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The epistemic import of aspectual constructions: the case of performatives


In this study we chart the aspectual characteristics of performative utterances in a cross-linguistic sample of sixteen languages on the basis of native-speaker elicitations. We conclude that there is not one single aspectual type (e.g., perfectives) that is systematically reserved for performative contexts. Instead, the aspectual form of performative utterances in a given language is epistemically motivated, in the sense that the 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. We use the method of Multidimensional Scaling to demonstrate this: whatever the exact value of a given aspectual marker, if it is used to mark performatives, then it also commonly features 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 instantly identifiable events. On the other hand, our study shows that performative contexts do not normally feature progressive aspect, which is dedicated to the expression of events that are not fully and instantly identifiable.

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We wish to thank three anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments on a previous version of this paper. This work was supported by the National Fund for Scientific Research – FNRS (grant number 1.B099.15F; first author) and the National Fund for Scientific Research – FWO (grant number K8.005.16N; third author). Both institutions are hereby gratefully acknowledged.

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