Time in Translation

The semantics of the Perfect

What the project is about

Linguists have always been at the forefront of the corpus revolution in the humanities. It still proves hard to bring together the interests of computationally oriented linguists with those of more theoretically oriented ones, though. We argue that progress can be made by applying quantitative corpus methods in the field of semantic micro-typology, in particular by exploiting the possibilities of translation corpora. To do so, we focus on one of the most challenging tense-aspect categories found across languages: the Perfect. Its use at the sentence and discourse level varies across languages, and it competes with past and present tenses. Instead of avoiding this variation, we embrace it to unveil the meaning of the Perfect, using a ‘smart’ integration of quantitative and qualitative methodology in a data intensive approach. Over the next couple of years, we aim to develop a micro-typology of the Have Perfect grounded in a technique we dub Translation Mining (Wälchli & Cysouw 2012), based on translation equivalences between English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish. The analysis has three key ingredients: (i) a semantic map of the sentence-level meanings of the Perfect, (ii) a semantic map of the discourse interaction usages of the Perfect, (iii) an integrated truth-conditional and inquisitive semantics of the Perfect. The project sets a gold standard for the integration of quantitative corpus methods in theoretical linguistics. It is further developed as a basis for new finer-grained analysis of L2 tense/aspect acquisition, to promote inquiry-based learning in the five school languages the project represents and to help translators by means of the development of an online course module and a translation software plugin (MIT license).

For who?

The project offers opportunities for internships and thesis research to BA/MA students of linguistics, artificial intelligence, translation, education and any of the language programmes (English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, possibly others). We hope to extend these opportunities to research on L2 acquisition in the nearby future. Feel free to send an e-mail to one of the project leaders if you are interested in joining our perfect investigations!

Who is involved?

Our team is based at Utrecht University and currently consists of:

Current members

Former members

  • Post-docs: Anja Goldschmidt
  • BA/MA students: Tessa Vermeir (French), Anne Verkleij (AI), Vincent Wimmers (AI), Kieke Swager (AI), Mandy Woelk (French), Miranda 't Hoen (AI), Maria Broekhoff (French), Gerlinde Orsel (French), Eleni Tsouloucha (Linguistics), Konstantinos Askitidis (Linguistics), Ben Bonfil (Linguistics), Aron Theunissen (AI), Morwenna Hoeks (Logic, ILLC), Marziah Bijani (AI), Bjork Westmeijer (AI), Isabel Vis (French), Nikki Evers (AI), Marthe Visser (AI), Helen Brokking (German), David Bremmers (French).


Oct. 1, 2019: Talk at Tenselessness workshop

Chou Mo and Bert Le Bruyn will present a talk at the second Workshop on Tenselessness in Lisbon, 3-4 October. The title is The absence/presence of aspectual markers in narrative discourse in Mandarin. Find the abstract here.

Sept. 11, 2019: Opening post-doc position

Our project has an opening for a two-year post-doc position. Please find all details here and apply by clicking the button at the bottom of the page. The application deadline is October 14. The intended starting date is January 1, 2020 but a later starting date is negotiable.

Sept. 2, 2019: Poster at SemDial

Jos Tellings and Martijn van der Klis will present a poster at SemDial 2019 in London, 4–6 September. The title is Tense use in dialogue, and is joint work with Bert Le Bruyn and Henriëtte de Swart. Download the poster, the accompanying handout, and the proceedings abstract.

Aug. 13, 2019: Student research updated

The student research page has been updated with two bachelor theses on the Perfect in Swedish.

July 17, 2019: TinT in LIN and VakTaal

Our paper titled The perfect in dialogue is now in press with Linguistics in the Netherlands. You can find an early preprint here

In other news, the Dutch magazine VakTaal featured a short article on using translations of Harry Potter to discover variation in tense use across languages. The text will soon be posted here. 

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