English and German Tense-Aspect Systems: A Comparison

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2003
23 Seiten, Note: 1,00



1. Introduction

2. Time in Order

3. Defining Tense
3.1. Concepts of Temporal Relations
3.2. Tense in English
3.3. Tense in German

4. Defining Aspect
4.1. Grammatical Aspect - Perfective vs. Imperfective
4.2. Aktionsart

5. A Comparison of English and German Tense-Aspect-Systems
5.1. Characterising The Perfect
5.2. Future Time Reference in English
5.3. Future Time Reference in German
5.4. The Progressive

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ordnungsbeziehungen anzuschauen ist doch das beste.

Die Ordnung ist alles... Alles ist Beziehung. (Thomas Mann - Doktor Faustus, Kap. VII)

Within the last two decades many attempts have been made to define a generally accepted concept of universal temporal and aspectual systems. There are comprehensive studies about the grammatical functions of tense and aspect, their categories and their meaning. In regard to their tense systems English and German show amazing parallels in the inventory of forms but there are major differences in their use and function. The following paper gives a survey of English and German tense and aspect systems and presents traditional and current theories and controversies on them. Moreover, an attempt will be made to debate in detail function and use of the perfect, future and progressive construction in these two languages.

2. Time in Order

The concept of time can be demonstrated by a simple diagram (Fig.1) locating every event before the present moment 0 to the left of 0 and locating every event after the present moment to the right of 0. Situations are not always punctual and separate but may occupy a time span or happen simultaneously, e.g. situation B precedes C, situation D and E overlap etc.

Such conditions enable the location of situations in time relative to each other or relative to a specific moment, e.g. the present moment. There are several means of expressing location in time. First, lexically composite expressions, e.g. five minutes after John left, make accurate time specifications possible. Second, lexical items, such as now, today, yesterday, last year, enable the calculation of location in time through the meaning of such expressions. And finally, grammatical categories, i.e. tenses, classify temporal location in a constructed system. (Comrie 1985:8) Grammaticalisation refers to integration into the grammatical system, that is, lexical items develop into grammatical items. (Dahl 2000:8)

3. Defining Tense

The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (1992) gives the following entry for ‘Tense’:

Tense refers to the grammatical expression of the time of the situation described in the proposition, relative to some other time. This other time may be the moment of speech: e.g., the past and future designate time before and after the moment of speech, respectively. (Klein 1994:2)

Most linguists would agree with this definition. Tense is grammaticalised expression of location in time. Not all languages have such a grammatical device, e.g. Hopi lacking straightforward past, present and future categories. (Comrie 1985:4)

3.1. Concepts of Temporal Relations

Back in the 40s, it was Reichenbach, who introduced a concept of temporal relations expressed by tenses and his work has been the basis for many following studies on this topic. Reichenbach`s analysis consists of two major features: first, the view that tenses express relations such as ‘before’ (<), ‘after’ (>), ‘is included in’ (=) and ‘is simultaneous with’ (SIMUL). Second, that there are three points in time that are relevant to the choice of tense, namely the time of utterance (TU), the time of the event/situation (TSit) and the point of reference (R). Unfortunately the latter is not defined very clearly. (R) is a third point in time indicating some other event. (König 1994:156-157) Reichenbach claims that (R) is necessary to distinguish pluperfect and simple past. Indeed, it is relevant for the analysis of the pluperfect in sentences such as,

(1) When Mary came to the party, John had left.
John`s leaving, expressed by the pluperfect, is the ‘event’ and Mary’s coming happens at a different point in time. (Klein 1994:25) But the use of a ‘reference time’ is not needed for sentences such as
(2) The child is playing in the garden.
(3) Last year, Henry was in Vienna.
(4) My sister will come next month.
There is only one event involved and the reference time is simultaneous with the event time. Thus follows:
(5) Present Tense: TU SIMUL TSit SIMUL TR

Past Tense: TR SIMUL TSit < TU

Future Tense: TU < TSit SIMUL TR

According to Comrie (1985) simple present, past and future tense are subsumed within the category of „absolute tenses“. Absolute tenses include „as part of their meaning the present moment as deictic centre“, i.e. these tenses relate situations always to the present moment (moment of speech, TU): either to the same time as the present moment, or prior to the present moment, or subsequent to the present moment. The present moment is taken as reference point. In opposition to this, Comrie created the concept of „relative tense“, i.e. the reference point is not necessarily the present moment, but some other point in time indicated by the context. An utterance such as

(6) On the next day Jack looked out of his bedroom window.

includes an adverbial of relative time reference and the reference point is the day before the day of ‘John`s looking out of the window’. (cf. 14)

Klein (1994) introduced a slightly different analysis. He denies the necessity of relative tenses because they are „anaphoric“.(cf. 121) In his opinion, tense does not apply to the relation between TSit and TU. He replaced Reichenbach`s expression of „reference point“ by „topic time“ (TT). TT is the time under consideration:

(7) The light was on.

This utterance is in the past and TT clearly precedes TU. However, the light could still be on at TU, that is, TU is included in TSit. The situation in this sentence does not have to be necessarily before the moment of speech, although it is in the past. Following this, Klein (1994) defines tense as follows: „Tense does not express a temporal relation between the time of situation and the time of utterance; rather, it expresses a relation between the time of utterance and some time for which the speaker wants to make an assertion - the topic time.“(cf. 24)

3.2. Tense in English

Apparently, there is no standardised view about how many tenses English has because the question of whether formal or semantic criteria are relevant for the definition of tense is still unsolved. Furthermore, the discussion of the status of a future tense in English is not finished yet. Structuralists only accept two tenses: past and non-past. This view is based on the fact that English has a two-term morphological contrast in the inflection of verbs, e.g. he play-s vs. he play-ed, and thus there are only two tenses, whereas other time constructions are simply combinatorial constructions. The future is considered a combination of present tense and the modal verbs will/shall, the perfect (present perfect, past perfect) is a combination of have and one of the two tenses. Moreover, there are two aspectual categories, namely, the progressive and the perfect, that combine freely with each other and both tenses. (König 1994:153-154)

The view that English has three tenses is found in Klein (1994). He states that these tenses are expressed by the inflectional morphology of the finite verb, by stem change or by a periphrastic construction (in the future). His definition of tenses is as follows (cf. 124):

(8) Present tense: TU incl TT

Past tense: TU after TT

Future tense: TU before TT

Furthermore, some argue that there are six tenses in the English system: present, past, present perfect, past perfect (pluperfect), future and future perfect. This view held by e.g. Comrie and most traditional grammar books, is based on the model of Latin grammar and allows one aspectual category, the progressive. (König 1994:155)

Eventually, few linguists, such as Declerck, postulate as many as eight tenses for English, adding ‘conditional tense’ and ‘conditional perfect’ to the six tenses found in traditional grammars. (Declerck 1991:295) Matthews (1994) distinguishes between past vs. non-past, perfect vs. non-perfect and progressive vs. non-progressive.

3.3. Tense in German

The German tense system has been the subject of numerous studies for centuries. Already in 1572 the grammarian Ölinger wrote about the „plupluperfects“ (Perfekt II). (Klein 1994:125) However, regarding the question of tenses in German we find a similar picture like in English. There is no generally accepted analysis and figures range from one to nine tenses. To begin with, traditional grammars, such as the Duden, give six tenses: Präsens, Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur I and Futur II.(Thieroff 1992:46) These are often divided into absolute (direct) and relative (indirect) tenses. Präsens, Präteritum and Futur I demonstrate Verlauf, that is, the course or passage of an action, whereas Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt and Futur II relate to completion (Vollzug). (Thieroff 1992:46-47)

Klein (1994) argues that Plusquamperfekt and Futur II combine a tense meaning with an aspectual meaning and therefore are not to be labelled tense. (cf. 129) In contrast to this, Thieroff (1994) sees eight tense forms in German, adding Perfekt II and Plusquamperfekt II to the traditional ones. (cf. 119)

(9) Präsens: singt

Präteritum: sang

Perfekt: hat gesungen

Plusquamperfekt: hatte gesungen

Perfekt II: hat gesungen gehabt

Plusquamperfekt II: hatte gesungen gehabt

Futur I: wird singen

Futur II: wird gesungen haben

Furthermore, there is another rather unjustified analysis defining nine tenses for German. It is based on the assumption that time in general is divided into simultaneity, anteriority and posteriority. Each of these periods provide present, past and future tenses. (Thieroff 1992:48) Another analysis, such as Vater`s, permit four tenses: Präsens, Präteritum, Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt. A rather plausible idea is given by structuralists who would argue that there are two tenses in German: Präsens and Präteritum. For linguists such as Engel and Bartsch werden + infinitive is modal, haben + past participle is aspectual and Futur II is a combination of mood and aspect. (Thieroff 1992:63) Radical linguists, such as Mugler, accept only one tense form, the Präteritum, considering all other forms aspects or combinations of aspects. According to him, the Präsens is unmarked in regard to tense and aspect, a „merkmallose Verbform“. (Thieroff 1994:119) Obviously, much ink has been spilled upon this topic and reasons leading to no consensus are the same as in English.

4. Defining Aspect

One gets a similarly confusing picture in regard to the notion of aspect. The Ancient Greeks were the first to discuss the meaning of aspect. This is not to say that they understood it in the same way as linguists do today, but they were aware that besides tense their language marked a second type of distinction. The term „ aspect “ was originally derived from Greek and introduced into English by the French loan word, meaning ‘view’. (Krause 2002:29) Other versions state that „ aspect “ derived from Russian because it has a traditional, well defined aspectual system. The meaning of aspect in Slavic is precise because it is overtly and morphologically marked and its use is obligatory. (Binnick 1991:135-136)

4.1. Grammatical Aspect - Perfective vs. Imperfective

In his comprehensive analysis Comrie (1976) defines aspects as „different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation“.(cf. 3) This can be illustrated by the following:

(10) Susan was watching TV when I entered.

The first verb (Susan’s watching TV) presents the background to the event that is presented by the second verb (my entry). The second verb refers to its event as an entirety that cannot be analysed in regard to its internal temporal constituency because it focuses both endpoints. The situation cannot be split up into beginning, middle and end but is presented as a single whole. Verbal forms like these are perfective. In Dahl’s definition (1985) the perfective verb

„will typically denote a single event, seen as an unanalysed whole, with a well-defined result or end-state, located in the past. More often than not, the event will be punctual, or at least, it will be seen as a single transition from one state to its opposite, the duration of which can be disregarded.“ (cf. 78)

The other form (Susan’s watching TV) has imperfective meaning, that is, it looks into the on-going situation instead of introducing it as a whole. Thus, aspect is not concerned with the relation of events to a time-point, but with the internal structure of a situation. (Comrie 1976:3-5)

There is a number of values identified with the universals perfective and imperfective which have been suggested as typical, though counterexamples to all these were found (e.g. in Comrie 1976), stating that none of them can be their essential characteristics. (Binnick 1991:154) First, it has often been claimed that perfective forms indicate situations of short duration whereas imperfectives rather refer to long ones. However, both can be used for durative events, as this example in French proves:

(11) Il régna trente ans. (Past Definite)

Il régnait trente ans. (Imperfect)

Both sentences refer to a long period of time, the first one reflecting about a complete whole, the latter rather connected with the internal structure of this period and indicating that at any point during those thirty years he was reigning. This example also serves well to disconfirm the view of perfectivity being mainly connected with punctual, momentary situations. (Comrie 1976:17) However, it is clear that imperfectivity and punctuality are incompatible because a punctual situation has no duration and therefore no internal structure. (Comrie 1976:42)


Ende der Leseprobe aus 23 Seiten


English and German Tense-Aspect Systems: A Comparison
Freie Universität Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Understanding English-German Contrasts
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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English, German, Tense-Aspect, Systems, Comparison, Understanding, English-German, Contrasts, linguistics, sprachwissenschaften, grammatik, englisch, Linguistik, Deutsch, Germanistik, tense, aspect, Zeit, Aspekt, Philologie, sprachwissenschaft, vergleichend, germanistisch, grammar, past, present, future, Zeitenfolge, Zeitformen
Arbeit zitieren
Magister Artium Melanie Bobik (Autor), 2003, English and German Tense-Aspect Systems: A Comparison, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68009


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