Re: aktionsart and subjective

From: Mari Broman Olsen (
Date: Thu Mar 26 1998 - 09:55:53 EST

Rich writes:
> Yes, it does makes some sense to me... but not entirely. I still need to
> be convinced that there is actually a semantic core at work here. Consider
> a train in motion. From the perspective of the person inside the train is
> it moving? From the perspective of the person just outside of the train is
> it moving? Or what about from the perspective of the person who is a great
> distance away? There is no such thing as "moving" in and of itself.
> "Moving" is *always* done in relationship to something else that is not
> moving or is moving in a different direction. I could argue that this
> really isn't a question of what is happening at a given moment of time at
> all. Depending on my own personal viewpoint the train is either moving or
> it is not moving and that is a fact. It is not a speculation on my part.
> It is a subjective fact more based on personal vantage point than on time.
> Now going from there I could subjectivize the situation even more by
> *mentally choosing* to look at the situation in a different way than I am
> actually seeing with my eyes. I suppose we could say that what I see with
> my eyes is semantics *for me* and what I decide in my mind is pragmatics
> *for me*. But is the train actually moving? Although I started this
> paragraph by saying that it was a "train in motion", I really can't answer
> that question without some kind of frame of reference.
> I suppose the real question how strong the stream of Aspect was depends on
> how seriously it was taken in the NT era both by the speakers and the
> hearers. If they both took the matter seriously then it was indeed a strong
> contextual current. But I don't know how strong a force it was then, so
> all I can do is imagine.

The real issue for the semantics/pragmatics distinction is not whether
one can choose to visualize things contra the truth conditions, but what
using a particular grammatical form commits one to. So of a
'train-moving' event in the past, I can say:

The train moved.
The train had moved. (perfective)
The train was moving. (imperfective)
(not to mention The moving train, the moved train, the train was

All are true of the same event (i.e., true just in case the train in
the past moved). Crucially, one uses the semantics of the perfective
to say that at a given time in the past, an event of moving (some
distance) was completed, and the imperfective to say that it was in
progress at a given focus time. These have different discourse
functions (as well as different truth conditions DURING the moving
event: one is true, one is false) and are therefore employed to
different effect. The fact that perhaps the label "aspect" was not
applied by the grammarians would be of interest, but not enough to say
that people failed to employ the relevant forms in the relevant
(semantic and pragmatic way). After all, many people don't know
English has aspect, but they use it with facility.

Another semantic pragmatic note:

Perfective semantically entails that the event is over
        Kenny had built a garage.
Imperfective may pragmatically implicate the same.
        Kenny was building a garage (but he quit when the costs got
too high).

But the difference is whether the completion can be canceled:
        Kenny had built a garage (?!but it still isn't finished).
        Kenny was building a garage (but it still isn't finished).

Note that to make sense out of the perfective (had built) with the
additional clause, you have to do some circumlocutions of the sort
that what Kenny THOUGHT was a finished garage wasn't (or it fell down,
or the 'finishing touches' weren't applied), not that he built half a
wall and said he 'had built' a garage. That is, you can play with the
presuppositions of Kenny and finishing, but can't cancel that the
perfective asserts completion of the building-garage event.


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