Featured Linguist!

Jost Gippert: Our Featured Linguist!

"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



Donate Now | Visit the Fund Drive Homepage

Amount Raised:

$34413

Still Needed:

$40587

Can anyone overtake Syntax in the Subfield Challenge ?

Grad School Challenge Leader: University of Washington


Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Present perfect in Europe versus Past Simple in America
Question: Dear Ask a Linguist,

I've noticed that in Europe languages such as Italian, German,
French, Spanish and even English use the perfect to talk about
recent past whereas in America we use a simple form. For example,
people may say in Mexico ''Ayer compré pan'' (Yesterday, I ate bread)
while in Spain the same idea can be expressed as ''Ayer he comprado
pan'' (Yesterday, I have bought bread). If I translate into Italian
or French a perfect is also used. Why is that? What happened in
America that language users use Past simple (one word) to express
something that in these European languages is expressed by using an
auxiliary and past participle? When did this happen?

Reply: The history of this is quite complicated and, with respect to English, not entirely certain. I am an Englishman, and in Britain we have a contrast between perfect and simple past: "I saw them" and "I have seen them" mean different things. But even just across the water in Ireland, the perfect is scarcely used (and insofar as it is this is probably due to influence from British English as a prestige language). Some have argued that the perfect was lost in Irish English as a consequence of influence from Irish Gaelic, but the better-founded explanation seems to be that the perfect construction is only a few centuries old in (British) English and that Irish English was already a separate dialect by then and just didn't develop that form. I can't comment on the history of American English.

Many Continental European languages, e.g. German, had a perfect/simple past contrast similar to ours but have tended to lose the simple-past form rather than the perfect construction; in present-day German the simple past is still part of the "official" language, but I believe it is little used in colloquial speech. Why things have been going one way in one language and the other way in other languages is a question I can't answer (and I suspect it is unanswerable).

Regards,

Geoffrey Sampson
Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      click here to access email
 
Date: 22-Aug-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Present perfect in Europe versus Past Simple in America    Susan D Fischer     (25-Aug-2013)
  2. Re: Present perfect in Europe versus Past Simple in America    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (22-Aug-2013)

Back to Most Recent Questions