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Tense and Aspect in Basque
by Martin Haase
The Basque tense and aspect system is complicated by the co-existence of two conjugation types which allow for different oppositions. One is the conjugation of analytically (periphrastically) construed verbs, the default case, the other involves a small number of synthetically construed verbs, which can optionally be construed periphrastically as well.
Here is an example for both conjugation types. The analytical construction consists of a main verb in a non-finite form (here the verbal noun in the inessive case) and a tense-aspect auxiliary (here the present tense of the transitive auxiliary ukan):1
(1) Egi-te-n dut. 'I do it.' do-NOM-IN PRS.3S<1S
Synthetically construed verbs are directly conjugated, i.e. person and tense markers are attached to the verbal root:
(2) Ba-2 d-a-ki-t.3 'I know it.' ENC- 3S-PRS-know-1S.ERG ABS PRS
The following verbs can be construed synthetically:
izan (intransitive tense-aspect auxiliary, 'to be') ukan (transitive tense-aspect auxiliary, 'to have') egon 'to stay, to be' eduki 'to hold, to have' jakin 'to know' ekarri 'to bring' eraman 'to take (to)' joan 'to go (directed)' ibili 'to go (undirected), to wander' etorri 'to come' etzan 'to lie' eritzi 'to think' irudi 'to seem' (third person only) (jaugin 'to come', in the imperative only) (very rare: ikusi 'to see', erabili 'to conduct, use')
In comparison with early records (16th century) the number of synthetically construed verbs has significantly decreased.4
1. Tense-aspect oppositions with analytical verbs
The analytical construction is the only productive pattern, i.e. the analytical verb represents the normal case.
1.1. Using present-tense auxiliaries
(3) Mintza-tze-n naiz. 'I speak.' speak-NOM-IN PRS.1S1.1.2. Present perfect
The combination of the present-tense auxiliary with the participle is used to mark perfect tense. It means that the event expressed by the main verb has taken place a short time ago:5
(4) Egin dut. 'I have done it.' do:PCP PRS.3S<1S (5) Mintza-tu naiz. 'I have spoken.' speak-PCP PRS.1S
It may be labelled "near past" and is incompatible with adverbials, referring to long periods of time or remote past tense:
(6) *Aspaldi-an egin dut. 'I have done it long ago.' long_ago-IN do:PCP PRS.3S<1S (7) *Aspaldi-an mintza-tu naiz. 'I have spoken long ago.' long_ago-IN speak-PCP PRS.1S
(8) Etxe-a(-k) sal-du-a(-k) d(it)u aspaldi-an. house-ART-P sell-PCP-ART-P PRS(PL) long_ago-IN 'S/he sold the house(s) long ago.'
The resultative is used, when the speaker wants to underline that an action or situation in the past is still relevant at the time of speech.
(9) Egin-go/-en dut. 'I shall do it.' do:PCP-FUT PRS.3S<1S (10) Mintza-tu-ko naiz. 'I shall speak.' speak-PCP-FUT PRS.1S
1.2. Using past-tense auxiliaries
1.2.1. Imperfective past
(11) Egi-te-n nuen. 'I did it / was doing it.' do-NOM-IN PRT.1S>3S (12) Mintza-tze-n nintzen. 'I spoke / was speaking.' speak-NOM-IN PRT.1S
1.2.2. Perfective past
(13) Egin nuen. 'I did it.' do:PCP PRT.1S>3S (14) Mintza-tu nintzen. 'I spoke.' speak-PCP PRT.1S
Thus, the formal opposition between verbal noun and participle distinguishes imperfective and perfective aspect in the past, whereas in the present tense it is used for distinguishing simple present and perfect. This is summarized in the following table:
Table 1: present auxiliary past auxiliary inessive verbal noun simple present imperfective past (aspectually neutral) participle present perfect perfective past
The perfective/imperfective distinction is the same as in the Romance languages.
(14) Egin-a nuen. 'I had done it.' do:PCP-ART PRT.1S>3S (15) Mintza-tu-a nintzen. 'I had spoken.' speak-PCP-ART PRT.1S
Of course, the pluperfect can be interpreted as a resultative in the past, as the event in question is always seen to be relevant to another (later) event in the past.
1.2.4. Future of the past
(16) Pentsa-tu zuen mintza-tu-ko nintze-la. think-PCP PRT speak-PCP-FUT PRT-SR 3S>3S 1S 'He thought that I would speak.'
Table 2: present auxiliary past auxiliary inessive verbal noun simple present imperfective past (aspectually neutral) participle present perfect perfective past participle + -ko(-en) future future of the past participle + -a(k), resultative pluperfect (+ -rik / -ta)
Note that the opposition between simple present and present perfect (a temporal opposition) is parallelled by the opposition of imperfective and perfective aspect in the past.
2. Tense-aspect oppositions with synthetical verbs
We can conjugate synthetical verbs (enumerated above) directly, by attaching person and tense markers to the verbal root. They may also be analytically construed. That means that we have an add- itional formal and functional opposition between such verbs con- strued synthetically and the same verbs construed analytically. As we shall see, some tenses and aspects cannot be expressed synthet- ically.
2.1. Synthetical construction
(17) Ba-nago. 'I stay.' ENC-stay:PRS.1S
The unmarked case of a synthetical verb in the present tense would be to construe it synthetically.
(18) Ba-nengoen. 'I stayed.' ENC-stay:PRT.1S
Especially those dialects that have been under long and heavy Romance influence (e.g. the Eastern dialects of Lower Navarra) prefer the analytical construction in the past, whereas in the present tense, synthetically construed verbs may be found to some extent (even in potential and conditional forms). The reason for this may be that in Romance the distinction of perfective and imperfective aspect is obligatory in the past tense. In general, synthetical forms tend to disappear first for the past tense and last in the imperative. Note also that the verbs still showing synthetical conjugation are movement verbs or verbs with stative semantics, i.e. verbs that do not express actions or - more generally speaking - a change of situation. They are verbs where the distinction of perfective and imperfective aspect only makes sense, if special meanings are involved (e.g. 'to know' -> 'to come to know').
2.2. Analytical construction
2.2.1. Using present-tense auxiliaries
(19) Ego(i)-te-n naiz. (instead of: ba-nago 'I stay.') stay-NOM-IN PRS.1S 'I am staying.'
In an appropriate context it may also denote habituality.11
22.214.171.124. Present perfect
(20) Egon naiz. 'I have come.' stay:PCP PRS.1S
The perfect can only be formed analytically.
(21) Joan-a da. 'S/he is gone.' go:PCP-ART PRS.3S
Compare this sentence with the following in the present perfect:
(22) Joan da. 'S/he has (is) gone.' go:PCP PRS.3S
This sentence can have a resultative meaning, but normally refers to an event in the near past (meaning e.g. 'S/he has gone (there) this morning.'), whereas joana da means something like: 'S/he is in the state of being gone.'
(23) Joan-go / (joan-en) naiz. 'I shall go.' go:PCP-FUT go:PCP-FUT PRS.1S
2.2.2. Using past-tense auxiliaries
126.96.36.199. Imperfective past
(24) Joa(i)-te-n nintzen 'I went (was going).' go-NOM-IN PRT.1S
188.8.131.52. Perfective past
(25) Joan nintzen. 'I went / I left.' go:PCP PRT.1S
(26) Joan-a nintzen. 'I went / I left.' go:PCP-ART PRT.1S
184.108.40.206. Future of the past
(27) Pentsa-tu zuen joan-go nintze-la. think-PCP PRT go:PCP-FUT PRT-SR 3S>3S 1S 'He thought that I would come.'
Table 3 (for synthetical verbs only): present past synthetical constr. simple present simple past (aspectually neutral) analytical constr.: inessive verbal noun present progressive imperfective past (habitual) participle present perfect perfective past participle + -ko(-en) future future of the past participle + -a(k), resultative pluperfect (+ -rik / -ta)
3. A word on mood
Although this article is primarily about tense and aspect in Basque, I shall mention mood as well, without going into detail, just to give a view of the whole.
(28) Nahi dut (bera/hura) joan dadi-n. want PRS s/he/that one go PRS.SBJ-SR 3S<1S 3S 'I want him/her to go.' or lit.: 'that s/he goes.'
In this example dadi-n (subjunctive + subordinator) is used instead of de-n (da + -n, indicative + subordinator).
As for transitive verbs, here is an example for the use of deza-n (subjunctive + subordinator) instead of du-en (indicative + subordinator):
(29) Nahi dut (bera/hura) egin deza-n. want PRS s/he/that one do PRS.SBJ-SR 3S<1S 3S<3S 'I want him/her to do it.' or lit.: 'that s/he does it.'
The subjunctive is not used with the participle, but with the non- finite verbal stem, which is homophonous with the participle, if it ends on -n. If the verb has an -i- or -tu-participle (only the latter being productive), the difference becomes evident:
(30) (i) Ikus-te-n du. 'S/he sees (it).' see-NOM-IN PRS.3S<3S (ii) Ikus-i du. 'S/he has seen (it).' see-PCP PRS.3S<3S (iii) Ikus deza-n. '(I wish) that s/he sees (it).'12 see PRS.SBJ-SR 3S<3S
This means that there is no aspectual opposition possible with the subjunctive.
If the main verb is in the past tense, the subjunctive in the subordinate clause is used in the past as well:
(31) Nahi nuen ikus zeza-n. want PRT see PRT.SBJ-SR 1S>3S 3S>3S 'I wished s/he would see / saw it.', 'I wanted him/her to see (it).'or 'I wanted that s/he saw (it).'
3.2. Potential and conditional
(32) (i) Ba-duzu. 'You have it.' ENC-PRS.3S<2S (ii) Ba-dukezu. 'You may possibly have it.' ENC-POT.3S<2S
Inserted into past tense forms, -ke- marks the conditional, which is mainly used in the apodosis of unreal conditional clauses and thus corresponds to the conditional of Romance languages, or of English; note that additionally in modern Basque, the non-finite part of the analytical construction is marked for future:13
(33) Zu-re plaza-n (baldin) ba-nintz,14 (if-clause, protasis) 2-GEN place-IN (if) ENC-SUP.1S egin-go nuke. (then-clause, apodosis) do:PCP-FUT COND.1S>3S 'If I were in your place, I should do it.'
It is commonly thought (and philologically substantiable) that -ke- was originally a future marker. Due to the modal component of the future, it could develop into a mood marker, when a new analytical future came up.
The semantics of the delimitative makes us think that the analytical future was originally restricted to near future (event 'on the edge of' (delimitative!) occurrence).
We have seen that synthetical verbs show a set of tense-aspect oppositions that differ from the tense-aspect oppostions of analytical verbs. The former oppose an aspectually neutral, simple present to a progressive (habitual) one and have an aspectually neutral past tense that does not exist for analytical verbs.
All synthetical verbs are old ones. The number of such verbs has been decreasing over the last centuries up to the point that in some dialects they have almost disappeared altogether. It is plausible to assume that before the first written sources, Basque had had more synthetical verbs. It is even probable that the analytical construction is an innovation that came about in a (pre-) romance language contact situation, most probably originating from spoken Latin. The reason for such an assumption is the structural similarity with the habeo-factum perfect which is typical of vulgar (or spoken) Latin. The Latin construction, which is used instead of the simple past for resultative events, consists of the verb 'to have' (habeo 'I have', at that time pronounced something like /ajo/) and the participle (e.g. factum 'done', habeo factum 'I have done'). Due to language contact this construction has spread into adjacent Germanic and Slavic languages, being otherwise uncommon among the languages of the world which, so far, have not inherited it from European languages. The productive participle ending -tu corroborates the assumption that the Basque perfect construction comes from Latin.
The evolution of the analytical present is comparable to what happens in quite a number of languages:15 In order to denote progressive aspect, the verbal noun is used in a locative case (here the inessive) together with a verb meaning 'to be', i.e. 'to be in/at an action'. The specialty of Basque is that both 'to be' and 'to have' are used with the inessive verbal noun, according to the actant structure of the verb.16 This 'anomaly' with respect to other languages with a structurally similar progressive can be explained by the fact that the distinction of the two auxiliaries is necessary to clearly mark the actant structure.
The progressive meaning gets lost with the decline of a regular opposition between analytical and synthetical forms.
The analytical construction revolutionized the tense-aspect system as a whole. New tense-aspect oppositions evolved (near past vs. remote past, perfective vs. imperfective etc.); a new analytical future was introduced (perhaps a near future in the beginning), which came to stand in opposition to a potential future developing into a merely modal category (potential, conditional). Moreover, the auxiliary suppletion (izan vs. *edin (intransitive, 'to be') and ukan vs. *ezan (transitive, 'to have'), perhaps different verbs once) allowed for a regular distinction of indicative and subjunctive mood.
The following table gives a synoptic view of the tense-aspect system and its evolution. The small (and probably still decreasing) number of synthetical verbs are treated as relicts from Classical Basque and therefore neglected under "Modern Basque":17
Table 4: (S: synthetical construction, A: analytical construction) Stage 0 Stage 1 Stage 2 *Proto-Basque Classical Basque Modern Basque (neglecting S-verbs) present (S) present (S) present progressive (A) perfect (A) perfect resultative (A) (resultative) past (S) past (S) past perfective (A) past perfective past imperfective (A) past imperfective pluperfect (A) pluperfect future (S,-ke-) potential fut. (S,A) (potential) near future (A) future fut. of past (S,-ke-) conditional (S,A) conditional fut. of past (A) future of past subjunctive (A) subjunctive past subjunct. (A) past subjunctive subjunct.-potent. (A) subjunct.-condit. (A)
The present situation of Basque is somewhat in between stage 1 and 2, as it still shows some synthetically construed verbs, incidently less in the past tense. As already said, the reason for this may be the obligatory past perfective/imperfective distinction in the Romance contact languages. On the whole, the stage 2 system comes very near to the Romance system.
We can conclude that the change of the Basque tense-aspect system is contact-induced. The most significant step that made all the other steps follow, was the introduction of the analytical construction, probably on the model of spoken Latin.
If we compare this evolution with what had happened in other spheres of Basque grammar, we find that the tense-aspect system is particularly innovative, Basque morphosyntax being otherwise very conservative.18 A reason for this may be that tense-aspect oppositions have very concrete semantic meaning. This 'semantic load' makes bilingual speakers feel the necessity to transpose structure from one language into the other, all the more as they found 'meaningful' material (e.g. a verb 'to have') which could be translated without much difficulty and thus be used as a basis of structural transpositions ('calques').
Martin Haase, Universitt Osnabrck, Postfach 4469, D-W-4500 Osnabrck, Germany
ABS absolutive ART article COND conditional ENC enunciative ERG ergative FUT future GEN genitive IN inessive NOM nominalizer P plural PCP participle POT potential PRS present PRT preterite S singular SBJ subjunctive SR subordinator SUP suppositive
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