What is the perfect and where does it occur?

The World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) is a useful resource for looking at similarities and differences between languages. I’ve recently looked at WALS to get more information on the verb form known as the perfect. This post is based on Chapter 68 of WALS The Perfect.

Meaning of ‘perfect’ in WALS

Chapter 68 of WALS uses the term perfect for a verbal category used to express events that:

  • took place before the temporal reference point; but
  • still have an effect (or are still relevant) at that point.

Perfects, as defined in that chapter, have at least two related but distinguishable uses:

  • a resultative use—saying that an event in the past (often, but not always a recent event) has results still holding at the time of speech (or other time serving as reference point):
    Kati has already arrived in Budapest [and is still there]
  • an experiential use—saying that a type of event took place one or more times over an interval of time, typically one that extends up to the moment of speech (or whatever time serves as the reference point):
    Kati has been to Budapest at least once [but is no longer there]
    I discussed this use in an earlier post, in the context of Hungarian. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/existential-perfect-in-hungarian

Other uses

Dahl and Velupillai use the above description to define the items they treat as perfect in chapter 68, but they also note that:

  • perfects may have further uses, such as the universal perfect (or perfect of persistent situation):  
    Kati has lived in Budapest since last year. [and still lives there]
  • perfects often develop: evidential uses (discussed in WALS Chapter 77 Semantic Distinctions of Evidentiality). In English this is typical of the perfect progressive: You have been drinking); and recent-past uses (as in several Romance languages).

In an earlier post, I discussed another use of the perfect—the hot news perfect (or perfect of recent news): the president has just been assassinated https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/11/the-president-has-died  

History

Dahl and Velupillai identify 3 sources of perfects:

  • resultative constructions, usually consisting of constructions involving a past participle (or similar form) in predicative position with or without a copula (sometimes called ‘esse- perfects’—after the Latin verb esse (‘be’)—or ‘be-perfects’)
    juna on saapanut [Finnish]
    train is arrive.supine
    ‘the train has arrived’
  • transitive possessive constructions such as I have two letters written (sometimes called habeo perfects -from the Latin for ‘I have’—or ‘have-perfects’). As the example shows, the English perfect is a have-perfect.
  • constructions involving words such as ‘already‘ or ‘finish
    Ó ti ka iwe na. [Yoruba]
    he pfv.already read book this
    ‘he has read this book’

Introducing a new situation: a separate construction?

Some researchers regard the constructions derived from words such as ‘already’ or ‘finish’ as separate from the perfect and as having the main function of introducing a new situation. Those constructions are concentrated in Southeast Asia and West Africa—areas where there is also little or no morphological marking of tense and aspect.

Geographic distribution

From a sample of 222 languages, WALS identifies 108 with a perfect and 114 with no perfect. Of those 108 languages, 7 have a perfect derived from a passive construction (have-passives), 21 are derived from a word meaning finish or already and there are 80 other perfects.

The largest homogeneous areas with perfects are in western Europe and South and Southeast Asia. A high proportion of languages with perfects is also found throughout Africa and in an area comprising Mesoamerica and the northwestern corner of South America. But large areas with virtually no perfects are the rest of South America and Australia.

Have-perfects

Perfects deriving from transitive possessive constructions are found almost exclusively in Europe, as shown on map 1, where:

  • the black line shows the boundary of the area where have- perfects (and constructions based on them) occur.
  • the red line is the boundary of peripheral areas (Portugal and Greece) where less typical ‘have’ perfects are found.
  • the blue line surrounds a central area (France, Italy, German and the Low Countries) where there is a division of labour between be-perfects (used mainly for intransitive verbs of motion and change) and have-perfects.
  • the green line surrounds areas (France, northern Italy, southern Germany) where a have-perfect has developed into a past or into a perfective.
Map 1. ‘Have’ perfects in Europe.
Source: WALS, chapter 68

Past and future perfects

Some languages distinguish present perfects from past perfects (often called pluperfects) and/or from future perfects.

Past perfects tend to use forms that contain mixtures of a past form and a perfect form. For example, in some languages, the past perfect has the same form as the present perfect, except that the auxiliary appears in a past form instead of the present form. Dahl and Velupillai:

  • suggest that this outcome is to be expected in languages that have both a past form and a perfect form.  
  • note that some languages (such as Romanian) have lost the present perfect but still retain a past perfect.

Other posts on the perfect

To see other posts where I talk about the perfect, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/tense-perfect

Source

Östen Dahl, Viveka Velupillai. 2013. The Perfect.
In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.)
WALS Online (v2020.3) [Data set]. Zenodo.
https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7385533
(Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/68, Accessed on 2023-03-01.) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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