Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the approach to understanding tense and aspect has been very “top-down”. That is, a label is attached to a linguistic form or structure and that is accepted as its “core meaning.” However, problems then arise when that form is inevitably seen in a different, not completely compatible context, and we are forced to explain why a form that means “X” is being used as though it means “Y.” This becomes particularly dangerous when labels from one language (that may or may not be accurate) are used in the analysis of another.
One such case is presented here. Traditionally, the te-iru form of the verb in Japanese has been called the “progressive.” This is largely because of two facts: 1) it covers, for the most part, the same range of meanings and uses of the English progressive be-ing, and 2) it shares structural similarity in that it is a derived form of the verb, V-te, plus a form of the verb ‘be,’ iru. However, as we shall see, labeling te-iru a “progressive” implies much more similarity than actually exists; te-iru also corresponds most closely to the full range of the English perfect, have-en. Our traditional notions have a lot of difficulty accounting for this range of meanings.
The analysis presented in this paper takes a “bottom-up” approach. That is, it examines the range of uses of all three constructions — be-ing, have-en, and te-iru — and characterizes each according to what structure it brings to the verb. Not only does this provide a unified account of the range of uses each has, but the complexity of grammaticality and interpretations fall naturally out of the interaction of simple rules.
The consequence of this approach is that we must alter our views of what is traditionally called “perfect” and “progressive.” In an effort to loosen some of the preconceived notions of tense and aspect and how they relate to specific verb constructions, I will refrain from using labels such as “progressive” and “perfect” and instead refer to the constructions by their phonological forms. Thus the “English perfect” will be called have-en, the “English progressive,” be-ing and the “Japanese progressive,” te-iru.
Section 2 outlines the problem of te-iru in more detail and compares it to be-ing and have-en.
Section 3 proposes the notion of “homogeneous events” to describe the domain to which these constructions belong and provides
a structural account for why we see the variation amongst the forms that we do. Finally, section 4 concludes.
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