Yet another areal/DETAILS

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Wed Mar 3 21:54:59 UTC 1999

Vidyanath Rao wrote :


>BK> Regarding the Japanese -te shimau connection, it is to be noted that
>BK> the completive aspect of this construction applies throughout *all*
>BK> tenses and forms, and is not limited to the past.

-te shimau is of course indicating action type (to finish, which you
can do now, yesterday or tomorrow.  It is not grammaticalized as aspect.
We have only  tabe-ru 'to eat, he eats', tabe-ta "he has eaten, ate",  etc.
;  and we must use periphrastic constructions  to express terminative
action, such as tabe-te shimatta / tabecchatta (how to write colloquial
Jpn.?) :: tabe-te iru /tabeteru "he is eating", just as in English,  Hindi
etc.; Old Jpn. is another question.

> Of course in RV, the aorist stem is used
>in the moods also, even if sigmatic optatives and imperatives are
>extremely rare.
Well, sigmatic maybe; this is just *one* of a handful  of Aor. formations;
but there are subj., opt., imper. (and injunctives) of the Aor. (and
Perfect). All  listed, according to contemporary understanding in
MacDonell, Vedic Grammar, now some 90 years old.


>JS> [Witzel] has also alluded, again silently, to another feature ...
>JS> namely that it implies a negative result;
>BK> The feature of undesirability [...] is not always present [in the
>BK> past].
It is the problem when certain aspects (sorry: feelings, speaker's ad hoc
interpretations) get in the way here. Of course, it is 'negative,
undesirable', if you say "I have (just) done this or that" (wrongly),  with
Jpn. (tabe)-cchatta. Such incidental 'meanings' (sub-functions) express
only a *secondary*  function of terminative action, and have to be
distinguished from the *main* function, which can never be found out by ad
hoc examples, also not by native speakers, but only by studying a large set
of cases and by comparing them IN CONTEXT (as done in Hoffmann's

>Now my confusion is back. Will the -te shimau construction be used to
>translate ``The king has arrived!''?
My gramm. feeling says, no:  (*ki-te shimashita/ shimatta, kicchatta, or
probably worse, *tsuite shimatta, tsuicchatta ???)  --  But I am not a
native speaker. --  ki-ta, ki-mashita, tsuki-mashita, tsui-ta would be
enough   (since 'to arrive, come' already is terminative ...)
We have to check modern Jpn. grammar books.


>Jan Gonda (The aspectual functions of the Rgvedic present and aorist) ...
>gives a long list of aorists that occur with imperfects.
(See immediately below)

> Remoteness distinctions, in some languages that
>have them, is not usually applied in narrative contexts.

The opens another can of worms. In such cases we can use the Vedic
injunctive, or "neutral" forms such as the Jpn. 'present' (taberu), or the
Turkish 'aorist' - since, in certain languages,  WITHIN a tale, it is not
necessary to indicate each time that the happenings are  remote, long ago,
past... Cf. the 'historical present'  or Skt. narrative literature where
tales can begin with  asti  "(Once upon a time) there was ...  < from
older: asti sma... or (the even IE type)  AsIt (rAjA...) ...

>  even closely related
>dialects may differ on whether the distinctions are strict and
>obligatory or based on the subjective conception of the speaker.

Or the poet! -- That is what makes RV interpretation difficult (and what
threw Gonda off the track).
Of course, you can state the same thing (Indra slew the dragon) in various
ways, -- whether you tell your listeners a fact (a-han, impf.), or you just
mention it (han, injunctive) since they know it anyhow, or  whether you
stress that he has killed him off (jaghAna, perf.), or theoretically, he
has just now killed him again, at the New Year's ritual, or in some
god's/poet's contemporary narration (aor.).
In Vedic prose the aspectual distinctions are much easier to see, as tales
are told straightforwardly. And here we get a clear distinction between
"the Rsi came (quite some time ago)" or "he came (just now)."
Note, again, that  remoteness/nearness is a Vedic development. (And it
probably changes over time, another can of worms, unstudied, see my
preliminary notes in Tracing Vedic Dialects, in : Les dialectes indiennes,
ed. C. Caillat Paris 1989)

>MW> * imperfective aspect ( expressed by present stem, e.g. imperfect:
>MW> a-ga-ccha-t; type of verbs: durative) and
>MW> * perfective aspect (expressed by aorist stem, a-gan-(t), ...
>MW> should be translated (Vedic
>MW> exx.) as: "he came :: he has come just now." Panini knows that.
>Remoteness distinctions have nothing to do with aspect.

See above. The 'meaning'/function  ('just now') of the Vedic Aor. is a
special development
of Vedic on its way away from Indo-European.  I speak about Vedic, not IE.

>In languages
>that have both, remoteness distinction may be limited to the perfective
>.... I have not heard
>of an example in which remote past = imperfective and recent past =

This must be a misunderstading of terminology. The gramm.
'meaning'/function remote past is espressed by the Vedic past 'tense' (=
imperfect 'tense') which is part of the present stem which signifies
imperfective aspect (durative action).
This kind of terminology is definitely confusing. We have to distinguish
grammatical function  ('remote past', 'recent past') from grammatical forms
("tenses",  verb stems), the underlying meaning of verbs (Aktionsarten such
as durative, terminative,fientive ) and their grammaticalization as aspects
(pres./aor. stems).
In short lexical meaning : grammatical function  :  grammatical form.
Otherwise we get the mess we have seen so far.

But V. Rao's query above (remote past = imperf. ***stem*** (= present stem,
past tense)  is exactly what has happened in  the Vedic past tenses :
Past or Imperfect (from present stem = imperfect. stem) ::
Aorist (= perfective stem);
Vedic prose has zillions of cases (we would have  to look some of them  up;
I am on sabb. leave and writing from home and from memory)
 Such reading  will show exactly  what K. Hoffman says and what I
translated above.

> a stage between PIE and Vedic in which the
>imperfect is an imperfective limited to remote past and narration while
>aorist is perfective in those context and is also used for recent past
>and statements (without regard to aspect?). Without a living example,
>this sounds too ad-hoc.

Living examples in Vedic prose (Maitrayani, Katha, Taittiriya Samhita etc.)

>There is also a reason why I don't want to assume a priori that the root
>and sigmatic forms were used suppletively from the beginning:
>... the distinction between the imperfect
>and aorist is fuzzy in RV [Elizerenkova)

For IE, see above; then:  Well, we know that RV poetry is not a
straightforward "report" of what Indra etc.  did... Better to check prose
texts ...
Or make a detailed interpretation of hymns which come close to it, such as
the Pururavas hymn (RV 10.95, in the discussion by K. Hoffmann, Der
Injuktiv; don't use W. O'Flaherty's transl!)  In such hymns you can see the
distinction, though I now see,  in 10.95 mostly impf., perf., and
injunctive.  (Impf./Past.: of past experiences, AsIH , AzRNoH, anu Ayam,
Asata, avardhayan, atrasan etc.  ::  Aor. prAkramiSam, of statement?; --
especially nice, the distinction, based on meaning of verbs in the diff.
pres./aor. injunctives used: mA  mRthAs, mA  pra paptas, mA  kSan!)

and this has been attributed
>[Watkins?] to an original unmarked status of root forms. I don't think
>that it is accidental that classifying root forms of RV sometimes gets
>quite complicated.

see above:  --The IE unmarked root = action type, is classified as
pres./aor. stem.    See Rix's vol.
Then classification becomes easier.

>MW> What about ... even the English
>MW> forms in -ing ( I was sitting :: I sat)??? (and colloquial N.W. German).
>>English -ing is a progressive.

well 'progressive' is the type of action that is expressed by imperf.
aspect (if grammaticalized).  See above.  -ing  is an Aktionsart, not
*grammaticalized* aspect.
I was giving examples  in the context of a hypothetical peculiarity of the
INDIAN LINGUISTC AREA, where we find a lot of Aktionsarten that underly the
grammatical function "aspect".

The past limited  discussion (4 people?) has shown, that no one is very
clear what he/she means by aspect, terminative, tense, (original)
grammatical system and periphrastic forms, etc.

>MW> I think one of our Amer. linguistic colleagues (who?) medieval
>MW> (Narrative literature: periphrastic constructions)

I now seem to remember  it was Craig Melchert, but where did he publish his


Michael Witzel
        witzel at
Wales Professor of Sanskrit

Dept. of Sanskrit & Indian Studies,
Harvard University                    
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