So often here and elsewhere I’ve recounted the hilarious presentation at ACTFL, not meant to be hilarious, on the preterit and imperfect in Spanish. The huge crowd, I estimated it at 200, burst into contentious argument almost immediately when the presenter put up several examples of debatable preterit or imperfect choices. I noted that not only was this crowd of Spanish teachers, who routinely covered their students’ worksheets in red check marks for making the “wrong” choice, arguing vehemently among themselves, but even a pair who appeared to be native speakers could not agree.
In linguistics, the distinction is labeled aspect and the preterit is the perfective aspect and the imperfect the imperfective aspect. I have yet to read Comrie’s book, Aspect, so I cannot say that all languages have a similar distinction but I would imagine most do. What has drawn linguist’s attention to the topic is the Russian language. I do not understand why that is b/c the Romance and Germanic languages have such a distinction as well. In these languages the aspects are labeled tenses although both are past tenses. Perhaps it is that Russian features aspect choice in the future tense as well and that most Russian verbs have two forms, one imperfective and the other perfective. Urdu has a feature called vector verbs and they lend a perfective aspect to an action. A book I mentioned earlier compares aspect in the Slavic and Indic languages (Aspect and Meaning in Slavic and Indic by Ranjit Chatterjee). He gives an example of how forms with the same reference can yet differ in discourse: : Czech Kdo vam to shil? and Ushil to pekne! Who sewed you that (dress)? and He sewed it beautifully! This example is what I would like to examine.
If I am not mistaken it is J. Forsyth in his “A Grammar of Aspect” who up front shows that the classic school textbook definition of the perfective as designating a completed action does not work if the speaker is not emphasizing the completion of the action but rather just labeling the action in general e.g Kto eto pisal = who wrote this? Yes, the action has clearly been completed as has the action of sewing in Who sewed you this? but that is not the emphasis; the emphasis is on the action, on the sewing or writing.
OTOH, in Ushil to pekne, we see a hallmark of the perfective, emphasis on a result. Now the action of sewing is defined, limited, and specific, therefore the perfective is called for. IOW, the perfective comes into play when we go from the general to the specific, from the general to the result, from the general to the limited as in to a specific quantity. An example of the latter would be “We went to the cafe and drank a couple of cups of coffee” where ‘drank’ would be perfective. But in “We went to the cafe and drank coffee”, the ‘drank’ could be in the imperfective since the focus is on the action of drinking, not on how much was drunk. Of course, it could also be perfective if the emphasis was somehow on the end point of the action of drinking, e.g. “We drank coffee and then left”, i.e. two separate actions, each one reaching an end point. Note that “went” would be perfective in both b/c the end point, reaching the cafe, was clearly called for in order to be able to drink coffee.