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  • The present perfective paradox across languages by Astrid De Wit
  • Daniel Altshuler
The present perfective paradox across languages. By Astrid De Wit. (Oxford studies of time in language & thought.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 221. ISBN 9780198759539. $90 (Hb).

Reichenbach (1947:§51) proposed that English tenses encode three temporal coordinates: speech time (S), event time (E), and reference time (R). For simple tenses, E and R are equated; present tense equates S with R, yielding 1.

(1) E = R = S

Research in the last thirty years has explored how these coordinates factor into the composition of verb phrases, viewpoint aspect, and tense. According to one influential view, outlined in 2–4 below, tense contributes a relation between R and S, while E and R are related by aspect; the E-R relation is independent of tense (Kamp & Rohrer 1983; see also Klein 1994, Smith 1997, Kratzer 1998).1

(2) Verb phrase encodes E.

(3) Aspect combines with 2 to relate E and R as follows: if perfective: E ⊆ R; if progressive: R ⊆ E; if perfect: E < R.

(4) Present tense combines with 2 and 3 to relate R and S as follows: R = S.

Applying 2 to 5, the verb phrase sees encodes the seeing event. Assuming that 5 exemplifies the imperfective aspect, 3 requires the seeing to temporally contain R, which, given 4, is S. In this way we correctly predict that the seeing held throughout S.

(5) Ava sees the ball. [End Page 471]

Astrid De Wit’s book refutes the view that the E-R relation is independent of tense in English. It retains the view in 1 that the English present tense equates all three coordinates, with one crucial caveat: the ‘E = R’ condition is claimed to be perfective.2 That is, in English, presentness and perfectivity are two sides of the same coin. While there is precedence for seeing tense as being aspectual (e.g. de Swart 1998, Michaelis 2011), the view that the English present is perfective is a striking hypothesis.

This hypothesis is tailored to account for the temporal profile of performatives, as in 6 below.3 Applied to 6, it correctly predicts that the described apology is instantiated throughout the speech time. It also makes the correct prediction for present statives like in 5 above: the described perception is correctly predicted to hold throughout the speech time.4

(6) I apologize.

One question that arises is why, in many languages, the combination of perfective morphology with a stative verb yields an inchoative reading (e.g. ‘learn’ is the perfective counterpart of ‘know’ in Russian), but not in English. In other words, if the English present is perfective, why doesn’t 5 mean something like ‘Ava has noticed the ball’? DW does not address this question, but let us assume that the perfective in English is unique. After all, perfectives differ crosslinguistically (Altshuler 2014).5 With this assumption in mind, let us ask how 1 applies to 7 and 8.

(7) the simple present in futurates (Ava leaves tomorrow), conditionals (If Ava passes the ball, we win), demonstrative commentaries (Look, I take this card), play-by-play (Ava passes the ball), and historical narratives (Yesterday I walked in. Ava says to me…)

(8) the present habitual, progressive, and perfect

Let us also ask whether and how 1 can be parametrized to account for the meaning of the present tense in other languages, which have different means to express 7 and 8.

DW’s book tackles both of these questions head on. DW argues that 1 is compatible with the interpretations in 7 in English, while the interpretations in 8 are the by-product of resolving the present perfective paradox (PPP): the observation that it is ‘quite difficult to align entire events (i.e., dynamic situations), which have a point of inception and termination and a specific duration, with the time of speaking’ (3).6 DW then shows how her analysis of the English present tense can be extended to French, Sranan, and Slavic languages. In each chapter, diachronic data is provided to argue that the conclusions reached shed light on language change (and vice versa). Moreover...


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pp. 471-475
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