In (literary) French there is still an aspect distinction in that you still have to use the passé composé where (roughly speaking) English would use the perfect. My understanding is that there was a slow weakening of the perfect -- first people would use the perfect for events that happened that same day because there's still some relation to the present (like if we could say at night "I have gone to the doctor this morning") and then for recent events and then for any past event (I've read that Italian is going through a similar process). And like spiphany said, the literary language is just more conservative and changes more slowly.
spiphany wrote:Incidentally, there is a phenomenon known as the doppeltes Perfekt (along the lines of "Er hat ihn gesehen gehabt") in some dialects. One possible explanation of this suggests that it is developing as compensation for the disappearance of the simple past for haben and sein in many southern German dialects (in northern dialects they are retained).
Some French speakers have a formally equivalent form, although it seems the meaning would be different. In literary French there's a distinction between "avait fini" and "eut fini" (both "had finished" but with an aspect difference), and some speakers now have "a eu fini" for the latter (which makes sense since you replace the simple past with the composed past everywhere else), but in standard spoken French there doesn't seem to be a good equivalent. In fact, I often see "eut" used for this in a lot of material that is otherwise not literary at all, something which really surprised me when I first came across it.
BTW, I don't see why the lack of a perfect/imperfect distinction should be so serious. If I were to tell someone -- in English -- what I did the other day I suspect 90% of the verbs I used would be in the simple past. The progressive and perfect tenses are useful for indicating time relative to something else, but there are other ways to indicate this relation (participles, subordinate clauses, adverbs).
I agree. I'm a fan of the idea that languages don't differ so much in what they can say, but in what they must say. So in English you have to mark main verbs for tense, but the majority of time, because of context or other words, that marking is redundant, so languages without tense can get away with it by simply being more explicit in the few cases where it's necessary. But I know for myself that it's very tempting to think that if the language you speak marks something, it's because it's necessary to mark, and languages that don't mark it are lacking something.