Working on the perfect aspect with Lionel Emil on the left and Gray Kaltap̃au on the right. (Photo credit: Rosey Billington)

In the last few months I have been working extensively on the part of my PhD thesis in which I analyze the semantics of the perfect aspect. Perfect aspect is a grammatical category found in English in a sentence like I have been to Paris  or I have been working. What is surprising about this category is its unusual semantic distribution in English. For instance, the meaning I have been to Paris  is set in the past while I have been working refers to the past and the present. For this reason some linguists have proposed we are dealing with a category that is polysemous, which means it incorporates several different meanings.

In my work I focus on Nafsan and a few other Oceanic languages which typically lack many grammatical categories found in English. In Nafsan there is no clear grammatical distinction between past and present, and the future can be translated as both ‘will’ and ‘might’. Thus, Nafsan is a very good case study of how time is encoded in a language very different from English. Surprisingly though, according to my research, in the case of the perfect aspect, Nafsan behaves very similarly to English! The Nafsan grammatical word corresponding to the English perfect simply occurs in almost the same semantic environments!

These findings have important consequences for current theories about the semantics of the English perfect. While many linguists argue we are dealing with a highly polysemous and English-particular category, we might in fact be dealing with a universal linguistic category.

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