In this article we discuss one way in which languages are different. I start off with some philosophizing then get into the meat of it. Comment below if you are confused about anything. Oh, and I exaggerated the title. By a lot.

The wonderful thing about having been taught these conceptual tools –the conceptual tools of linguistics – is that it brings me peace. No longer is language learning a matter of “memorization” nor I am ever hopelessly confused. At the worst of times I am very hopefully confused. I know I will figure it out soon enough.

The patterns of language –the meanings that speakers put behind words and listeners understand from them are non-random. Even in the sharp realm of sarcasm, understatement and exaggeration, the linguistic lapidary’s mark is visible. What I mean to say is that everything obeys the rules of human perception and information theory.

Linguistics is the analysis human communication and in being so, it is an analysis of biological systems subject to all the laws of physics, and higher-order fields like game theory and information theory. There are reasons why other languages have weird stuff, just like yours does –it is because you have to communicate data meaningful to human perception.

Perhaps the part of linguistics that has me most fascinated of late is ASPECT. If you have ever wondered why some Turkish verbs are used redundantly like yemek yemek (to eat) or örgü örmek (to knit) then most certainly you have come across one of the products of ASPECT. If at the same time you have wondered why in English we tack on prepositions like out to words like work to produce new meanings, then, you guessed it: ASPECT. If you were ever confused bu Spanish conocía versus conocí, then a misunderstanding about ASPECT was the cause.

To explain this whole subject would take hours and hours and ultimately to understand takes time and experience, you know like everyflocking other part of human existence. But if you have ever wondered why in Spanish we say “entendí lo que él quería decir”, when we might say “I figured out what he wanted to say” then this short article should serve to take you down into the rabbit hole.

What is ASPECT?

Aspect is the grammatical realization (or NON-realization) of the fact that humans perceive actions and states as different. Be red is not the same as become red. This fact, in English, is marked with A NEW VERB. In Spanish we also use a different verb than “to be” to mark changing and that verb is volver. But in Turkish, because we are cool like that, we use our “to be” verb to mark change.

English Spanish Turkish
State (no change) The ball is red. La pelota es roja. Top kırmızı.*
Change (instant) The ball became/turned red. La pelota se volvió roja Top kırmızı oldu.
*The (olmak, dIr and imek) ‘to be’ verbs are not usually used in the present tense in Tukish.  Instead we know from intonatation and well, the lack of the verb.

  • ENG: The chamelon became green he was pink.
  • SPAN: El camaleón cambió de color. Era verde ahora es de color rosado.
  • TR: Bukalemun yeşildi. Rengini değiştirdi. Pembe rengi oldu.

Why can Turkish do this? Because the verb “olmak” (to be) is reserved for change. It is only used for states when it is the object of another verb. Confusing? This is why studying new languages is great, because you get to understand these relationships.

In English we don’t have a little ASPECT marker to show the difference between “fast, instant” change and long-time beingness (states) IN THE PAST! That’s right. Let’s say that something existed in the past, or at least longer than the period that corresponds with your story about

Will sell you a timepiece because he cares.

Tim the fake Rolex salesman:

  1. El vendedor de Rolex llegaba a las 3.
  2. El vendedor de Rolex llegó a las 3.

(a.) describes a truth about the past, or some period of the past: he always did this.

(b.) describes a single event, which happened in the past (presumably we have been told which day, year, etc.)

  1. Miguel era muy lindo.
  2. Miguel fue muy lindo.

While these sentences are very badly out of context (as are all linguistic examples and stories in general), they do reflect real ASPECT difference.

(a.) describes a truth about the past, Miguel was handsome.

(b.) describes a single event, he behaved real nice (with someone).

How do you show that you ‘always did something’ rather than ‘just once.’ As you can see from the above example, in English we have to chose a different verb. Sometimes these original aspectual difference create totally new meanings (behave versus be). Depending on the language, language register and situation, we might attach an ending, change the verb, choose a different grammar altogether (adjectives anyone?) or just plain not draw a difference and let you guess:

English Spanish Turkish
Past state (repeats, describes a big period) I went to the store everyday Iba a la tienda todos los días. Giderdim her gün
Past event (one off thing) I went to the store yesterday. Fui a la tienda ayer. Gittim dün.

These differences in coding the same IDEA with different MARKERS and WORDS is the stuff of language difference and inherited culture. In English we leave you to interpret whether some past thingy is a (1) repeated event, (2) a state or (3) a single action or change. When feeling helpful we add time adverbs like “everyday” or “yesterday” but if we know that you know what we mean, we don’t bother. You inherit the basic framework for saying everything you say and understanding everything to manage to extract from other’s words.

In the ‘action’ example Morris shows up. Pretend you are telling your friends to notice, hey, Morris is here! In the second Morris is already there and the friends presumably are talking by phone about his being there.

English Spanish Turkish
Action, instant Morris is here! Morris ha llegado! Morris geldi!
State, no change Morris is here. Morris está aquí. Morris burada.

Each language has conventions for how we mark changes, states, processes. In Turkish non-finishing processes often have a redundant verb structure “yemek yemek” to eat. Fail to speak like this and people look at you funny –trust me I have unwillingly tested this many times.

Spanish and Turkish mark past state/habits differently from past finished changes/events. (see above examples!)

In English we used so-called prepositions to mark that processes have become fast state changes. For example: work is a process, but work out has an outcome. Likewise, sell is non-ending process (especially in America) but sell out is an outcome (no more NorthFace coats to help you brave Florida winters).

This analytical lens called “ASPECT” can help you figure out many language differences and patters. Often, ASPECT gets mixed with other parts of language such as TENSE (there are only three: 1. now, 2. before, 3. after ). But this is a conversation for an other time.

Let me leave off by saying each thing we say is a suggestion of meaning. Each little tool we use helps us guide out listeners to ‘get’ what we intend to say. The tools available to us vary by language, social class and the sort of experiences/education we received. Scientists will bring in science-y tools to their everyday language to describe stuff –often states. Spanish-English bilingual speakers will use code switching to enrich the conversation by mixing languages thus making uses of more language tools, more named entities etc.  Estaba muy pissed off con él porque me había mentido acerda de su date con María.

I dream of the day when I can hang out with functional trilinguals of Spanish/English/Turkish because we will then share a wide range of tools, para kendimizi daha mejor expresarnos.

NOTE:

In the examples I shared in this article, I did not explain the difference between two different kinds of aspect. I mostly showed something called grammatical aspect. Roughly, this means marking the duration of an event in time. However, there is lexical aspect: roughly, the inherent duration of events. You perceive “to live in Chile” as having no clear end and lasting longer than “to fall off the bike.” In a future article we will draw a better distinction between the two.