The present tense in English and German and its relevance for the interpretation of the perfect

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 2


0. Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical preliminaries
2.1 Prerequisites
2.1.1 Representation of time
2.1.2 Definition of tense
2.2 The Reichenbach theory
2.3 Modifications to Reichenbach’s theory

3. Present tense
3.1 Analysis of the present tense
3.2 Präsens in German
3.3 Present in English
3.4 Comparison of English present and German Präsens
3.5 Klein and Vater’s view of the Präsens and the simple present

4. The relevance of the present for the interpretation of the perfect - a review of “The Perfect in English and German”

5. Concluding remarks

6. References

1. Introduction

In their analysis of the perfect in English and German Klein and Vater postulate that the English present perfect and the German Perfekt are very much the same except that the Perfekt has two additional usages. They refer to Anderson (Anderson, 1982:228) and list five major usages of perfect in the English language to which exist corresponding usages in the German Perfekt and give the following examples – the example for the present continuous is left out because it does not concern the analysis given in this paper:

1. Experiential
Have you ever been to Japan?
Sind sie je in Japan gewesen?
2. Current relevance of anterior
He has studied the whole book. (So he can help.)
Paul hat sich mit Biologie befasst. (Paul kennt sich damit aus.)
3. New situation, „hot news“
The Etna has just erupted!
Eben hat es geblitzt!
4. Result-state
He has gone. (or) He is gone. (is not here)
Er ist weggegangen. (Er ist weg.)

The two additional functions they see are that the Perfekt can easily relate to the future and often functions like the English simple past as can be shown by the following examples:

1. The Colossus of Rhodos weighed 100 tons.
Der Koloss von Rhodos hat 100 Tonnen gewogen
2. Tomorrow at ten, Peter will have left London.
Morgen um zehn hat Peter London verlassen.

In their proceeding they postulate that the tense systems of English and German do not mainly differ with respect to the perfect but that the role of the present tense is to blame for the observation made in the beginning. They base this conclusion on an excerpt from Comrie who wrote about the compositional structure of the perfect – being a composite of a present tense auxiliary and a past participle – that “the present auxiliary conveys the present meaning, while the past participle conveys that of past action” (Comrie, 1976:107).

Klein and Vater’s assumption is that in the English language the present tense is closely bound to the moment of speech whereas in German it is relatively free in this regard (Klein/Vater, 1998:221). This led to lively discussion in the course with the two main points being whether it is justified to state that English and German differ crucially in their usage of the present tense, and - if this difference really exists -whether it is the reason for the additional functions of the Perfekt.

These two points shall be discussed in this paper. In the first chapter some theoretical work will be done to establish a terminological basis and to show the means by which Klein and Vater analyse the tenses in their paper. The second chapter focuses on the present tense and in the third chapter the implications of the results of the second chapter for the perfect will be discussed.

2. Theoretical preliminaries

In this chapter some theoretical preliminaries for the analysis will be discussed. In the first section a definition of tense will be developed to establish an unambiguous terminological basis. In section 2.2 Reichenbach’s theory will be introduced, and in section 2.3 the further development of Reichenbach’s theory will be illustrated.

2.1 Prerequisites

2.1.1 Representation of time

As figure 1 shows, we will assume that time can be represented as a straight line, with no boundary at either the left or the right and with a distinct point in the middle representing the present moment. The past is then represented conventionally to the left of that point and the future to the right.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1 - Representation of time

This figure helps us to locate certain situations in time. To simplify and to avoid repetition we will subsume the concept of events, processes, states, etc. under the term situation. If we want to express that a situation A will occur in the future, we can locate the situation diagrammatically to the right of the present moment. To show that another situation B preceded situation A, we have to place it to the left of situation A and so on. The most important claim Comrie makes about this timeline is that this “diagrammic representation of time is adequate for an account of tense in human language” (Comrie, 1985:2).

2.1.2 Definition of tense

The demand for a definition of the category tense has bothered linguists around the world for a long time and resulted in a variety of ideas.

Weinrich (1964:26ff) had the idea that tenses express two speech attitudes (Sprechhaltungen), namely the tenseness (Gespanntheit) attitude and the relaxation (Entspanntheit) attitude, and thus divides the tenses in ‘discussing’ (besprechende) and ‘narrating’ (erzählende) tenses. However, the notion of dividing the tenses in speech attitude classes was never really accepted - especially in the Anglo-Saxon area - and perished in the last years.

Nowadays, most linguists (despite their misunderstandings in details) assume that tenses express time relations (Vater, 1994:56). According to Comrie, there are three ways of locating a situation in time (Comrie, 1985:8f):

1. Lexically composite expressions
This is the largest class of expressions to locate a situation in time, and it is potentially infinite in a language which has linguistic means for measuring time intervals.
Examples: 5 minutes before I left; 10 years after my death; 1 second after the Big Bang
2. Lexical items
This class consists of single lexical items in a language that express location in time.
Examples: Tomorrow, now, yesterday
3. Grammatical categories
This class consists of what is conventionally described as tenses. The number of tense categories varies through the languages of the world.

Comrie defines tense as a “grammaticalised expression of location in time” (Comrie, 1985:9) and sees the tenses of a language in opposition to the lexical means to locate situations on the time line.

2.2 The Reichenbach theory

In his book “Elements of Symbolic Logic” Reichenbach tries to apply the methods of symbolic logic to an analysis of conversational language. He has a particular interest in the tenses of verbs and develops a model for the interpretation of tenses which has been widely accepted to constitute an appropriate theory for the analysis of the English verbal tenses.

According to Reichenbach, we need to distinguish three time points to grasp the tenses of English (Reichenbach, 1947:287ff):

1. Point of speech (S)
The point of speech is the point in time of the act of speech, or in other words: the present moment.
2. Point of event (E)
The point of event is simply the time at which the situation is located and is neutral as to whether this is a point or an interval of time longer than a point.
3. Point of reference (R)
The point of reference constitutes a point in time which the event is related to, thus being a perspective point from which the event is viewed.

Given these three time points, we can arrange them on a time line to distinguish the tenses. In the past perfect or pluperfect for example, the point of event is before the point of reference, which is before the point of speech. Reichenbach diagrams the tense distinctions in English as in Figure 2 (Reichenbach, 1947:290).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2 - Reichenbach's tense system

2.3 Modifications to Reichenbach’s theory

Ehrich and Vater modify Reichenbach’s theory in so far as they introduce a subdivision of the relations between E, S and R into an intrinsic relation between E and R and a contextual relation between R and S. The deictic interpretation of a tense form in the context of the complete uttering specifies the relation between E and S and has to be logically compatible with the intrinsic and contextual meaning. Whereas the intrinsic relation between E and R is invariable for each tense form, i.e. applicable in all of its uses, the contextual relation can be shifted, at least in those cases, where R and S are simultaneous or where R is included by or vice versa. In this model there is no direct deictical relation between E and S - what is traditionally named the tense relation - but it can be derived from the two other relations. (Ehrich/Vater, 1989:119ff).

Klein and Vater take a further step in modifying Reichenbach’s theory starting from the modification by Ehrich and Vater because they say that “what matters for the past tense [..] is not whether the time of the situation [..] precedes the moment of speech but whether the time about which the speaker makes an assertion by his utterance is in the past” (Klein/Vater, 1998:223). They therefore introduce the topic time as a subinterval of the entire situation time. They postulate that three time spans are important for the temporal analysis of finite verb forms (Klein/Vater, 1998:223f):

1. Time of utterance (TU), the time at which the utterance is made (same as Reichenbach’s point of speech S.
2. Time of situation (TSit), the time of at which the situation obtains which is similar to Reichenbach’s point of event only that it is not a point in time but a more or less extended interval.
3. Topic time (TT), the time about which an assertion is made which is according to Klein and Vater a “particular way to interpret Reichenbach’s R” (Klein/Vater, 1998:224)

The notion of tense can now be viewed as a temporal relation between TU and TT with the possible temporal relations being after, before, included in, overlapping with, etc. In the past tense for example TT precedes TU (TT before TU) whereas in the future tense TT follows TU (TT after TU).


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The present tense in English and German and its relevance for the interpretation of the perfect
University of Hamburg
Tense, Aspect and Modality
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English, German, Tense, Aspect, Modality, Contrastive Analysis
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Philipp Helle (Author), 2005, The present tense in English and German and its relevance for the interpretation of the perfect, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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