Can anyone explain the "Aktionsart" of verbs?

I always used to think that verbs could only be understood in terms of tense (i.e. the time when their action takes place) and aspect (i.e. whether the action is complete or incomplete.)

Recently I have been looking into this in a little more depth, and it turns out that things may be somewhat more complex. According to modern Linguistic theory it seems to be the case that:

1.) Verbal aspect has to do with a speaker or writer’s subjective viewpoint rather than the issue of whether or not the action is ‘complete’. Put another way, it has to do with whether an action is viewed as a whole and (conceptually speaking) from a certain distance, or whether the focus is on the active unfolding of the event.

2.) Aside from tense and aspect, verbs have a third quality which Linguists call “Aktionsart”. This has to do with the nature of the action - is it a ‘one-off’ action? Is it an oft repeated and habitual action? Is there a focus on starting the action? etc.

(This is probably a drastic simplification, BTW :-0)

As a rule I am skeptical about this goop about ‘breaking down’ languages. Yet I must confess that the above does seem to make quite a lot of practical sense to me.

For example, I’ve always struggled to see the logic as to why (in languages like Italian) habitual and oft-repeated actions in the past are considered to be imperfect in their aspect. According to the above thinking, I understand that they would actually be perfect in aspect (i.e. viewed as a whole from a distace) but a series of repeated actions in terms of Aktionsart. This just kind of feels right to me…

However I don’t quite see how this theory would apply to some other examples:

a.) “I have broken the window” - Is this a perfect aspect and ‘one-off’ Aktionsart in present time?
b.) “I broke the window” - Is this a perfect aspect and ‘one-off’ Aktionsart in past time?
c.) “I am breaking windows” - What is the Aktionart of that? Does the time extend into the future?

Can anyone explain this stuff…??

There are only so many hours in the day.

I didn’t suspect you’re into linguistics, JayB! Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist myself, but I happen to have studied linguistics for two years before I quit (maybe I’ll go back there in the future). I recalled the term “Aktionsart” from my studies of German, so you made me go back to my notes from that time. As I’m not formally a linguist (yet), I’m expressing my opinions only.

In German there is distinction between imperfective (durative) and perfective verbs. Imperfective verbs do not say anything about the beginning or ending of a given action, like “essen”, “schlafen”, “arbeiten”. Then imperfective verbs can be further broken down into categories, like frequentative verbs (“flattern”, “gackern”, “streicheln”), intensive verbs, diminutive verbs etc.

Perfective verbs, on the other hand, do indicate the beginning or ending of an action, like ingressive verbs (einschlafen, entflammen, aufblühen - the action has started), eggresive verbs (platzen, verblühen, verklingen - the action has finished), mutative verbs (reifen, rosten, sich erkälten - some state has changed into another one) and causative verbs (öffnen, senken, verschwenden - these verbs “create” a new state - something is now “geöffnet”, “gesenkt” etc.).

And we could go further and further about Aktionsarten for German verbs, but… I’m not really sure whether such distinction exists for English. Well, semantically speaking, obviously it does. The action of “breaking the window”, as in your examples A and B, would look to me as causative verbs, therefore perfective. In the example C “breaking windows” is definitely imperfective - in languages like Polish it’s a way easier (or a way more difficult, depends on your point of view), because we have completely different verbs for talking about perfective actions and different for imperfective - “otwierać” (to open - imperfective), “otworzyć” (to open - perfective) etc. In English I guess it’s not the case and it depends only on the context and meaning of the given verb. Is the action completed? If yes, it’s perfective. If not, it’s imperfective.

I hope it makes sense to you.

That’s interesting, Customic. You are looking at the actual meanings of individual verbs as having a fixed Aktionsart. This certainly makes very good sense as regards the examples you give.

However it is a little strange, because the reading that I have done so far (not a huge amount, granted!) seemed to imply that the Aktionsart was a variable quality - at least in the case of some verbs.

Let’s take, for example, the verb “to meet up”.

If you say: “I met up with Steve yesterday”, that is clearly a ‘one-off’ in terms of Aktionsart.

But if you say “I used to meet up with Steve a lot back in the 1980s”, then that is ‘oft-repeated’ in terms of Aktionsart.

(BTW my chief interest in all of this is how it relates to Ancient Greek verbs!)

As a native speaker I have never thought about this. You can read more about “Aktionsart” here:

Many thanks for the interesting links, Vera. :wink:

(BTW I understand that the word “Aktionsart” is used in Linguistic theory with regard to all languages, not only German!)