- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 18/07/2008
- English, French, German, Linguistics, Portuguese, Spanish
I think I’ve found a curious example of Sprachbund* in America. It concerns the use of the present perfect and simple past tense. Consider these pairs:
I have just had breakfast (typical of British English)
I just had breakfast (typical of US English)
This is an example of how US English generally has a higher usage of the simple past where British English would use the perfect tense (formed from the present indicative plus past participle).
Strangely, if we compare European Spanish with most kinds of American Spanish, we see the same trend. And the same again in Portuguese in Brazil and Portugal:
Spain: Ya lo he hecho (I’ve already done it)
Mexico: Ya lo hice
Portugal: Já o tenho feito
Brazil: Já o fiz
These are only general tendencies, but it’s interesting to speculate whether this is pure coincidence or a case of the three languages influencing each other in some way.
When we look at the other related European languages which are not used in America, sure enough they follow the European pattern:
German: Das habe ich schon gemacht (perfect)
Italian: L’ho già fatto (perfect)
Catalan: Ja ho he fet (perfect)
(The Slavic languages don’t have a perfect tense, but only a simple past, in perfective and imperfective aspects, but that’s another story.)
What about French? The case is a bit different, since spoken French uses the present perfect in all cases, reserving the simple past for formal written style. However, I have noticed at least one case in written Canadian French where the past tense was used where Parisian French would be more likely to have a perfect tense. So I shall be keeping my eyes open for more evidence.
* Sprachbund is a German word meaning “language union”. It refers to features which languages have in common not because of their common origins but because of local geographical influences. A frequently quoted example is the guttural /r/ sound in French. This started as an alternative to the tapped or trilled /r/ in old French and spread from Paris outwards, from the 17th century onwards. The new sound spread to Germany and even up to Danish, in a continuous geographical Sprachbund. And yet only now is the old pronunciation disappearing from outlying regions of the Pyrenees, and many varieties of African French don’t use it.