I’ve been doubling down on Greek and Polish lately. And it struck me that they have similar tactics for expressing something we might not be overtly familiar with in English: aspect.
Aspect refers to how an action plays out over time. Typically, that includes notions of whether it was continuous, or complete / finished (telic). In grammatical terms, the opposition is between imperfective (the ongoing sort of action) and perfective (the completed one). It’s something we express in English, but typically we employ a bunch of strategies (and often several words) for it:
- I was eating (continuous, no end point)
- You have eaten (a complete action – the eating started and finished)
- She ate it up (ie., she ate all of it – it’s gone now!)
So far so good; it’s nothing we’re not used to. After all, English does like its wordy, compound verb constructions.
An Intriguing Aspect
On the other hand, Greek and Polish – two languages you might not normally lump together – actually deal with this type of accent extremely similarly and succinctly. Firstly, Polish (and other Slavic) verbs come in aspectual pairs, each one expressing one end of that continuous-complete continuum:
- 🇵🇱 robić (to do – imperfective, continuous, repeated, habitual etc.)
- 🇵🇱 zrobić (to do – perfective, completed action, started-then-finished etc.)
Likewise, Greek has a system of alternating verb roots to express the same:
- 🇬🇷 γράγω (ghráfo, write – root stem, used for imperfective forms)
- 🇬🇷 γράψω (ghrápso, write – dependent stem, used for perfective forms)
As unfamiliar as the system of aspect-within-the-verb can seem at first, when you get used to it, it turns out to be a very economical and elegant way to narrate action. Just a tiny tweak alters the framing of your story:
- 🇬🇷 έγραφα ένα γράμμα (éghrafa éna ghrámma: I was writing a letter – and it wasn’t finished before whatever happened next happened!)
- 🇬🇷 έγραψα ένα γράμμα (éghrapsa éna ghrámma: I wrote, and finished, a letter)
- 🇵🇱 robiłem moje zdanie domowe (I was doing my homework – but didn’t necessarily complete it)
- 🇵🇱 zrobiłem moje zdanie domowe (I did my homework – and it’s complete!)
When first getting to grips with aspect in a new language that makes it explicit, you have to do a quick ‘mental check’ before you narrate events. What happened? Did it finish? Did it carry on? Was it interrupted? It’s the kind of thing that native speakers do intuitively. But, after a while, you start to do that aspect calculation automatically, too.
Luckily, if you also study Romance languages, you have a head start. In Spanish, for example, the difference between the imperfect and the preterite is one of aspect:
- 🇪🇸 escribía una carta (I was writing a letter)
- 🇪🇸 escribí una carta (I wrote a letter)
But it’s the Germanic languages, like English, which have tended to lose their in-verb markers of aspect. English has ended up with just two synthetic (inflected, single word) tenses, present and past; for all the other fancy, nuanced stuff, we need to fall back on our bunch of words techniques.
Aspect can be a tricky thing to get your head round if you haven’t grown up with the concept overtly in your first language. But it’s a fun feature to master, especially for telling stories in your target language(s)!