Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Henriette de Swart (Utrecht)

Title: A multilingual corpus study of the competition between PAST and PERFECT in narrative discourse

Abstract: In a typical narrative, a sequence of events is set against the background of a state or ongoing activity. English uses event verbs in the Simple Past to convey narration, and stative verbs in the Simple Past or events/activities in the Past Progressive for background descriptions. Partee (1973, 1984) analyses the PAST as an anaphoric (definite) tense, in contrast to the quantificational (indefinite) Present Perfect. Such an approach works well for languages like English and Spanish, but does not explain the narrative use of PERFECTS in French and German. Schaden (2009) frames this as a competition between PAST and PERFECT tense-aspect forms. We tested Schaden’s claims in a parallel corpus study of the French novel L’Étranger (1942) and its translations in English, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian and modern Greek. This novel is written in an alternation of the Passé Composé (PERFECT) and the Imparfait (IMPERFECTIVE PAST), which raises problems for translators whose target languages have a more restricted distribution of the PERFECT. The three main findings of our multilingual corpus study are that (i) there is no binary opposition between PAST and PERFECT, but we are dealing with a sliding scale with several cut-off points, (ii) in all languages, the denotation of the PERFECT constitutes a convex meaning space, in line with a semantic map approach, and (iii) the real competition is between the PERFECTIVE PAST and the PERFECT, which calls for a rethinking of the definition of these two categories. Time permitting, we will look at some Russian data that help to sharpen our ideas on the PERFECTIVE/IMPERFECTIVE contrast in Romance and Slavic languages.


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Apr 05 2018 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2018-04-05: A multilingual corpus study of the competition between PAST and PERFECT in narrative discourse

Room 2.02, 17-25 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9LN