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I am a native English speaker who generally only thinks about tenses in relation to the foreign languages I attempt to speak. I am neither grammarian nor linguist. So it only recently struck me that in English we often (mainly?) use the present perfect for actions that are still going on, e.g.

I have wanted to go to Peking since I was very small.

Meaning ‘I wanted to when I was small and I still want to’. In French, Italian or German this would be expressed quite differently, and the present tense of the auxiliary together with the past participle is general used in these languages as a straight-forward past tense. As the Wikipedia entry for Present Perfect says:

Analogous forms are found in some other languages and may also be described as present perfects although they often have other names such as the German Perfekt, the French passé composé and the Italian passato prossimo. They may also have different ranges of usage, in all three of the languages just mentioned, the forms in question serve as a general past tense, at least for completed actions.

Of course, the Present Perfect in English is sometimes used where the same tense may be used in other languages, e.g.

I have often visited the Louvre.

but differs in requiring a sense of continuation. For a specific time one must use the preterite/simple past:

I visited it only last week.

which is not demanded in French, Italian or German.

My question is how and when did this divergence or development occur in the evolution of the English language or in the languages from which it is derived? For example, does this derive from Anglo-Saxon or Norman French or did it develop later? Are there other European languages that have a usage more closely to that in English?

  • I understand the question. Of the languages you mention the only one I have knowledge of is French. And yes I have wanted to go to Peking for five years would involve using the imperfect Je voulais visiter Peking depuis cinq ans - literally I was wishing to visit Peking since five years. But although I grasp your problem I'm afraid I can't help much with an answer. However I shall be interested to see what the historians of the language make of it. – WS2 Aug 26 '16 at 23:01
  • How do you know this was a development in English and not in German? I suspect these forms in the Romance languages were originally borrowed from German, since they didn't exist in Latin. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '16 at 12:09
  • @PeterShor — I don't. I had intended to mention the ur-germanic language but didn't know what it was called (Proto-Germainic, I see) so I played safe. If the answer turns out to be of that sort, fine. But I'm still interested. It might, for example, be related to the loss of spoken use of the passato remoto in Northern Italian, but not in Southern Italian. – David Aug 27 '16 at 12:43
  • I've added a small section to my question with an example of a slightly different usage of the Past Perfect in English, but again with a contrast to German, French or Italian (I believe). – David Aug 27 '16 at 12:45
  • @PeterShor — The point you make about Latin having a single tense serving as both perfect and preterite certainly raises the question of where the perfect with the auxiliary came from. One would imagine that this would be early in the development of Vulgar Latin into the various Romance languages as they all seem to have it. This must be known, or at least there must be an academic consensus on the matter. Likewise the way the tenses were used in Anglo-Saxon and middle-English. Perhaps a title explicitly about the development in Romance Languages would attract the attention of those who know. – David Aug 29 '16 at 13:11
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Unfortunately I can not help you find out when this divergence occured, I will love to know it. But what I can tell you is that in Spanish you can also use the present perfect in this example with the same meaning 'Yo he querido ir a Pekín desde que era niño' I wanted to go when I was small and I still want to.

  • Thanks for that, Maria. I've just added another example to my question. I wonder whether you can comment on how that relates to Spanish. Also is there any time distinction between the use of the Past Present and Preterite in Spanish as there is between the passato prossimo and the passato remoto in Italian.? – David Aug 27 '16 at 12:48
  • As I told you there is no grammatical difference between Spanish Preterito Perfecto Compuesto (he comido) and English Present Perfect (I have eaten).Normally we use this tense to express an action which has just taken place or to talk about an action that started in the past but is still ongoing or has current relevance.As in English we don't normally specify the moment in which the action has taken place. In contrast, in Spanish we have Preterito Indefinido that is similar to your Past Simple because it implies that the action is completed, finished in a precise time in the past. – María Ascensión Pérez Aug 28 '16 at 9:24
  • But there are some difference between Past Simple and Preterito Indefinido, for example we don't use it to express routines in the past, we use a different tense Preterito Imperfecto (yo tocaba la guitarra cuando era un niño) I played the guitar when I was a boy. – María Ascensión Pérez Aug 28 '16 at 9:33
  • And example of Preterito Indefinido with the same usage as your Past Simple will be : Yo fuí al supermercado ayer, I went to the supermarket yesterday. Because you refer to a finished action in a precise time in the past. – María Ascensión Pérez Aug 28 '16 at 9:44
  • Thanks again. It just struck me that there are certain uses of the Present Perfect in English that are like the passato prossimo in formal Italian and — I presume — the presente perfecto in Spanish. Thus, one can say “I have just finished eating”, although one would say “I finished eating an hour ago”. – David Aug 28 '16 at 10:04

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