Past time in English, Norwegian and German (with a side glance at Swedish [and Danish])

Johan Elsness, ILOS

A great many languages have two major verb forms used to refer to past time: a periphrastic (analytic) present perfect and a synthetic preterite. That is true of all the five languages mentioned in the title of this talk. However, the distribution of the two verb forms varies among these languages: The use of the present perfect is held to be most restrictive in English, most widespread in German. Indeed, in southern dialects of German the preterite seems to be in the process of being ousted by the present perfect, a development which appears to be spreading northwards to other German-speaking areas. In a past-specified English sentence like He came yesterday, the present perfect would be an unacceptable alternative to the preterite, while das Präsensperfekt is straightforward in the corresponding German sentence: Er ist gestern gekommen

The five languages differ also when it comes to the functional division line between the present perfect and the simple present: German and Swedish, but not (usually) the other three languages, can have the simple present tense in references to left- or length-specified time extending from the past up to, and possibly through, the present time-field: Er wohnt seit 2008 / seit acht Jahren in Berlin, Sedan 2008 / Sedan åtta år bor han i Berlin

Even the form of the present perfect varies among the five languages: (Present-day) English and Swedish can have only a HAVE verb as the perfect auxiliary; German and Danish use both their HAVE and their BE verbs with the perfect, with a pretty strict, and similar, line of division; while Norwegian also uses both perfect auxiliaries, but with a much less strict division (and that is true of both official variants of Norwegian!).

In the study to be reported in this talk the use of the two verb forms is investigated in the English-Norwegian Parallel Corpus (ENPC) and in three of the other sections making up the Oslo Multilingual Corpus (OMC), i.e. the sections consisting of English, Norwegian and German original texts plus their respective translations into the two other languages. Some high-frequency verbs are selected for the more detailed analysis, which reveals that, in spite of some pretty marked differences in overall frequencies between the three languages, the variation in the ratio between the present perfect and the preterite follows a remarkably similar pattern in the three languages. This variation seems to have a semantic basis and is explained with reference to the likely telicity of each of the verbs investigated.

The development of the distribution between the present perfect and the preterite is seen in the light of what has been claimed to be a general tendency for the preterite to disappear in Indo-European languages, which in turn can be seen as part of an even more general tendency for languages to develop from a synthetic towards an analytic structure. In the particular case of English, however, higher-level factors are pointed to which can help to explain why that language may seem to be bucking the general trend as far as the distribution between the present perfect and the preterite is concerned.

Publisert 30. mars 2016 18:41