Understanding aspect via basic human experience

Laura Janda, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This paper is written within the framework of cognitive linguistics, which presumes (on the basis of empirical research) that all linguistic categories are meaningful, and that meaning is grounded in basic human experience. A corollary is that most (possibly all) linguistic categories instantiate structured polysemy, where related meanings are organized around a prototype. Furthermore, cognitive linguistics recognizes the key role played by metaphor in the architecture of grammar.

Virtually all theories of aspect invoke abstract features (Dickey 2000 and Durst–Andersen 1992 make this point abundantly clear). While the insights of these abstract features are correct, they do not adequately address the range and complexity of aspectual use, and are therefore of limited application, both theoretically and pedagogically. The model of aspect I will propose here departs dramatically from the tradition of abstract features and refers instead to a basic human experience to motivate a series of implications that comport well with the otherwise perplexing distribution of aspectual use.

The use of basic human experiences of concrete objects arranged in space as a source domain to metaphorically organize concepts of time is a robust, well–documented linguistic phenomenon (cf. Haspelmath 1997, which demonstrates this point in great detail on the material of 53 languages representing all major language families on the globe). Slavic aspect appears to be a metaphorical model of this type, based specifically on the basic human experience of sorting things in the world according to texture, opposing hard solid things (like a rock, a block of wood, a pencil, a leaf) to things that are not solid (like water, sand, or smoke; we will call these "substances" for lack of a better term). The polysemy of aspect is patterned after the polysemy of implications motivated by what we know about solids (perfective events) and substances (imperfective events): solids cannot share space with other solids, but substances can share space with both solids and substances (sequencing and simultaneity); only solids have edges and can form thin slices (boundedness and punctuality); holding a solid is inherently satisfying, the same is not true for a substance (result, completion, contracts, failure, attempts, and categorical denial); solids can impose boundaries or potentially inflict harm, whereas substances are soft and spreadable (negation and politeness, and beginning and ending); only substances can stream (determinedness of motion verbs); solids are unique wholes, but substances are non–unique infinitely divisible masses (unique as opposed to constant or repeated acts); from a distance, many solid items can look like a substance, and substances can be held in solid containers (some facts of aspectual derivation). These and other correlations will be explored in the context of illustrative data. The theoretical and pedagogical implications of this model will be discussed as well.


Dickey, Stephen M. (2000). Parameters of Slavic aspect. Stanford: CSLI.

Durst–Andersen, Per. (1992). Mental grammar: Russian aspect and related issues. Columbus: Slavica.

Haspelmath, Martin. (1997). From space to time: Temporal adverbials in the world's languages. Munich: Lincom Europa.