Aktionsart: a lexico-semantic category and its realization in Spanish

Diego Quesada


A hundred years ago a new term, aktionsart, was introduced in the linguistic literature by Brugmann, who wanted to account for certain features of verbal meaning which could simply not be explained as tense features.' The term led to a fabulous confusion due basically to two reasons; first, it was characterized, in opposition to tense, as the manner in which the verbal action unfolds (Brugmann 1922: 493). This poses from the very beginning the problem of defining what is to be understood as "the unfolding of the verbal action": could it be the way it is viewed? or, is it nothing but the meaning of the verb? Second, no attention is paid in this definition to the linguistic means through which this unfolding of the verbal action is expressed; that is, no language immanent criteria are provided to delimit this category with respect to the concomitant category of aspect. These two problems constitute in fact the Pandora's box which originated with the introduction of the term. Let us go step by step. The first problem arises because the concept is characterized in purely semantical terms, disregarding the fact that language categories are defined in terms of form and meaning. After looking at Brugmann's characterization of aktionsart in punctual, cursive, perfective, iterative and terminative, one recognizes three basic aspects involved: verb meaning, aspect as a grammatical category, and an implicit division of verbs in what later came to be called telicity. Since these three aspects exhibit semantic affinity, it is clear that under these circumstances the term was destined to an unhappy development Symptomatic of this among other things in the literature about aktionsart and aspect are to mention, in accordance with Lucko (1987: 53), a. the identification of perfective aspect with terminativity of states of affairs (and consequently the identification of imperfective aspect with non-terminative states of affairs, b. lack of explicit reference to the limit of the action (terminativity and temporarity were not kept separate), and c. the use of some concepts like objective and subjective as delimitation criteria. Point a leads to the second problem mentioned above, namely that the nature of the linguistic means through which meaning is conveyed plays a crucial role for the postulation and analysis of a linguistic category and the behavior shown by the elements belonging to it. Many works on aktionsart and aspect fail to recognize this important difference and because of semantic affinity either cast everything into the same box under a single label (Meyer 1917, Hermann 1927: aktionsart; Andersson 1982 actionality; Dietrich 1973, Coseriu 1976: aspect) or simply draw • line, labeling aktionsart as plain verb meaning and aspect whatever else appears in the verbal environment, which is not tense (Comrie 1976). It is clear that most of the confusion around the topic lies on a lack of clarity pertaining to what is to be understood as a grammatical and/or lexical category. Thus, in order to determine the nature of the category in question I think it appropriate to depart from a distinction between two basic components of language: grammar and the lexicon.


Spanish; Aktionsart; Periphrasis

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