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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: February 2017

3 - The Perfect as a Category


How universal is the PERFECT category? Should we, with Bybee and Dahl (1989) and Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994), call this category a “gram,” a basic construct found widely in the languages of the world, expressing a fundamental semantic value? Or have we created an expectation that such a category exists because it is part of the temporal-aspectual repertoire of European languages? Are there predictable paths of grammaticalization that perfects tend to follow, or should these be regarded as tendencies, to be triggered by more immediate motivations such as sociolinguistic pressures?

Jacob (1994: 62), in his analysis of the perfects of Europe and of the languages of the world, suggests that it is the inner consistency (“innere Kohärenz”) of the formation of this construction across time and space, especially its persistently recurring uniformity (“immerwiederkehrende Gleichförmigkeit”) in various epochs – in Hittite as well as in Late Latin and Romance – that demonstrates that universal, cyclical processes are in operation and that language contact is thus not a prime factor in the development of the perfects of Europe. To what extent is Jacob justified in claiming “innere Kohärenz” in the formation of the periphrastic perfects of the languages of the world, across time and space? In this chapter, we attempt to answer this question by examining the perfect category from a cross-linguistic perspective, to determine whether it should be regarded as universal or not. In the course of this examination, we assess a number of claims concerning the formation and grammaticalization of the category, especially with regard to the “hodological” (“path-oriented”) approach of studies like that of Bybee et al. (1994).

What the arguments and evidence presented here will reveal is that the perfect should not, in fact, be regarded as a semantically unified, universal category, but that it is better seen as representing an array of related semantic features (CURRENT RELEVANCE, RESULTATITIVE, COMPLETIVE, etc.), available for incorporation into language-specific morphosyntactic configurations. With Anderson (1982), Li, Thompson, and Thompson (1982), Bisang (2004), Wiemer (2004), McFadden and Alexiadou (2010), and others, I claim that it is not so much the meta-category of PERFECT that should be regarded as universal, but rather that it is the more minute, closely related semantic or pragmatic properties that speakers use to construct perfects and related structures according to the cognitive and social pressures they encounter that should be so viewed.

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Language Contact in Europe
  • Online ISBN: 9781139027694
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