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Aspect and tense

Basic Afrikaans tense forms, such as the present tense, preterite and perfect are not specifically marked for aspect though aspect may be indicated by adverbial and other additions. However, a tense form which will be referred to here as present perfect differs from other tenses in having the ability to express anteriority, e.g.

Sy is park toe met haar vriende.
she be.AUX.PST park to.POSTP with her friends
She has gone to the park with her friends.

Present tense
For a discussion on the role of time in language and in the Afrikaans present tense in particular, cf. (De Villiers 1971).

The present tense (Afrikaans presens), consisting of one or more base forms of the verb, is not specifically marked for aspect, but may be employed inter alia to express durative (progressive) (2a) or habitual (2b) aspect,e.g.

a. Hulle speel al heeldag tennis.
they play already all.day tennis
They have been playing tennis all day.
[A durative interpretation is implied by the adverbs al 'already' and heeldag 'all day long'. ]
b. Sy speel professioneel tennis.
she play professionally tennis
She plays tennis professionally.
[The adverb professioneel 'professionally' implies repeated action. ]

Its passive corollary, periphrastically expressed by word become plus past participle, is more markedly durative than the perfect formed by is am, is, are plus past participle. In both instances a habitual interpretation is possible.

a. Tennis word hier gespeel.
tennis be.AUX.PASS.PRS here play.PST.PTCP
Tennis is (being) played here.
b. Tennis is vroeër hier gespeel.
tennis be.AUX.PASS.PST earlier here play.PST.PTCP
Tennis was played here in earlier times.

The Afrikaans “simple past”, consisting of the auxiliary het have, has plus past participle (is am, is, are plus past participle in the passive) is traditionally referred to as a perfect tense (Afrikaans perfek or perfektum). In Afrikaans, however, no formal distinction is made between a simple and a continuous past. The claim by Bybee (1994:83) that if a past tense construction in a given language does not have an imperfective corollary as in the case of was drinking vs drank in English, it can only be a simple past, leads Breed (2016:70, note 10) to the conclusion that Afrikaans, which only has het gedrink have, has drunk to express simple or continuous past, has no perfective construction. (Note that the perfect is not to be confused with perfective aspect.)

The (a)-examples in (4) to (6) below are all perfect tense, expressing a simple past in the active or passive; the (b)-examples all express present tense. None of these sentences is marked for a particular aspect. In no instance a construction in an (a)-sentence is related to one in a (b)-sentence in what might be referred to as anterior or perfective aspect, in other words there is no temporal continuum between het plus past participle and het plus adjective in (4), or is plus past participle and is plus adjective in (5) and (6). In fact, as a spin-off of the regularisation of past participles Afrikaans has developed morphological – and in some cases semantic – differentiation between regularised past participles (in the (a)-sentences) and departicipial adjectives, e.g. gebreek(te)/gebroke broken, gebind(e)/gebonde bound, gesoek(te)/gesogte looked for / coveted, gewaag/gewaagd dared / daring, geseën / geseënd blessed, etc.

a. Sy het die boeke gekoop.
she have.AUX the books buy.PST.PTCP
She bought / was buying the books.
b. Sy het die pakkie gereed.
she have.PRS the parcel ready
She has the parcel ready.
a. Die deur is deur die opsigter gesluit.
the door be.AUX.PASS.PST by the caretaker lock.PST.PTCP
The door was locked by the caretaker.
b. Die deur is ongelukkig gesluit; gebruik 'n ander ingang.
the door is unfortunately locked.ADJ use.IMP an other entrance
Unfortunately the door is locked; use another entrance.
a. Haar hart is gebreek deur hierdie voorval.
her heart be.AUX.PASS.PST break.PST.PTCP by this incident
Her heart was broken by this incident.
b. Sy is gebroke as gevolg daarvan.
she is broken.hearted.ADJ as result PN.of
She is broken-hearted as a result of it.

As a periphrastic construction, the perfect is deictically marked as distal (simple past tense; modal counterfactuality) in relation to the present or factuality, but not aspectually in relation to the present. The perfect may however express completion, perfectivity or termination through adverbial modification (e.g. klaar already) or by means of the Aktionsart (lexical character) of the verb in question (e.g. afmaak shrug off):

a. Sy het klaar / reeds / al oorsee gegaan.
she have.AUX already / dito / dito overseas go.PST.PTCP
She has already gone overseas.
b. Hy het die verhaal as onwaar afgemaak.
he have.AUX the story as untrue off.make.PST.PTCP
He has rejected the story as untrue.

The preterite (or imperfect) form was was, were and the modal preterites sou would, moes must, kon could and wou wanted to are frequently used in Afrikaans. When not expressing modal senses, the modal preterites are employed as simple past tense forms and do not express imperfectivity or other aspectual values, e.g.

Sy kon gister haar enkelspeltitel verdedig.
she can.AUX.MOD.PRT yesterday her singles.title defend.INF
She was able to defend her singles title yesterday.

Present perfect
There is one residual construction in Afrikaans with a double time reference that merits the aspectual description of anteriority, namely is am, is, are plus a directional adverbial or prepositional phrase. This resembles the perfect of the Dutch mutative or unaccusative construction with gegaan gone as past participle and zijnbe as auxiliary and expressing movement or change, but differing from the Dutch construction through obligatory ellipsis of the past participle gegaan gone. This gives rise to a contrast between a perfect expressing a simple past, not marked for aspect (9a), a present perfect with anterior aspect (9b) and a perfect expressing terminative aspect by virtue of the addition of the adverb al already (9c).

a. Hulle het huis toe gegaan.
they have.AUX home to.POSTP go.PST.PTCP
They went home.
b. Hulle is huis toe / die bos in / die berg op, etc.
they be.AUX.PST home to.POSTP / the bush in.POSTP / the mountain up.POSTP
They have gone home / into the bush / up the mountain, etc.
c. Hulle het al huis toe gegaan.
they have.AUX already home to.POSTP go.PST.PTCP
They have already gone home.

(10a) below is the Dutch equivalent of (9a), and (10b) of (9b):

a. Ze gingen naar huis.
they go.PRT to home
They went home.
b. Ze zijn naar huis / het bos in / de berg op, etc. gegaan.
they be.AUX.PST to home / the bush in.POSTP / the mountain up.POSTP, etc. go.PST.PTCP
They have gone home / into the bush / up the mountain, etc.

While (9a) expresses no more than an event or occurrence some time in the past, (9b) represents an (immediate) past still relevant to the present (‘… and that is where they presumably are right now’) and (9c) indicates an action in the past with specific reference to its completion. While in the case of the (9c) construction the link with the moment of speaking is explicitly severed, the construction in (9b) refers at the same time to a situation at the moment of speaking and the event leading up to it, or anterior (from Latin ante before) to it, and therefore as a construction closely resembles the English present perfect. (9b) would both serve as a reply to “Where have they gone?” and “Where are they?” thus maintaining a causative link between a past action and the present of the speaker.

A construction displaying anterior aspect is therefore defined here as a construction with simultaneous reference to two temporal phases of a single event. Thus while anterior aspect is explicitly present in English have plus past participle constructions (the present perfect and to a smaller or greater extent in the Dutch perfect, viz. hebben/zijn plus past participle), it only features in Afrikaans as a remnant in the is plus directional adverbial construction (with the elliptic past participle gegaan gone).  

Breed (2016:75), following Comrie (1981), demonstrates how four anteriors may be formed in Afrikaans, though only distinguished through adverbial additions: (11a) (adapted) a resultative anterior, (11b) an experiential anterior, (11c) an anterior of persistent situation, and (11d) an anterior of recent past.

a. Hy het die huis klaar gebou.
he have.AUX the house already build.PST.PTCP
He has finished building the house.
[This example evaluates the completion of an action as being still relevant to the present.]
b. Ek het al vantevore saam met hom gewerk.
I have.AUX already previously together with him work.PST.PTCP
I have worked with him before.
[Here the past action is associated with working experience also shared by the speaker.]
c. Ek en Anthony het nog altyd saamgestem.
I and Anthony have.AUX still always together.agree.PST.PTCP
Anthony and I have always agreed.
[In this example past actions testify to a continued relevance to the present.]
d. Haar debuutalbum, As I Am, het pas verskyn.
her debut.album As I Am have.AUX just appear.PST.PTCP
Her debut album, As I Am, has just appeared.
[The past action owes its relevance to the present through its proximity in time. ]
  • Comrie, Bernard1981Language universals and linguistic typologyOxford UKBlackwell
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