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Origin of literary tenses

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Origin of literary tenses

Postby vir litterarum » Sat Jan 23, 2010 6:37 am

Does anyone know how the simple past developed into a tense that was only used in formal literary registers in French and German?
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby spiphany » Sat Jan 23, 2010 9:44 am

Interesting question. Perhaps this summary might help?
http://www.linse.uni-due.de/linse/esel/ ... utsch.html
It seems that the compound past developed significantly later than the simple past, but eventually began to replace it in the spoken language. So I would surmise that the use of the simple past in literary sources may be due to the conservative nature of written style?

This article might be worth checking out:
Abraham, Werner (2005): Präteritumschwund und das Aufkommen des analytischen Perfekts in den europäischen Sprachen: Sprachbundausbreitung oder autonome Entfaltung? In: Eggers, Eckard; Schmidt, Jürgen Erich; Stellmacher, Dieter (Hgg.): Moderne Dialekte – neue Dialektologie. Stuttgart: Steiner, 115-133.
IPHIGENIE: Kann uns zum Vaterland die Fremde werden?
ARKAS: Und dir ist fremd das Vaterland geworden.
IPHIGENIE: Das ist's, warum mein blutend Herz nicht heilt.
(Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris)
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby vir litterarum » Sat Jan 23, 2010 4:36 pm

Thanks for the link. It just seems to me to be a severe problem for the German vernacular: it only has one tense where ancient Greek has 3, and Latin 2. At least French still has the Imperfect in addition to the composite past. I really don't understand the need for literary tenses; the whole concept just seems nonsensical to me: what does time and aspect signification have to do with formality?
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby spiphany » Sat Jan 23, 2010 5:24 pm

I'm not entirely certain that it really is an aspect distinction at this point. More a matter of a compound vs. synthetic verb form. (Why does Am. English require that you insert a 'do' in most questions and negative sentences? It has nothing to do with aspect, but rather syntactic rules which want to place the main verb after the subject. I have a suspicion there may be a related explanation for German)

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).

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).
IPHIGENIE: Kann uns zum Vaterland die Fremde werden?
ARKAS: Und dir ist fremd das Vaterland geworden.
IPHIGENIE: Das ist's, warum mein blutend Herz nicht heilt.
(Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris)
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby modus.irrealis » Sat Jan 23, 2010 6:57 pm

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.
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby vir litterarum » Sat Jan 23, 2010 8:50 pm

This artificial distinction, however, becomes annoying at times in German. Why can I use the simple past of "sein" in conversation but not that of "gehen"? Why is it that the simple past of modal verbs sounds more colloquial than the double infinitive construction with "haben"; shouldn't it be the other way around? The existence of literary tense inevitably leads to stupid paradoxes like these. Besides, shouldn't the simpler construction belong to the vernacular, the more complex to the literary so that the simple past should seem more essentially conversational than the perfect? The whole system creates a mess of silly and unnecessary complications in my mind. Although the lack of tense distinction within German and the onerousness it sometimes necessitates does bother me at times, I could endure it; it's the existence of this completely inane and inutile "literary tense," which in certain exceptions such as in subordinate temporal clauses introduced by "als" and with certain frequently used verbs is used conversationally that at times drives me up a wall.
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Re: Origin of literary tenses

Postby modus.irrealis » Sun Jan 24, 2010 3:18 am

The compound past is the simpler form, or at least it leads to the overall simpler verbal system. Sure, the form of the past participle can be irregular, but you need to know the past participle anyway (for passive constructions, etc.). With the simple past, you have a lot of irregularity that occurs nowhere else, so the overall system is simpler. With French in particular, the simple past is the odd one out in many ways, e.g. the nous-form doesn't even end in -ons, so it's not surprising that it's the one that was lost. And even in general, I would think periphrastic constructions are simpler than inflected forms.

But language communicates more than just the literal meaning, and literary tenses are one way to do that.
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