Tense and aspect in English and Portuguese: a contrastive semantical study

Diana Maria de Sousa Marques Pinto dos Santos
June 1996

This page contains the translation into English of the Portuguese extended abstract of my PhD dissertation which I needed to deliver at IST because the dissertation itself was written in English... Oh well, I am used to parallel texts by now. This was a preliminary version, but never got to be rewritten.

Extended abstract

This thesis originated from the need to describe Portuguese so that it could be processed by computers.

The study of tense and aspect in Portuguese was chosen because it was related to the knowledge representation of time by Portuguese native speakers, and because it was expected to be useful both in narrative understanding and in the formalization of reasoning about actions in general.

In order to be able to make use of the huge literature on the subject concerning English while studying Portuguese in its own, I decided to make a contrastive study that focussed on the similarities and differences between the two languages concerning temporal-aspectual information. Such a task would make the present study, in addition, of relevance for machine translation between the two languages, a subject whose need I knew well the need for both theoretical and practical studies concerning the pair English/Portuguese I was well aware of.

Given that my proficiency in English is quite far from native, the use of original texts (and their translations) was absolutely necessary. Bringing in corpora, however, even if I had studied Portuguese alone, would have always been the case, since I consider their use a methodological must in language engineering.

This thesis encompasses work in areas which are traditionally separate: semantics (one might actually say "computational semantics"), translation, and corpus processing. One of the expected contributions of the present work is the integration of perspectives and methods from different disciplines.

In what follows, I describe first the contents of each chapter, and then the main results of the thesis as a whole.

Organization of the dissertation

The thesis is divided in three parts, plus an introductory chapter (chapter 1) and a small chapter of final remarks (chapter 15).

The first part (chapters 2 to 4) features the theoretical background, trying to give a (partial) answer to the following broad questions: What is a contrastive study? What is the meaning of tense and aspect? How does one analyse translation in general (and particular translations in particular)?

The second part (chapters 5 to 8) contains the actual proposals and its application to the description of Portuguese and its contrast with English. In particular, two computational models are suggested which are then employed to describe a large number of translation pairs in the corpus.

Finally, the third part (chapters 9 to 14) presents several detailed empirical studies done on the corpus, one about Portuguese only, the others concerning the contrast between the two languages.

Follows a description of each chapter, encosing in parentheses the number of the relevant sections:

Main proposals

This dissertation puts forward several proposals, theoretical or practical, as well as presents a set of hypotheses about the languages studied and their translation. In what follows, I describe the ones I see as most relevant, and simply provide pointers to the others. The order of presentation was chosen for clarity - it is not to be taken as a ranking of the several contributions.

Functions of the tense and aspect system

I claim that the tense and aspect system of a language has the following functions (or, alternatively, can be described relative to the following parameters):
  1. The set of aspectual classes correspond to the categorization of the language's own reality. Such a set contains of necessity complex classes ("complex" meaning here that to one expression is associated more than one entity, temporal profile, etc., provided there is a systematic coherence among the several interpretations).
  2. The expression of viewpoint, whose rationale is to indicate the place of the observer relative to a situation, for some kinds of situations (consequently categorized as belonging to some aspectual classes).
  3. The expression of the localization of an event vis-à-vis a temporal axis with at most three distinct points.
  4. The indication of the relationship between this temporal axis and the speech point: identity, translation, or incommensurability.
  5. The assignment of truth values (or of "proposition-hood") to a linguistic expression.
  6. The expression of temporal quantification, that is, to count (once, a definite finite number, or an indefinite number of times) the occurrence(s) of a given situation.
Due to my goal of comparing translations with the corresponding source texts I focussed primarily on the three first items.

The aspectual network concept and its application to English and Portuguese

As far as the description of one language's tense and aspect system is concerned, the model proposed to represent the aspectual classes is based on Moens's (1987) aspectual network, revised and extended in order to encompass other kinds of information. The most significant changes to the original formulation were the restriction of coercion - too powerful in Moens's system - and the reinterpretation of the model as essentially computational, i.e., without assuming Moens's nucleus as underlying model for the network nodes.

Taken into account these changes, the aspectual networks suggested are as follows (NB! Note that I do not claim they are complete, i.e., there are elements which have aspectual character and which are not represented.)

The English aspectual network:

While for English I used the wide literature available on the subject, simpy correcting some minor points (5.2), most of the analyses of Portuguese were my own, although I have tried to read everything - very little, unfortunately - that has been written on the subject.

The main contribution of Chapter 6, which goes into detail into the aspectual behaviour of Portuguese, is to show that to start from the linguistic behaviour of a language produces better results and sheds more light to its - unique - system than the application of models conceived for other languages.

The Portuguese aspectual network:

The translation network concept and its application to the pair English-Portuguese

Another contribution of the thesis is a model for the description of translation pairs in what concerns their aspectual content: the translation network. This model is progressively refined and improved along the thesis:

As this proposal is original, i.e., it is not built upon well-known others I could point to, I try to summarize it here.

A translation network puts into correspondence the two aspectual networks of two different languages. It can, therefore, be described in broad lines as a mapping of the source language nodes (that represent aspectual classes) onto the target language nodes, as can be seen in the next picture of an abstract translation network:

Such mapping is not in general one-to-one (it does not correspond to an injective nor onto function), given that two languages are not isomorphic in their categorization nor in the set of operators they employ.

Furthermore, the translator is "seeing" the source language through the target language spectacles (the translator is very often native speaker of the target language, in addition). This makes the three following changes to the source aspectual network necessary:

  1. New categories and/or transitions are added due to the target language interpretation. These transitions, necessarily unmarked, were dubbed "transitions coerced by translation".
  2. New categories are added, refining those of the source language and consequently unfolding the mapping. This phenomenon covers the cases in which the source language handles in the same way situations that are (objectively) different, while the target language keeps the two distinct.
  3. New categories are added, involving their derivation history. This is meant to model the cases of sequences of categories (possibly involving linguistic operators) being translated in a way different from their final category in isolation.
In what follows I illustrate the three cases presenting some (sets of) translation pairs and corresponding partial translation networks. This way I provide concrete examples of the kind of problems handled in the dissertation as well as of the way they are dealt with.
  1. While the distinction between permanent and temporary states (or rather between Qualidades and Estados) plays an important role in Portuguese (6.2) it is rather marginal in English, where it is rarely linguistically signalled. To translate an English text into Portuguese it is thus frequent that the translator must induce such distinction - about which English is vague - in the English aspectual network (7.1.4).

    The two following translation pairs illustrate different choices relative to the translation network of the previous figure, in which "T" stands for transition coerced by translation (in other words, by the inability of preserving the vagueness in the translation).

    Beside him on a table was a small Oriental gong and a bowl of cigarettes.
    ao lado, na banca de cabeceira, havia um pequeno tantã oriental e um maço de cigarros.
    And he drank a little pulque and that was breakfast
    Bebeu um pouco de pulque. E foi o seu pequeno almoço.

    In the first example, the situation was interpreted as permanent; in the second as temporary, circunstancial. Now any Portuguese speaker can confirm that equally possible translations (although with different meaning) are estava um pequeno tantã and (este) era o seu pequeno almoço, which depict the inverse choices.

  2. In Portuguese there is no aspectual difference between a change of place and a change of state: both are categorized as Mudanças. In English, on the contrary, a change of place presupposes a kind of movement, whose expression is aspectually quite distinct from English change of states (acomplishments or achievements) ( as the following figure shows.

    The following examples display several translations of Portuguese Mudanças:

    1. Accomplishments (that is, events with a result and having a process associated):
      e a voz tornou-se-lhe amarga para acrescentar: --
      and his voice grew bitter as he added, "
    2. Achievements (that is, events corresponding to a change of state seen as punctual):
      E no momento em que Deus, Ele e a Palavra se tornaram um só
      And at the moment when God, He, and the Word became one
    3. Activities (that is, events without inherent result which develop homogeneously in time):
      Depois, foi a uma mesa próxima 
      He then walked to a nearby table
      O escravo, tão suavemente como entrara, saiu. 
      The slave slipped out as quietly as he had entered.
      Passei entre as mesas empilhadas.
      I walked among the stacks of tables.
    This last case, contrary to the previous ones, does not represent a choice of the translator (as for example between accomplishment and achievement): It depends on the kind of Mudança. (Although there can be also choice between activity and achievement, as displayed in the figure and illustrated in the next example:
    E Marco Semprónio subiu os degraus e penetrou no palácio. 
    And Marcus Sempronius climbed the stairs and entered the palace.)
  3. Finally, an Obra in Mais que perfeito is frequently translated by an acquisition obtained from an achievement which expresses the initial change - corresponding thus roughly to the inception of the Obra - as the next figure shows:

    Examples of this kind of translation are:

    onde agora, como não onde o frade se distraíra, as pedras eram tão numerosas
    where now, unlike when the friar had become distracted, stones were as numerous
    que se interessara demasiado pela homenagem,
    who had become too interested in the commemoration
    where it is conspicuous that English expresses the beginning and continuation of a situation that might continue until the now of the narrative, while Portuguese describes a temporally limited situation, which is "now" over.

    The contrast with the translation of other Obras is thus striking; cf. for example:

    O papá discursou?
    Did you give a speech, Papa?
In fact, these three phenomena make the "complete" aspectual networks (those merging all partial translation networks presented - see below) insufficiently expressive, allowing nevertheless a bird's eye view. They make it clear, moreover, that the general similarity of the two systems (take the existence of the two "parallel" classes Aquisições and acquisitions, for example) conceals the fact that, in practice, due to the lack of lexical equivalents and the more complex phenomena just described, particular translation pairs featuring parallel paths are quite rare.

The translation network from English to Portuguese:

The translation network from Portuguese to English:

The importance of vagueness and compactness for natural language description

Yet another feature of this thesis is its claim that the concepts of vagueness and compactness are necessary to the description of natural language, both monolingually and contrastively.

In fact, I hold it to be an essential property of human languages that a linguistic expression can, on the one hand, be interpreted in many different ways depending on the context it occurs in, and, on the other hand, accept contexts where it is compatible with more than one interpretation - this is my definition of vagueness. Conversely, compactness consists of the possibility to convey together several pieces of information that could also be expressed separately.

These two concepts are, in addition, specially relevant to the contrast of two languages as pointed out for example in Keenan (1978) and popularized in the machine translation literature as "translation mismatches".

In fact my systematization - necessarily incomplete - of the differences between English and Portuguese in Chapter 7 is organized in turn of these two concepts, as well as my attempt to identify translationese in corpus-based studies (3.8.2). And, of course, the classification of translation pairs sketched as an alternative to the translation mismatches model is specially aware of such phenomena (3.4).

Furthermore, my definition of aspectual class identifies as the object of classification the relation among linguistic expressions and kinds of situations (semantic objects) (4.4.3). Therefore, expressions that correspond to more than one type of situation (i.e., systematically vague) are on a par with those univocally related to one type of situation.

A methodological argument for contrastive studies

This thesis also argues (3.8.1) in defence of the following: The best way to do contrastive studies is basing them in existing translations (or, more technically) in parallel corpora.

This because, although they almost never preserve the total information stated in the source text, translations are actually a compromise between the wish to transmit the source meaning and the need to be idiomatic in the target language. For this reason it is often the case that, the existence of a similar form notwithstanding, the translator employs a form more congenial to the target language. - In fact, out of the translation context, such form would most probably be identified as "the translation" if the only source of judgement were the bilingual intuition of the researcher!

One should keep in mind, however, the possibility of translationese, i.e., the translator may still be insidiously influenced by the source language style and produce what has been aptly called a "third code".

Summing up

This dissertation had as main goal the study of the semantics of tense and aspect in Portuguese and English using as semantic data translations in the two directions performed by independent parties - namely, professional translators whose goal was not the study of (the translation of) temporal phenomena.

Such a study required a model to describe the translation between the two different (linguistic) systems. Such a model was developed with a view to its computational implementation, as a powerful translation browser or a module of many possible computer-assisted translation systems

The contrast of the two systems done with the help of that model also led to the formulation of several hypotheses about the two languages, about their contrast, and about the semantic of tense and aspect in general. In addition, it provided some insights about translation practice and translation complexity.

Finally, it is hoped that the detailed description of the several contrastive studies performed may offer other researchers a methodology - to be improved - and a point of departure for new and improved hypotheses on the subjects at stake.


Carlson 1993
Carlson, Lauri. 1993. "Aspect". Unpublished ms., Helsinki University.
Dahl 1985
Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems. Basil Blackwell.
Keenan 1978
Keenan, Edward L. 1978. "Some Logical Problems in Translation". F. Guenthner & M. Guenthner-Reutter (eds.), Meaning and Translation: Philosophical and Linguistic Approaches, Duckworth, pp.157-89.
Moens 1987
Moens, Marc. 1987. "Tense, Aspect and Temporal Reference". PhD thesis, Edinburgh University.
Vendler 1967
Vendler, Zeno. 1967. Linguistics in Philosophy. Cornell University Press.