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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)

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