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I am working on a conlang and wondering how we can rework the "continuous" aspect, like present continuous, looking for how other languages implement such a grammatical verb feature. Some examples in English are:

The boy is laughing.
My parents are always making me go to school!

Chinese seems to have:

  • 现在 - xiàn zài - now
  • 此刻 - cǐ kè - at the moment
  • 目前 - mù qián - at present, currently

As in one example:

他现在过得怎么样?
Tā xiànzàiguò dé zěnme yàng?
How is he doing now?

But I don't speak Chinese yet, still working with English. What are 2 or 3 examples from some other non-English language which have the continuous aspect _without the verbs "to do" or "to be" around them, like we have in English?

I would like to say:

He eating.
He wearing clothes.

Why do we need the "to be" as in is in there to make it sound right in English? Is that just an English quirk? Are there languages that have it exactly like I've written? Or even better, where the -ing is itself also a separate word/particle, like in this pseudo-gloss:

He eat <ASP.continous>

I think Chinese has continuous aspect separate, but not sure about the "to be" part preceding it.

Are there languages which do continuous aspect very differently than even these 2 approaches I've described? For example, maybe they have a new word instead of a "to be" form prefixing the main continuous verb, or perhaps they do something else entirely.

I guess I could also ask the same for the perfect aspect, if there are languages which don't precede verbs with "to have" in this context.

"I have always guided him".

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3 Answers 3

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Note that continuous aspect is kind of optional. Many languages don't express it at all by default, though there are always means to express it when emphasised or needed. Here's an example from a natural language (German):

Er geht zur Schule "He goes to school" (habitual)/ "He is going to school" (continuous); depending on context.

Er geht gerade zur Schule "He is going to school right now" (continuous aspect emphasised through the adverb gerade, here translated as "right now".

In this example there is no special gramatical form for the continuous aspect, it is only highlighted by use of an adverb. Note that gerade also works in other tenses, like

Er ging gerade zur Schule, als ... "He was going to school, when ..."

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English has two main ways of indicating the tense/aspect/mood/etc of a verb.

Mood (a real event vs a hypothetical, etc) is indicated by a word at the very beginning of the verb phrase: can, should, might, may, etc. Future time is also indicated this way ("will"). Past vs non-past doesn't get an explicit marking here, but the next verb after this point in the sentence changes its form, so syntacticians generally say there's an invisible element which exists in that position and tells the next verb to change its form. This position in the sentence is generally called "T", for "tense".

Aspect and voice, on the other hand, are indicated by auxiliary verbs in between "T" and the verb: it was written, it was being written, it had been being written. This position in the sentence is sometimes called "Aux", for "auxiliary".

Some syntacticians claim that this is universally true. All languages work like English and have a "T" position and an "Aux" position and the "Aux" position is used to indicate aspect and voice. According to these syntacticians, if a language doesn't indicate aspect with an auxiliary, it's because there's actually an invisible hidden auxiliary, it's there but we can't see it. You may have run into these claims before.

Many other syntacticians, though, think this is stupid. Because many languages really don't seem to have auxiliary verbs for aspect like English does. In Latin and Ancient Greek, for example, it's marked directly on the verb:

  • Currebam "I was running", cucurrī "I ran"
  • Ἔφευγον "I was running", ἔφυγον "I ran"

Other languages, such as German (see jk's answer for examples), don't have any explicit marking for this sort of aspect distinction at all.

Still others use something other than an auxiliary verb. Egyptian uses a preposition:

  • jw.f ꜣtp ꜥꜣ.f "he loads up his donkey", jw.f ḥr ꜣtp ꜥꜣ.f "he is loading up his donkey"

Ḥr is a preposition literally meaning "on", derived from a noun meaning "face" or "surface".

If you don't go for the "every language actually works exactly like English" theory (most linguists nowadays don't), I suspect English is in the minority here. Auxiliary verbs for aspectual information show up in some other non-English languages as well, such as Lingála, but most languages either put the marking directly on the verb, or don't mark it explicitly at all.

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  • Would T vs Aux be similar to models with VP and vP? And on the other hand, Minimalism would posit TenseP, ModalityP, VoiceP, AspectP etc?
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 26, 2021 at 1:48
  • @curiousdannii Pretty much. The particular version of minimalism I've studied proposes CP > TP > AuxP (or alternately PerfP, ProgP, PassP) > vP > VP.
    – Draconis
    Dec 26, 2021 at 3:55
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Latvian language uses verb conjugation to indicate "to be" and "to do". In fact, many perceive "to" as a separate concept in English, i.e. they don't perceive "to be" as a unit, which it clearly is.

Examples: Es skrienu. I run. Es skriešu. I am going to run. Es skriedams. In middle of a run, I am. Es skrēju. I did run. Es kļūšu par skrējēju. I will become a runner. Es vēlos būt skrējējs. I want to be a runner.

Analysis of the last example: Es (I) vēlos (wish to) būt (to be) skrējējs (a runner).

Different examples: Es mācīšos. I am going to study. Tu mācīsies? Are you going to study? Mēs mācīsimies! We are going to study. Ja mēs mācīsimies, tad tu mācīsies un es mācīšos. If we are going to study, then you are going to study and I am going to study.

Analysis of last example: Ja (if) mēs (we) mācīsimies (will study), tad (then) tu (you) mācīsies (will study) un (and) es (I) mācīšos (will study).

And this one represents exactly what I mean.

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