Expert meeting 1

7 November, Utrecht


Drift 23, room 0.12.


Time Event/Speaker
10.30 - 11.15 Astrid De Wit
11.15 - 12.00 Adriaan Barentsen

Speaker info (bio, abstract, slides)

Astrid De Wit (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Aspect in performative contexts across languages

Joint work with Frank Brisard (University of Antwerp), Michael Meeuwis (Ghent University), and Laura Michaelis (University of Colorado at Boulder)


Performatives are conceptually special in that they involve illocutionary acts that can be performed simply “by uttering a sentence containing an expression that names the type of speech act” (Searle 1989: 536), as in I (hereby) quit. In English, this special status is grammatically reflected in the marked use of the simple present with performatives, which contrasts with the preference of canonical present-time event reports for the present progressive (cf. *I talk right now versus I promise to quit). Assuming a perfective aspectual value for the English simple present, this is indeed remarkable: in English as well as cross-linguistically, present-time events cannot normally be reported by means of perfective constructions (De Wit 2017). However, any initial conclusions one might draw from these facts about English performatives will immediately be challenged by conflicting observations from other languages: Slavic languages, for one, hardly ever use perfective aspect in performative contexts (Dickey 2000).

In this study I chart the aspectual characteristics of explicit performative utterances in a diverse sample of sixteen languages on the basis of native-speaker elicitations. I conclude that, as expected, there is not one single aspectual type (e.g., perfectives) that is systematically reserved for performative contexts. Instead, the particular aspectual form of performative utterances resorted to in a given language is epistemically motivated, in the sense that a language will turn to that aspectual construction which it generally selects to refer to situations that are fully and instantly identifiable as an instance of a given situation type at the time of speaking. I use Croft & Poole’s (2008) method of multidimensional scaling to demonstrate this: regardless of the exact value of a given aspectual marker, if it is used to mark performatives, then it also commonly appears in the expression of states and habits, which have the subinterval property (they can be fully verified based on a random segment), demonstrations, and other special contexts featuring more or less predictable and therefore fully and instantly identifiable events. I show, furthermore, that performative utterances do not normally feature progressive aspect (as in English), since progressive constructions are dedicated to the expression of contingent – i.e. not instantly verifiable – situations. Attested occurrences of progressive performatives in English (De Wit & Michaelis ms.) are analyzed as exceptions that prove the rule, since these occurrences systematically involve performatives that diverge in a way from canonical performatives, and that are thus construed as contingent.

Croft, William & Keith Poole (2008). ‘Inferring universals from grammatical variation: Multidimensional scaling for typological analysis’, Theoretical Linguistics 34: 1-37.
De Wit, Astrid (2017). The Present Perfective Paradox across Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
De Wit, Astrid & Laura Michaelis (ms.). ‘Progressive performatives in English’.
Dickey, Stephen M. (2000). Parameters of Slavic Aspect: A Cognitive Approach. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Searle, John R. (1989). ‘How performatives work’, Linguistics and Philosophy 12: 535-558.

Adriaan Barentsen (University of Amsterdam)

Using a parallel corpus in comparative Slavic aspectology


The importance of Aspect (Perfective (pf) vs. Imperfective (ipf)) as a central category of the Slavic verb is well known. Less known is the fact that in a number of cases there exist rather significant differences between the Slavic languages in choosing the proper aspect. Until quite recently assumptions about the nature of Slavic aspect in the typological literature were mostly based on data from aspect use in Russian. However, during the last decades it has become evident that there exist systematic differences between an Eastern (Russian, Belo-russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian) and a Western (Czech, Slovak, Sorbian and Slovene) group of the Slavic languages, with Polish and Serbian/Croatian as transitional areas. Usually these differences are connected with the fact that in the Eastern group there are more possibilities of using ipf aspect for describing total events (achievements, complete accomplishments etc.) The general picture and some of the most important cases are very well shown by Dickey (2000). But more detailed investigations of various interesting cases are still highly desirable. In the work of our research group on comparative Slavic aspect at the University of Amsterdam we widely use data from the Amsterdam Slavic Parallel Aligned Corpus that I have been developing for more than a decade.

In the paper I will represent the results of one of these case studies: the comparison of aspectual behaviour in the various Slavic languages in sentences like As soon as the telephone rang he (always) immediately took the receiver. (Cf. Barentsen (2008) for a more detailed account in Russian.) In such cases there is an interesting conflict of two factors determining aspect choice: on the micro level (the level of the individual events) there is a very prominent meaning of sequentiality, which usually asks for pf, while on the macro level we have ‘un-bounded repetition’, which in Slavic languages has mostly a clear connection with ipf. To cope with this conflict some Slavic languages systematically use means from other verbal categories and/or choose different forms in main clause and dependent clause. To properly account for these differences one has to divide the Slavic languages in no less than six different groups.

Barentsen, A. A. (2008). “Vyraženiе posledovatel’nosti dejstvij pri povtorjaemosti v prošlom v sovremennyx slavjanskix jazykax” [“Expressing repeated past sequences of events in the modern Slavic languages”], Dutch Contributions to the Fourteenth Inter-national Congress of Slavists, Ohrid, September 10-16, 2008. Linguistics (eds. Peter Houtzagers, Janneke Kals¬beek, Jos Schaeken) (= SSGL 34), 1-36. Amsterdam - New York: Rodopi.
Dickey, S. (2000). Parameters of Slavic Aspect. Stanford: CSLI Publications.