Iterativity and Contemporary Aspect Selection in Upper Sorbian

Gary H. Toops, Wichita State University

The Upper Sorbian (USo) verb system is characterized by two aspects, perfective and imperfective. The imperfective aspect in USo is the only one capable of expressing eventive (continuous) actions (e.g., praesens actualis) and durative states. Otherwise the synthetic non-past (“present”) tense forms of both imperfective and perfective verbs can be used to express various “abstract” presents, such as the historical present, the gnomic present, the scenic (or dramatic) present, as well as any iterative present. The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, of the iterative past and future.

Iterativity is understood as the repeated, multiple, and/or habitual performance or occurrence of an action. Because verb forms of either aspect can express iterativity, one expects to find, at least in theory, a certain “competition” between different aspectual forms in iterative contexts. Based on data elicited from native speakers of USo in 1996 and 2000, the present paper offers insights into the actual USo distribution of the two aspects in iterative contexts together with a discussion of potential factors influencing the selection of one aspectual form over another. A preliminary assessment of the data collected to date suggests that in present time frames, the USo literary language prefers imperfective verb forms to perfective ones in iterative contexts by a ratio of almost 3 to 2 (60% vs. 40%), while in colloquial USo the choice between imperfective and perfective verbs is virtually even and dictated almost entirely by lexical considerations. There is some evidence to suggest that aspect selection in literary USo is affected by certain “Slavicizing” norms that are largely unobserved in the contemporary colloquial language. In past and future time frames, however, the distribution of the two aspects is very different, with the perfective being by far the preferred aspect in both literary and colloquial USo. The present paper advances the novel hypothesis that this phenomenon can be explained in terms of an innovative USo correlation between temporal boundedness (roughly a morphological, albeit deictic, counterpart to A. V. Bondarko’s “external limit”) and aspectual boundedness (Bondarko’s “internal limit”). According to Bondarko, an “internal limit” is inherent in any perfective verb form, while “external limits” find lexical expression in various adverbials of time (mostly duration). Past- and future-tense forms are formally marked for temporal boundedness relative to the moment of speech (speech event): past-tense forms express a temporal end (anteriority), while future-tense forms express a temporal beginning (posteriority). Because the present tense is temporally unbounded, iterative actions are more likely to be equated with durative states and, accordingly, more likely to be expressed by imperfective verbs in present time frames than they are in past or future time frames.


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