LINGUIST List 6.620

Fri 28 Apr 1995

Disc: "The Parameter of Aspect": Author's response

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  1. , comment on review of The Parameter of Aspect

Message 1: comment on review of The Parameter of Aspect

Date: Mon, 24 Apr 1995 11:59:18 comment on review of The Parameter of Aspect
From: <>
Subject: comment on review of The Parameter of Aspect

Re: Comments by Vincent DeCaen on aspectual systems in UG, in connection
with the review of my book "The Parameter of Aspect"

This note is in response to the proposal for a binary aspectual parameter
in UG, with values dependent on whether the progressive is expressed
inflectionally or not.

In my view, the proposal cannot be right. It considers only the
progressive and perfective aspectual viewpoints, ignoring other
imperfective viewpoints. There are such viewpoints, and they often
contrast inflectionally with the perfective. This point is entirely lost
in the proposed parameter.

I am not convinced that a difference at the level of inflection is significant
for the semantic analysis of aspectual systems. But even if inflection is
taken as key, it's an over-simplification to deal only with the
progressive. The basic contrast in aspectual systems is between
 perfective and imperfective viewpoints. The progressive is a type of
imperfective aspectual viewpoint. Many languages have both an imperfective
and a progressive viewpoint; some have only the former; some have only
the latter.

What has been proposed, more specifically, is a binary aspectual
parameter for UG according to whether a language obligatorily expresses
the progressive in a special construction, rather than inflectionally.
The viewpoint which is expressed inflectionally is the default for a
given language. DeCaen correctly notes that progressives are often
periphrastic rather than inflectional. But other imperfectives tend to
be expressed inflectionally, a fact which calls the whole enterprise into
doubt. Mandarin Chinese and Navajo, for instance, are tenseless languages
which have two imperfective viewpoints, one of them a progressive. Both
languages have a commonly used imperfective which is expressed
by inflectional morphemes and which contrasts with the perfective.

In my view, there are important differences in range, or semantic space,
for the aspectual viewpoints of a language. This is a grammatical
matter, since it involves distribution, but it doesn't have to do with
inflectional vs non-inflectional morphology. The question is whether one
or both types of viewpoint are available for all situation types. The
answer differs across languages, tensed and tenseless. For instance, in
Russian the imperfective is available for all situation types, but the
perfective is available only for non-statives, so the imperfective is the
dominant viewpoint. English is the reverse: the progressive by
definition is not available for non-statives, and the perfective is
dominant. French has no dominant viewpoint because perfective and
imperfective are available for all situation types. Navajo and Mandarin
have no dominant viewpoint because perfective and imperfective are available
for all non-stative situation types, and neither is available for
statives. Note that such statements are only possible at a level of
detail which considers both situation type and viewpoint.

It's claimed that tenseless languages tend to default for the perfective,
with Mandarin cited as a typical example. The idea is that the default
viewpoint is expressed inflectionally and contrasts with the progressive.
But Mandarin actually has 3 morphemes that appear verb-finally and that
contrast with each other: -le and -guo, both perfectives; and -zhe, an
imperfective. Since there is an inflectional contrast between perfective
and imperfective, the binary account is simply incorrect for Mandarin;
and for Navajo, and other tenseless languages. The approach thus fails
to explain the many systems in which imperfective and perfective
contrast inflectionally: a progressive-perfective binary split leaves out
imperfectives which are not progressives.

I should like to state briefly my own notion of aspectual default. I
have suggested that some languages have a Neutral viewpoint: it arises by
default in sentences that have no aspectual morpheme. The Neutral is
thus a default aspectual viewpoint. Neutral viewpoints arise in the
following circumstances: when viewpoint morphemes are optional,as in
Mandarin; when a system has no aspectual morphemes in certain tenses,as in
the French future; when a language has no grammaticized viewpoints,
 as in Finnish and Icelandic. The Neutral viewpoint differs from
other viewpoints. I support this claim empirically with semantic tests in my
book. I investigate the aspectual interpretations of sentences without an
aspectual morpheme and show that their range of interpretation corresponds
neither to the perfective nor the imperfective range. There is also a
theoretical basis for the default neutral viewpoint. Viewpoint makes all or
part of a situation available for semantic interpretation, so that every
sentence must have an aspectual viewpoint. This notionn of default
is based on the aspectual interpretation of sentences within a
general theory of aspectual meaning. It is quite different from that of
DeCaen, in which default seems close to the traditional notion of an
unmarked, defeasible value.

The role accorded to pragmatics differs in the DeCaen approach (which
also draws on ideas of Cowper), and in my own, leading to some important
theoretical differences. Consider the distinction between point and interval
in aspectual viewpoints. Perfectives are often associated with punctuality,
imperfectives with intervals. In my view the punctuality of the
perfective is a matter of pragmatic not semantic meaning: it involves
interpretation and context, cf the discussion in Smith 1991, chap 5; also
Comrie, Lyons, Kamp (cited there). I do not think is's possible to
maintain that perfectives are semanntically punctual. Therefore I reject the
claim of DeCaen and Cowper thta one can identify a default viewpoint in an
aspectual system according to the criterion of a two-valued semantic
feature, punctual vs interval, and its inflectional or non-inflectional
expression as an aspectual viewpoint.

Finally, I would like to respond to the review of my book concerning the
nature of an aspectual parameter. The dimensions along which aspectual
systems vary constitute the different settings of the parameter.
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