The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics Colloquium 3/8 - Lisa Matthewson

Speaker: Lisa Matthewson (University of British Columbia)
Date/Time: Friday 8 March, 3:30 – 5pm
Venue: 32-141
Title: Current relevance meets inchoativity: On what makes a perfect aspect


Here are some big questions: Why do viewpoint aspects (like perfective, imperfective, or perfect) recur in language after language with similar, but not identical, semantics? What if any universal properties are shared by the language-specific instantiations of each aspect? How much variation is permitted, and what do the differences follow from?

In this talk I address a sub-part of the big questions; my goal is to isolate the common properties shared by present perfects cross-linguistically. I concentrate mainly on Niuean (Polynesian), with brief looks at Japanese, St’át’imcets, Russian, Blackfoot, Mandarin and Saanich. Pushing Portner’s (2003) analysis of English to its logical limits, I propose that the present perfect is purely a pragmatic phenomenon, consisting only of a current relevance presupposition. Following Portner, I assume that the other salient property of the present perfect – that it places events within the Perfect Time Span – is derivable from other parts of the grammar.

The claim that perfects contribute only current relevance predicts that current relevance does not have to be associated solely with viewpoint aspect. I show that this prediction is confirmed by Niuean. The Niuean perfect displays current relevance effects and places events within the Perfect Time Span, yet differs from the English perfect in the readings obtained with each Aktionsart. In Niuean, perfect activities or stage-level states can receive a simple present-tense interpretation, perfect individual-level states receive an inchoative interpretation, and there are no universal perfect readings. I argue that all the properties of the Niuean perfect fall out from an analysis of it as an inchoativizer; it adds an initial change-of-state to any predicate. This shows that current relevance can be associated with a process operating at the level of event structure. The analysis of Niuean may also extend to Japanese teiru, as well as several other puzzling aspects cross-linguistically.