hiberno-English

The historyof the English language in Ireland is conventionally taken to begin with the arrival from Pembroke of Anglo-Norman troops in Co. Wexford in the southeast of Ireland in 1169 (c.f. Ó hÚrdail 1997: 180 ff., Kallen 1997: 6 ff.). This invasion, however, had been predated by a system of ”horizontal loyalties” (Kallen1997: 8) between Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and was due to a request for help by a former Irish provincial king, Dermod Mac Murragh. Subsequently more settlers arrived from Britain, many of whom, however, assimilated and adopted the Irish language and Irish customs. The extent to which the English language was in actual use in Ireland, though, is not undisputed. Kallen argues that most surviving documents from that period are in either Latin or French. He points out that until the fifteenth century, as in England, the prestige language for Anglo-Normans and Englishmen would have been Latin or French and not English, which in turn would have been the low prestige variety.

There is some evidence that the English language in Ireland was under pressure from Irish. In the course of the fourteenth century various cities wrote statutes - in English - trying to preserve the status of Englishmen and impede their ‘gaelicization’ (c.f. Kallen 1997: 11). Overall the nature of the English language in Ireland up to 1600 seems to have been characterized by little contact with that spoken in England. One result of this is that the Great Vowel Shift, for instance, does not seem to have taken place (Ó hÚrdail1997: 181). The variety of English in Ireland therefore must have been very conservative and was possibly much influenced by the Irish culture and language surrounding it. Dialects, which may have closely resembled this early variety of HE, were spoken up to about 1800 in the Finglas area of Co. Dublin and up to the 19th century in the baronies of Forth and Bargy in Co. Wexford (Ó hÚrdail 1997: 180).

More modern varieties of English, however, were introduced into Ireland in the course of the seventeenth century. Irrespective of whether English had almost fallen out of use in Ireland by that time or whether it was used frequently, the newly imported varieties supplanted more old-fashioned ones in most areas (Kallen 1997: 15-16). In the first decade of the seventeenth century the plantations of Ulster took place. English speakers from the Scottish Lowlands and from the English Midlands were allocated lands in the North of Ireland. Speakers from Scotland are assumed to have outnumbered those from England by a ratio of six to one (cf. Ó hÚrdail 1997: 182; Rickford 1986: 245ff.).

To the more southern counties of Ireland, English varieties from more southerly regions of Britain were introduced in major plantations by Oliver Cromwell and his men about 1650. As a result, speakers of Irish were increasingly pushed back into the western regions of Ireland and the use of English became increasingly necessary for Irish speakers. Concerning the acquisition of English by Irish speakers, Bliss(1972: 63) envisages the following scenario:

This seventeenth-century English was acquired, gradually and with difficulty, by speakers of Irish; and in the process of their acquisition they modified it, both in pronunciation and in syntax, towards conformity with their own linguistic habits. Because of the social conditions existing in Ireland, Irish speakers rarely had the opportunity of prolonged contact with speakers of Standard English, and learned

their English from those whose English was already less than perfect; so that the

influence of the Irish language was cumulative, and remains strong even in those

parts of Ireland where Irish has long ceased to be spoken.

Supporting evidence for this assessment is given by Odlin(1991: 186) who argues on the basis of school-enrollment figures. He concludes that the majority of Irish speakers acquiring English in the early nineteenth century ”appear to have done so with little or no schooling”. In the course of the nineteenth century the English language was strengthened further by the introduction of the - mainly English language - National School system in 1831 and by the Great Famine from 1846 to 1849. The Famine led to depopulation and emigration especially from the western counties in which the Irish language had till then been most widely used (c.f. Kallen 1997: 15ff). In present day Ireland, even though Irish is the first official language, its daily use is mostly confined to shrinking Gaeltacht -areas, i.e. Irish speaking areas. These are located largely in western counties.

Concerning the modes of the genesis of HE, scholars are of divided opinions. For its genesis, as for other contact varieties and indeed Pidgins and Creoles, various grammaticalisation patterns are assumed. One line of argument supports substrate influenceby the Irish language as the main or sole influence in the creation of dialect features. This opinion is held by Bliss (1979 and 1984), who argues that ”Southern Hiberno-English has precisely the same range of tenses as Irish has, but the forms are built up out of English material” (1984: 143). Harris, on the other hand, is more inclined to assume superstrate contribution. He emphasises similarities between Early Modern English (EModE) structures and HE (1986: 320-325).

In addition to substrate and superstrate influence, a third possible solution is offered by Kallen (1990: 132). Kallen suggests an impact of language universals. He follows Bickerton (1977) in arguing that universal grammatical principles operated in the contact situation of Irish and English and restructured the grammar of HE and its temporal, modal and aspectual system. In the course of time, decreolisation processes would have operated and led to the HE system’s increasing formal identity with that of the English superstrate. In this description no attempt is made to solve the question of what exactly was responsible for the genesis of HE. It nevertheless becomes evident in the discussion of the various tense and aspect categories that the issue is a highly complex one as the possibility of influence of both substrate and earlier English superstrate in the development of these categories will be taken into account.

2.2. Tense versus Aspect

Since this study is concerned with tense and aspect categories, it needs to be stated how these categories are employed here. Tense is a comparatively unproblematic term, denoting the location of a situation on the time axis in relation to the moment of utterance (Comrie 1976: 2). The notion of tense has been formalised by Reichenbach(1947: 290). Tense can be represented graphically by using a time line which illustrates the point of event (or the situation in question), also termed ‘ E ’ and the point of speech ‘ S ’, or now-time. Location to the left of the moment of speech, indicates past time. Location to its right indicates future time. For more elaborate temporal structures Reichenbach additionally proposes the existence of a point of reference ‘ R ’. This is identical with the point of speech in most cases. It needs to be distinguished from the point of speech, however, if the situation is prior or subsequent not to ‘ S ’ but to a third temporal entity in the past or future. This would typically be the case in the past perfect in English or in the future perfect. This is illustrated by the following examples:

1) I had seen John (‘E’) (before he went to work (‘R’)).

E ⇒ R ⇒ S

2) I shall have seen John (‘E’) (before I visit Mary (‘R’)).

S ⇒ E ⇒ R

The past perfect describes something that happened before a certain moment which is itself in the past and not identical with the moment of speech. A similar scenario can be assumed for the future perfect. The reference point is in the future, the time of event located prior to the reference point.

Aspect on the other hand describes the ”internal temporal constituency of a situation” (Comrie 1976: 3). In contrast to some other studies (e.g. Henry 1957: 173) lexical properties of the verbs which result in an action being perceived as just beginning, ingressive, or just finishing, egressive, will not be subsumed under the heading ‘aspect’ but are considered to be examples of aktionsart. Examples of these are:

3) He took to drinking. (Henry 1957: 174)

4) The candle burned out.

These two categories, tense and aspect, are the main object of this study and in the following we will investigate, how these categories are expressed in Hiberno-English. Before we continue with the discussion of these categories, however, the data used in this study will be described briefly.

3. Data and method

The data investigated here stems from two types of sources. On the one hand, material has been manually collected from transcribed tape-recorded interviews, published as books on Dublin oral histories by the sociologist Kevin Kearns. The volumes in question are Stoneybatter. Dubllin’s Inner Urban Village (1989) (Kearns: STB), Dublin Tenement Life (1994) (Kearns: DTL), and Dublin Pub Life (1996) (Kearns: DPL). This corpus material consists of nearly a quarter of a million words, namely about 249,000 words. The topics of these interviews are largely those of oral histories of Dublin. Thus, the informants are predominantly elderly speakers and the matters treated are mainly about life in Dublin in bye-gone days. The data therefore tends to represent traditional speech habits. Concerning the accuracy of this material the author affirms that the interviews were transcribed verbatim. The original spelling and punctuation of all examples is retained here as used by the editor. It is only these examples collected from this quantifiable corpus material that enters into all statistical analyses in this study. The complete examples are given in the appendix to this study. They are marked with reference to the source text, page number in the source text, gender of the speaker and age of the speaker, e.g. (Kearns: STB 136, m 85).

For further illustration, examples are added from grammars of Hiberno-English. In these examples taken from the literature on Irish English, original punctuation and spelling has been retained. Yet italics have been added to highlight the item in question, where these were not or differently highlighted by the respective authors. This is done in order to facilitate readability and comparability.

Furthermore, some examples which have been collected in participant observation in oral settings, and have been taken from newspaper articles are adduced. Since these are also more or less random examples, their distribution with alternative constructions cannot be quantified. These examples are therefore purely illustrative and are given where profitable; they likewise have not been counted in the quantitative analyses.

4. Tense in Hiberno-English

4.1. Present tense

Roughly speaking, the present tensedenotes a situation, i.e. an action or a state, which happens at the moment of utterance or ‘now’-time. In most cases, however, exact co-occurrence of the situation and the utterance is not the case, only in simultaneous reports are action and utterance co-occurring at least conceptionally. Exact co-occurrence of action and utterance, however, will be achieved in performative sentences where the utterance actually constitutes the action (c.f. Comrie 1985: 37; Leech 1987: 8). In most cases the present moment covers only a short interval of the situation. This can be illustrated by the following example:

1) The Eiffel Tower stands in Paris. (Comrie 1985: 39)

This situation holds in the present just as it did in the past and it will potentially be true in the future.

The present tense can also be used for actions which do not actually happen at the moment of utterance, e.g.

2) John eats muesli for breakfast.

This sentence can also be uttered at dinnertime or on a day when John did not have breakfast at all, provided he is in the habit of usually having musli for his breakfast. Further contexts in which the present tense form can be used include future time reference and past time reference, provided these are clearly specified by context or adverbials (Leech 1987: 64). This thesis, however, is not concerned with these particular usages.

The overall usage of the present tense has not been observed to differ in the Irish English corpus investigated from that of Standard British English.

4.2. Future tense

The futurelocates a situation ”at a time subsequent to the present moment” (Comrie 1985: 43). It can thus be considered to be located to the right of the present moment on the time line. The inclusion of the future in English in the category of tense, however, is not undisputed.

The English language has no morphologically marked future tense but this is expressed by using the auxiliaries will or shall or periphrasis with BE + going to + infinitive. In addition, a present tense verbal form may be employed with an adverbial expression denoting future time reference. The heterogeneity of this category and its close relatedness to modality lead Matthews (1994: 79-80) to reject the notion of a future tense category for English.

Comriealso discusses the difficulties in classifying the future as a temporal rather than a modal category. He concedes that events in the future are speculative and may be prevented. In this respect future tense bears some resemblance to mood. Yet he argues that a clear prediction is made about future situations. In sentences like it will rain tomorrow, the validity of this statement can be checked against actual events. In contrast to modal statements, it can be considered to be true or false. This, however, is not the case for a modal statement such as it may rain tomorrow (1985: 48) . So the assumption of a separate future-category seems justified for English even though it does not possess a distinct set of morphological future markers.

The usage of future tense and future markers cannot be observed to differ in HE from StE. Therefore future categories are not treated in this account.

4.3 Past tense

4.3.1 General properties

The past tensedenotes a situation that took place at a specified time before the present moment, or the ‘point of speech’ in Reichenbach’s terminology. The present moment is thus not included within the temporal scope of the utterance. The temporal relation in which the situation stands to the point of speech is clarified either by context or by a temporal adverbial. The non-inclusion of the present moment has implications for the perception of the present state:

3) Once this town was a beauty spot. (Leech 1987: 13)

Because the present moment is not included in the past tense, the above sentence implies that the town is not a beauty spot any more. For states, therefore, the state is seen as having come to an end and actions are concluded. This category is also known as preterite .

Considering the temporal ordering of past tense events, Leech(1987:14) points out that one conceptional possibility is for them to be ordered sequentially, happening one after the other as in:

4) He got up, washed, brushed his teeth and left without any breakfast.

The sequence of such a construction cannot be altered without changing its meaning. On the other hand, situations can also be perceived as being simultaneous if verbal semantics allow for this (Leech 1987: 13).

5) He had breakfast and listened to the radio.

Even though the situation is concluded, it does not necessarily have to be regarded as being without duration, but it can have the feature of morphologically unmarked imperfectivity.

In spite of the general principle that temporal reference must be given by context or by an adverbial, morphologically marked habituals including used to do not have to be accompanied by an adverbial of time but have a ”built-in” adverbial, once (Leech 1987: 54). Thus, in contrast to other instances of the simple past, used to does not refer to a definite past time.

A further significant exception is constituted by the use of the simple past with adverbials ever, never in negatives or questions and always. Leech considers these to be colloquial variants of the present perfect in cases like:

6) I always said he would end up in jail. (Leech 1987: 43)

7) I never met such an important person before. (ibid.)

After having introduced these different manifestations of the past tense, we will proceed to the investigation of this category in Hiberno-English.

4.3.2 The preterite in Hiberno-English

A feature which can be observed frequently in Hiberno-English speech is the occurrence of verbs in the simple past which are not combined with definite time adverbials, but with adverbials denoting a time span from an indefinite moment in the past to the present moment. Conceptually these cases resemble a present perfect rather than a simple past and will therefore be considered in the context of the present perfect. In this section we will investigate verbal forms indicative of past tense which are not overtly marked for aspect.

As in other dialects – and sociolects – of English, a number of examples of verb forms can be found to deviate from the StE past tense form. Describing this phenomenon in English dialects in general, Hughes and Trudgill (1996: 24-5) point out that in English dialect speech formal identity of preteriteform and past participle can often be observed. They ascribe this phenomenon to simplification of the verbal paradigm in analogy to the formal identity of preterite and past participle in weak verbs. Thus for see with the perfect have seen the preterite may likewise appear as seen. The authors have also observed overgeneralization in the opposite direction. A preterite in some cases appears instead of a past participle as in the case of preterite went and corresponding present perfect have went.

For Hebridean English, too, Sabban has observed a number of examples of past participles for preterite (1982: 168-195). Hebridean English (HebE) is the variety of English spoken on the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Sabbanobserved that this dialect is much influenced by its Scottish Gaelic substrate language. Scottish Gaelicand Irish are closely related and were ”in fact a single language, until at least the tenth century, and in most respects the thirteenth (Russel 1995: 27, quoting Jackson 1951)”. As the Gaelic literature of Scotland was written in a standard Early Modern Irish contact lasted even longer, namely until the seventeenth century (Russel, ibid.). So in some, albeit not in all cases, comparable structures in Hebridean English may point to some substrate influence being exercised on the development of Hiberno-English dialect structures.

Concerning nonstandard preterite Forms in HebE, Sabban found that examples of seen, come, been, run and done were the most frequently used participles. Sabban suggests treating the tokens in past tense contexts as dialectal and sociolectal variants of the StE forms. She argues, however, that in cases where a have -perfect would have been used in StE, tokens may also represent loss of the operator have as in:

8) And I think according to what she said you been speaking to her since. (Sabban 1982: 191)

She also points out, however, that the HebE dialect may have used a preterite in this instance. For the origin of past participles used for the preterite in HebE Sabban argues for import from BrE mainland dialects (1982: 194).

For HE this feature has not yet been described extensively. The most comprehensive account is provided by Harris(1993: 151-154). He states that StE strong verbs with two different tense forms may appear in HE reduced to one tense form; thus StE come, came, come may be realized as come, come, come. Strong verbs with three tense forms in StE, such as go, went, gone appear as a reduced paradigm as well, yielding HE go, went, went. Harris explains the origin of these reduced paradigms by pointing out that from Old English times onwards, strong verbs tended to move into the category of weak verbs. He points out that this process was halted in British StE from the eighteenth century onwards. In dialects, however, this levelling was further extended to comprise verbs which still retain a strong inflection in StE. It is pointed out that this holds for the full verb DO as well in sentences like:

9) I done the secretarial course. (Harris 1993: 152)

For the auxiliary DO, in question-tags or do -periphrases, however, the StE preterite form is retained. Likewise the retention of did in do- support structures is described by Hughes and Trudgill (1996: 24). Explanations for this divergence are offered neither by Harris nor Huges and Trudgill.

Harris points out that in some cases a preterite tense form is used instead of a past participle in the formation of the present perfect. This feature he deems to be due to hypercorrection in the use of the preterite form (1993: 180). In Harris’s opinion speakers seeking to use a prestige variety may be aware of the dialect’s under-differentiation in the use of the preterite form and hypercorrectly employ the preterite form for the perfect as well.

In the corpus of Dublin speech I examined, the use of past participles in preterite contexts likewise is a frequent phenomenon. These were largely used when past tense verbal forms would have been expected in StE.

10) And I remember one time I was trying to cut a steak and I done a bad

job of it. (I.1.3.)

11) We’re not doing the same amount of work we done in me father’s time. (I.1.6.)

In other cases the aspectual reference is not clear because the use of both a simple past and a present perfect seems conceivable:

12) We never done anything else here, only pork. (I.1.54.)

13) I seen horses running away and they do a lot of damage. ( I.2.19.)

In contrast to Sabban’s data, the most frequent types of past participles were not those of seen but of done. Total numbers, both for cases where a simple past tense verb would

have been used in StE and for cases where both present perfect and simple past are possible alternatives, can be found in the following table:

Table I. Nonstandard preterite forms in the present corpus

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The high number of unclear cases for seen results from its usage in order to introduce observations or experiences in the past. Depending on the speaker’s viewpoint, in some cases both interpretation as an ‘existential’ perfect, I have (once) seen (during my life) or as a past tense example (in those times) I saw are a grammatical possibility. The factors influencing these choices are discussed in chapter 5.4.

It can be observed, however, that speakers do not use the nonstandard forms to the exclusion of the standard ones. They may even be used very close to each other.

14) And I remember Brendan when he come out of Brixton [Jail] and he

came into the Pearl Bar [...].(I.3.13.)

This variation does not seem to be conditioned by temporal or aspectual differences. Free variation of both forms, possibly as a marker of incomplete grammaticalisation of either form, might be the case for this particular speaker. However, without a more detailed study including the behaviour of more verbal types such assumptions are merely tentative.

In this corpus, too, examples for the substitution of the preterite form of the full verb DO by the past participle and retention of the preterite form for auxiliaries can be observed. Consider the following examples:

15) Oh, a man didn’t get a job unless he done it. (I.1.14.)

16) But I explained to this man that he didn’t do that for malice, he done

it for the money. (I.1.21.)

It might an interesting line of research to examine whether the standard form would have been so highly frequent in do -periphrases that this could have led to its retention in this particular context.

In some instances the use of a past tense verbal form for a past participle can be observed. The most frequently used types were BREAK (4 tokens), HIDE (2 tokens), and one token each of GIVE, WRITE, BEAT, GO and BLOW.

17) [...] and [he] was arrested and sent away to England. Someone must have gave him away. (I.9.)

This is in line with Hughes’ and Trudgill’s findings that in the simplification of the verbal paradigm both preterites and past participles can be employed to denote the other. Sabban cautioned that past participles in contexts where the perfect would be employed in StE may be due to deletion of the operator HAVE and in past tense contexts due only to use of a simplified paradigm in analogy to weak verbs.

However, in view of the fact that even for the examples not necessarily denoting simple past, a simple past reading is possible in every case, the assumption of two different strategies does not seem to be necessary. The additional use of past tense forms instead of participles in the present perfect especially seems to point to simplification of the verbal paradigm in line with other English dialects and sociolects.

5. The Perfect

5.1 Introduction

In this chapter the Hiberno-English (HE) perfect will be considered against the background of the Standard English (StE) perfect. It will be of particular interest how HE employs constructions to express the concept which is conveyed by the present perfect in StE. In order to clarify the category of perfect, it will be briefly considered cross-linguistically. Different functions of the StE perfect will then be examined and finally the HE expressions of this category will be discussed against this background in order to describe the latter’s particular characteristics.

5.2 Perfectivity

In considering the perfect category it has to be pointed out first that perfect is not the same as perfectivity. Perfectivity has been described by Comrie(1976:16) as:

Perfectivity indicates the view of a situation as a single whole, without distinction of the various phases that make up that situation, while the imperfective pays essential attention to the internal structure of the situation.

Dahl(1985: 74) calls this the ‘totality-view’ of perfectivity and argues for more characteristics that need to be taken into account. One is the notion of ‘boundedness’ of the activity, which he states to be relevant especially for Slavic languages. Boundedness is described as the temporal restriction of the action to a point in time (1985: 74-75). A related shade of meaning can be carried by a perfective in Russian, where a quantitative delimination in terms of we verbed a little seems to exist. Dahl’s definition of the perfective is that it denotes ”a single event, seen as an unanalysed whole, with a well defined result or end-state, located in the past” (1985: 79). More often that not, the event will be punctual or at least it will be seen as a single transition from one state to the opposite, the duration of which can be disregarded. So perfective aspect - in contrast to the perfect tense - is unlikely to occur with progressive aspect. It is prototypical therefore for the perfective category to occur in ”single, completed events [that] will in the ‘typical cases’ be located in the past” (Dahl 1985: 79). Perfective forms - also in contrast to the perfect - are often used in narrative contexts and with definite time adverbials. It is also worth noting that in the majority of languages in which this category exists, the perfective is marked morphologically. This is not the case for the perfect (Dahl 1985: 139).

In English perfectivity is not marked morphologically. However, verbal particles such as prepositions, or rather postpositions, such as down in lie down or up in eat up constitute a perfective meaning. Dahl compares this to the situation in the Slavic languages, especially Russian. He states that non-derived verbs are mostly imperfectives, yet if a verbal prefix - comparable in meaning to the English preposition - is added, the aspect is perfective (op.cit., 84).

In summary it can be stated that perfectivity is not marked in the English language. In languages in which it does exist, it is mostly marked morphologically and typically describes a single completed event in the past without a mention of the internal temporal constituency of the situation.

5.3 The perfect category cross-linguistically

It has been stated at great length what perfectivity is. The following paragraph describes what the perfect category is, namely not perfectivity. Cross-linguistically the perfect is typically periphrastically marked, involving either a copula or another auxiliary and a past participle or a relative of it (Dahl 1985: 129). In Comrie’s definition the perfect ”expresses a relation between two time-points, on the one hand the time of the state resulting from a prior situation, and on the other the time of that prior situation” (1976: 52).

A typical realisation of the perfectis the ‘perfect of result’ (Dahl 1985: 133ff; Comrie 1976: 56ff) in which ”a present state is referred to as being the result of some past situation” (Comrie 1976: 56). This scenario is distinct from resultative states whose focus is on a state resulting from a previous event like ‘He is gone away.’ The perfect of result focuses more on the event than on the state (Dahl 1985: 134). This type of perfect is often employed for recent, i.e. temporally close situations. In many languages it is identical with hodiernal pasts, which refer to ‘the current unit of time’. Furthermore a resultative perfect is frequently used for recent situations for the simple reason that a recent action is more likely to have a present impact than a remote one (Dahl 1985: 136).

A further universal category is the ‘perfect of persistent situation’ (Comrie) or ‘universal perfect’ (Dahl). This type is used to denote a situation which started at some point of time in the past and is still ongoing at the time of utterance. Dahl points out that many languages use a present or unmarked tense in this context (1985: 137). He states that in many languages there is a constraint against definite time adverbials occurring with the perfect, the perfect being less likely to be employed the more definite the temporal reference is (1985: 138). This, he states, is one of the reasons why the perfect is not used in many languages as a narrative tense, for the temporal reference is clearly specified there. Perfective aspect, however, is not subjected to that constraint and can occur where present in the language (1985: 139).

An additional shade of meaning that is often expressed is the ‘experiental’. The basic meaning of this category is that an event took place at least once within a specified period of time (Comrie 1976: 58; Dahl 1985: 141). The event is typically repeatable, so this category could not be employed for singular actions.

A further cross-linguistic category is that of the ‘perfect of recent past’ (Comrie) or ‘hot news perfect’ (Dahl), which is used to communicate recent events. However, the degree of recency required in different languages to qualify a situation obviously varies and may even vary within a language depending on the situation of the speaker (Comrie 1976: 61). The common factor of the perfect is considered by Dahl to be that a point of reference is involved ‘which is different from the point of event’ (1985: 133).

A separate category is that of the pluperfect or past perfect. Prototypically an event is described as having taken place before a specified period of time. It also may to be used for the remote past, e.g. in some dialects of German or in French and morphologically tends to be a combination of past and perfect features (Dahl 1985: 147).

In many languages an additional category ‘quotative’ can be found. This tends to be used for non-witnessed or second hand information. This function is often carried by the perfect category (Dahl 1985: 152). The speakers themselves have not experienced an event but state what they only learned themselves. This function is carried out in English by constructions like ‘he is said to [...]’ or by ‘er soll X ge verb t haben’ in German. The speakers thus conceal their own commitment to the truth value of the statement. Likewise it can be used to denote information that is not known but inferred (Dahl 1985: 150). Dahl remarks furthermore that this particular type of secondary use of the quotative exists in English in constructions involving the perfect progressive as in ‘It must have been raining yesterday.’ On the basis of its effects into the present, conclusions about the past are drawn, so that a conceptual relation to the perfect of result can be seen here. In that case there is no constraint against the use of definite time adverbials.

In summary it can be stated that the perfect is a category which is typically employed to denote that a situation or an action is of current relevance. The situation may either extend from an unspecified point of time in the past to the present moment or a previous action may have a present impact.

5.4 The perfect in Standard English

For the English perfect Dahl’s previously mentioned observation that the perfect is usually constructed periphrastically (1985: 129, cf. page 18) holds as well. Generally the auxiliary HAVE is employed together with the past participle. In a comprehensive account of the English perfect, McCoard(1978: 30) describes the concept of ‘current relevance of the perfect’ as the most widely held view on the defining function of the perfect category for the English language, namely

to express the pastness of the event (s) embodied in the lexical verb, together with a certain applicability, pertinence, or relevance of said past event (s) to the context of coding -- the ”now” of the speaker or writer.

He himself challenges this view, however, and proposes an analysis based on the inclusion of a past event into the present

[...] let us suggest that, to reflect the opposition past - including - the - present versus past - exluding - the - present that we have found to exist between the present perfect and the preterit [sic] we set up a category of inclusion. The perfect will indicate positive inclusion, the preterit negative inclusion (i.e. exlusion) (op.cit., 151-152).

This approach is termed ‘Extended-now theory’ by McCoard. This evaluation is in line with an earlier approach by Jespersen(1911: 47). Jespersen considers two different meanings of the perfect. The first is retrospective meaning, where the present state is seen as a result of past events. Secondly, he argues, the perfect can also be an ‘inclusive present’ which subsumes earlier actions under a present tense. He therefore states that the perfect is ”a kind of present tense, and serves to connect the present time with the past.”

The link between past and present, which is created by the present perfect, is responsible for the fact that there are constraints on what kinds of adverbials can combine with this category. Adverbials denoting a time span from the past to the present are invariably applicable, such as since last week or lately. Some adverbials can be employed for both past and perfect tense, depending on whether they include the present moment or not in that particular case; examples for these are e.g. this morning, today, always, never. Thus,

1) He has overslept this morning. (Huddleston 1984: 159)

would be grammatical if uttered some time on the same morning, whereas

2) He overslept this morning. (Huddleston 1984: 159)

would be acceptable only if uttered on the same day but not during the morning.

Some adverbs which are clearly exclusive of the present moment cannot appear with the present perfect, such as three days ago, last week, yesterday (Huddleston 1984: 154).

The most common types of usage for the English perfect are agreed on by most writers in principle. One of the unanimously mentioned uses is that of the ‘perfect of persistent situation’ (Comrie 1976: 60), also called ‘universal perfect’ by McCawley (1976: 263). It has been stated that this is typically applied to a previous action or state holding until the present moment, such as

3) I’ve known Max since 1960. (McCawley 1976: 263)

4) He has lived in Canberra all his life. (Huddleston 1984: 160)

A further frequent category in English is the perfect denoting present effects of past events or their results. This type is termed ‘perfect of result’ (Comrie1976: 56) or ‘stative perfect’ (McCawley1976: 263).

5) I can’t come to your party tonight- I’ve caught the flu. (Mc Cawley 176: 263)

6) I have had a bath. ([...] I am clean, [...] I don’t immediately need another

bath.) (Comrie 1976: 56)

These two categories just mentioned could well be described in terms of the ‘current relevance’ theory. That concept is also applicable to the ‘perfect of recent past’ (Comrie 1976: 60) or ‘hot news’ perfect (McCawley 1976: 263). The perfect tense is used for events that have ‘just now’ happened and in this respect are still connected to the present. Very often, perfects of this type collocate with the adverb recently or just or closely related adverbs (Comrie 1976: 60). This can be observed in

7) Malcolm X has just been assassinated. (McCawley 1976: 263)

8) Max has just bought a new car. (Huddleston 1984: 160)

The ‘current relevance’ interpretation is less natural, however, in the case of the perfect denoting the existence of past events in the sense that ”a given situation has held at least once during some time in the past leading up to the present” (Comrie 1976: 58). Huddleston (1984: 161) deems it crucial that the events should have taken place at any time ”within the experience of the participants.” This type of perfect has variously been termed ‘existential perfect’ (McCawley 1976: 263) or ‘experiential perfect’ (Comrie 1976: 58). Its use is illustrated in the following examples:

9) I haven’t been to Moscow before. (Huddleston 1984: 161)

10) Have you read ‘Middlemarch’ ? (ibid.)

11) I have read Principia Mathematica 5 times. (McCawley 1976: 263)

Nevertheless, situations not depending on the existence of the participants could easily be constructed, such as:

12) America has always been a democratic country.

Present participants can safely be discounted here. So Comrie’s definition is probably more comprehensive. In all these examples, the temporal focus is on situations that held or experiences made at some point in time up to the present moment. In this case McCoard’s definition of the perfect as an ‘extended now’ seems appropriate.

In addition, a marginal category deserves consideration: Anderson also mentions a category he terms ‘result-state perfect’. His examples for this type include:

13) The sun is set. (Anderson 1979: 232)

14) He is gone to market. (ibid.)

In each case Andersongives perfect constructions with auxiliary have as alternatives. He describes this category as overlapping with the ‘current relevance’ perfect in meaning and points out that it is used in active, intransitive constructions. He also states, however, that this construction is ”almost dead” and preserved optionally in ”[o]nly a few relics” (Anderson 1979: 232). The construction’s original function is described as contrasting the state resulting from the action with the action itself.

In addition to the present perfect considered above, the English language also has the past perfect tense. Morphologically this is a combination of the past tense form of HAVE and the past participle. The past perfect is used to refer to a situation that held in the past, prior to a situation which is referred to by either a preterite or a present perfect verbal form. For the past perfect, inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the reference point is not relevant (Huddleston 1984: 162). This can be following examples:

15) [I arrived at six,] but she had left a few minutes before. (Huddleston 1984: 162)

16) [I arrived at six,] but she had been there since three. (ibid.)

In English the past perfect simply provides past time reference to a reference point which is located in the past, prior to the time of utterance. A past perfect can therefore be an original present perfect or an original past transported into the more remote past tense. Further aspectual and temporal functions of the past perfect shall not be considered here.

From the previous discussion it can be seen that the perfect in English basically serves to indicate ”a period of time beginning in the past and extending forward to include the present” (Huddleston 1984: 158). In this respect it follows the principles which have been proposed for cross-linguistic use of the perfect category. Its typical realizations are the ‘perfect of persistent situation’, which denotes an action beginning in the past and continuing until the present moment, secondly, the ‘perfect of result’, denoting the effects of an action. In the case of a very recent situation, which has a present impact, the ‘hot news’ perfect is constituted. If it is in question whether experiences have ever been made in the course of time, the ‘experiential perfect’ occurs. A marginal category in Standard English is the ‘result-state perfect’ which describes the state resulting from a previous action.

5. 5 The perfect in Hiberno-English

In the following, various strategies to express the concept of perfectaspect in HE will be considered. It shall be looked at in what respect these forms differ from their Standard English counterparts in form and usage. Following Filppula, those HE constructions were included which appear in contexts where a perfect would have been used in StE, irrespective of whether an overt perfect marker is used or not. A further aim is to examine possible motivation for the development of these forms and possible origin. Comprehensive work on Hiberno-English perfects in corpus-based studies has been carried out by Harris (esp.1983, 1984), Kallen (1989, 1990) and Filppula (esp. 1996, 1997, 1999).

Kallen(1990) discusses possible factors in the use of the forms which are ”variables such as transitivity and dynamism, lexical selection, and sociolinguistic norms” (1990: 120). He assumes a grammaticalisation schema for the perfect category which yielded HE perfects from the StE types proposed by McCawley. This schema assumes the following grammaticalisation:

Table II.: Grammaticalisation schema of StE Perfects in HE according to Kallen (1990: 123).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

He considers a grammaticalisation process like this in the formative stages of the HE dialect to be an ”outcome of language-learning strategies which may have applied at early stages in the development of Hiberno-English” by the Irish-speaking learners (1990: 123). He suggests that they have employed a strategy which assigned a distinct perfect marker to a unique semantic/pragmatic category of use. Nevertheless, he argues that this functional overlap no longer applies in the contemporary dialect.

The differing strategies of expressing the perfect in StE and HE lead to differences in the distribution of tense and aspect categories in the two contemporary varieties. The following schema by Harris (1984: 313) illustrates deviances:

Table III. Tense-Aspect distinctions in StE and HE according to Harris (1991: 203)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

An interesting point that Kallen (1990: 123) makes is that he assumes the perfect in HE to be only weakly related to requirements of recency and completion and that the description in these terms rather reflects universal characteristics of the perfect category than unique HE characteristics.

Overall his suggested approach is more concerned with other factors for HE perfect employment, such as transitivity and dynamism or lexical selection. Kallen argues that a strong grammaticalisation hypothesis never held but that some underlying patterns for perfect marking may be found historically and contemporarily.

5.5.1 The Standard English perfect in Hiberno-English

Considering the use of these categories, Henry (1957: 173) stated that perfect and past perfect are not used by speakers of the North-Roscommon dialect but that rather a range of particular HE constructions are employed. The opposite conclusion is arrived at by Kallen who argues that the use of the StE perfectis an option which is available to speakers of Dublin HE (Kallen 1989: 20) and that its usage is that of the ”general English pattern”. Kallen points out that speakers who contributed particular HE constructions to his corpus on other occasions also used StE perfect forms. This observation has also been made by Harris (1984: 315) for speakers of Ulster Hiberno-English. Harris found urban Belfast speakers to employ an average of 65% of StE perfects and only 35% non-standard perfect forms. While some urban speakers use more non-standard than standard forms, the ratio is about even for some speakers and others exclusively use StE perfects. Data for rural Ulster speech clarifies that the StE perfect is used to a much lesser degree by rural speakers. 34% of the perfect tokens are of the StE have -perfect while 66% are HE perfect constructions. For rural speakers, as well, a continuum of exclusive use towards non-usage of StE forms can be observed (Harris 1984: 315-316; cf Kallen 1989: 20).

In the data I collected, StE perfect forms accounted for 59,5% of the total of 311 perfect tokens. 40,5% of the tokens are distributed around the five perfect constructions used by the HE dialect. The distribution of standard perfect forms versus Hiberno-English perfects thus resembles rural Ulster speech patterns more than Belfast urban ones do. The exact distribution can be tabulated as follows:

Table IV: Table of Perfect usage in the Kearns-corpus according to professions

illustration not visible in this excerpt

It can be observed that some speakers used StE perfects exclusively, namely 31 (28.2%) of all 110 speakers who supplied perfect-tokens. These were largely ‘official’ figures like public employees, pub owners or pub staff, altogether 11 speakers (35% of 31). Also 5 shopkeepers (16% of 31), 5 labourers (16% of 31) and three craftsmen (10% of 31). Seven speakers (23% of 31) were housewives or had other unknown professions.

Hiberno-English perfect constructions to the exclusion of StE perfects were employed by 37 (33.6%) of all speakers. Of these the largest group of speakers were of unknown profession, namely 14 (approximately 38% of 37), followed by 9 labourers (approx. 24% of 37) and 5 ‘official’ figures (approx. 14% of 37). Shopkeepers, craftsmen, market dealers and animal handlers accounted for 2 speakers each (approx. 5.4 %). One speaker was a domestic maid (approximately 2.5 %).

19 speakers used the present perfect only in conjuction with further auxiliaries (17.3% of all speakers employing perfect constructions). 5 speakers used the StE perfect only with the past tense auxiliary had (21%), in which case a past perfect resulted. 5 further speakers (21%) used the StE perfect in both past perfect and modal present perfects. The remaining speakers used the present perfect with modal auxiliaries only. The auxiliaries used were would (15 tokens), should (3 tokens) , could (2 tokens) must (2 tokens) or might (1 token).

Finally, 23 speakers (20.9% of all speakers using perfect constructions) used both the StE perfect as well as HE dialectal perfect constructions. Of these, the largest group is in the public house trade, namely 8 speakers (34.8%), 4 (17.4%) belong to the group of public employees. These two are subsumed under the same heading, ‘official’ persons. 4 speakers (17.4%) are shopkeepers, 4 labourers (17.4%). 2 speakers (8.7%) are of unknown profession and one speaker is a craftsman (4.3%).

In the evaluation of his own data, Harrisconsiders the presence of a dialect continuum with more standard forms in urban areas than in rural areas to be typical of dialect situations. It is argued that vernacular and standard forms are generally used with stylistic and social variation (Kallen 1989: 22; Harris 1984: 314). Harris suggests that more basilectal varieties of HE may represent heavier substrate influence in rural areas, whereas more standardized varieties ”recapitulate a diachronic process of convergence towards the superstrate” (1984: 318). This observation, however, does not hold for either the Kearns-corpus or Kallen’s corpus, which was collected in urban Dublin exclusively. It can be noted, however, that the use of Hiberno-English perfect constructions is more frequent for laborers than for professional persons in this corpus. In the assessment of his own data, Kallen thus puts more emphasis on factors of social relations (see 5.6).

5.5.2 The ‘Indefinite Anterior’ Perfect

‘I never saw a gun in my life ... .’ (Harris 1984: 308) Previous research

The category of ‘indefinite anterior’- perfect is discussed by Harris (1984) and Filppula (1999). Kallen does not mention a similar category in his writings. Both Harris, who terms the category ‘Indefinite Anterior’ and Filppula, who uses the terminology of ‘indefinite anterior perfect’, for short IAP, include this type. They do so on the grounds that the perfect would be employed in StE. Consider the examples:

17) I never saw a gun in my life nor never saw a gun fired. (Harris 1984: 308)

18) Were you ever in Kenmare? (Filppula 1999: 91)

A time span from a point of time in the past up to the present moment is envisaged, conceptually an ‘experiential’ perfect is presented. In the HE examples, however, the verb is in the past tense, the referential frame is clarified by the adverbial, here never... in my life and ever respectively. The most frequent adverbs to denote this temporal category are those indicating frequency. According to Filppula’s research these are in particular ever and never, followed by always, often and then adverbial phrases headed by since, until/till and other less frequent ones. In some cases the temporal reference is determined by the context.

19) [Where you ever sorry now that you didn’t pull out?]

Not a bit in the world. = I was happy = as O’Reilly. (Filppula 1999: 94)

Filppula also determines the most common verbs, namely those with ”experiential meaning” such as HEAR, SEE, BE, HAVE, GO, GET, KNOW, DO, COME and TELL (1999: 93). Typical examples illustrating the experientiality of this category are:

20) I never had a motorcar. I never saw a motorcar when I was = I didn’t see

motorcar till I was thirty years. (Filppula 1999: 93)

21) Yeah, you heard that [i.e. the story] before, did you? (op. cit., 94)

22) We had to read an’ write it [i.e. Irish], and I have it = I have = almost

forgotten now, becos’ I = never read or wrote it since I left school.

(op. cit., 93)

Filppula (1999: 92) points out that in some cases constructions are ambiguous as to whether they are cases of an IAP or an instance of a definite past reference as for instance in

23) [...] we always worked in = in the shore, you know, burning kelp. (op. cit., 92)

He argues that in this case the situation does not hold till the present day and the example therefore needs to be treated as a case of definite past. Results based on the present corpus and potential development

In the corpus collected for the purpose of this study, numerous examples of the IAP can be observed. A total of 35 examples were to be found (11% of all occurring perfect tokens), in most cases the adverbs never and ever were used, followed by always and often. Additionally the adverbial phrases since time began and in my life appeared. In all cases a time span from an unspecified time in the past up to the present moment is envisaged. The present perfect could have been used in StE as illustrated by the following examples:

24) All me life, from me grandfather and father, pigs were always part and parcel of the family. (II.1.6.)

25) It was one of the most interesting places I ever worked. (II.11.)

The most frequently used verbs were BE and SEE, followed by HEAR and DO, MEET and REGRET. The distribution of types and tokens can be observed in the following table.

Table V: Distribution of IAP in the corpus

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Of the ‘other verbs’, RESTORE, LOSE, KNOW and CHANGE were used once with the adverb never. EARN, WORK, HAVE and EAT appeared with ever and there is one co-occurrence of INSIST with always, FIND with often and HAPPEN with since time began.

In one case the IAP is not used instead of a present perfect but of a past perfect.

26) I left in 1939 and came to Dublin and I was never in the city before. (II.1.9.)

In this example, the verbal form is in the preterite as in the other examples. The reference point, however, is not the present moment but a definite point of time in the past which the IAP precedes.

Concerning the distribution of the usage of the ‘indefinite anterior’ perfect, 22 speakers can be observed to have used both StE perfect and IAP. Six speakers employed only tokens of the IAP and 31 used a variety of HE perfects to the exclusion of StE ones. StE perfects only, on the other hand, were used by 43 speakers. None of the speakers who employed tokens of the IAP, however, seem to have used the StE perfect in similar contexts.

The phenomenon of the IAP is not exclusive to HE, however. Quirk et al. point out (1985: 194) that a tendency exists in American English to use simple past forms in the indefinite past where British StE employs the present perfect tense. This is clarified by the following examples:

27) Did the children come home yet? (Quirk et al. 1985: 194)

28) You told me already. (ibid.)

Harris refers to this feature of American English as well. He considers it to be symptomatic of much more wide-spread inter-dialectal differences ”within the English language in the use of preterite and perfect” (1984: 309). He points out that this is only one of the cases pointing to the fact that the perfect category is not established uniformly in all English dialects (1984: 316).

Filppula (1999: 97), following Sabban (1982: 106-107) proposes the possibility of this feature arising in American English under the influence of immigrants who did not distinguish between the two categories. Sabban comments that the use of the preterite tense for the ‘indefinite anterior’ perfect is frequent in Hebridean English due to Scottish Gaelic influence but does not rule out earlier English superstrate influence (1982: 111-112).

Considering English influence, Harris points out that the use of a preterite form in the ‘indefinite anterior’ was common in Old English. He cites an example from Beowulf:

29) Ne seah ic elþeodige. (Beowulf 336, cited by Harris 1984: 320)

152 of 152 pages


Tense and Aspect Systems in Hiberno-English
Their use and development
University of Marburg
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Irish English, Aspect Systems, language contact
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Patricia Ronan (Author), 2000, Tense and Aspect Systems in Hiberno-English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/162639


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