Introducing Aspect, II, A Story

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Welcome back to a post that’s more about story and less about linguistics. First, though, one quick technical note:

For those of you who are familiar with Second Language Acquisition theory and research, you may have noticed that the recent posts have been more about what’s technically known as language learningconceptual understandings about the morphology, syntax, and structure of the language. SLA researchers distinguish this conscious awareness or learning from the unconscious, automatic processing they call language acquisition. Both are important, but they’re separate and often independent. For example, you can be a highly fluent native speaker of a language (high level of acquisition or knowledge of the language), but you can’t formally describe your language use; it just sounds right to you (low level of learning or knowledge about the language).  And the reverse is also true: you can have a very highly developed understanding of the grammar of a language (high level of learning or knowledge about), but not feel very confident at reading or speaking extemporaneously (low level of acquisition or knowledge of).

At Tres Columnae, we aim to strike a balance between acquisition and learning, and I also aim for a balance in these blog posts. So today’s post is much more about acquisition, about repeated use of language elements in context until they become familiar and automatic for learners. And, of course, the element we’ll focus on is verbal aspect – specifically, the distinction between imperfective (ongoing, in-process) and perfective (completed, single-state) action as revealed in the present and perfect indicative tenses.

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the introduction of these concepts. We began with a bit of acquisition when the learners comprehended the new sentences. We moved on to some learning when we analyzed the new pattern, discovered how it actually worked, and did various exercises to practice the new pattern. In the Paideia framework, we now have attained some Knowledge of the “new thing,” so it’s time to develop some Skill with it; on the Trivium, we’re moving from Grammar to Logic or Dialectic. We’ll develop our Skill at both reading, writing, hearing, and saying the new things, again with a mixture of unconscious acquisition and conscious learning, then do a bit more learning as we move on to the Paideia level of Understanding. But that Understanding is the subject for a future post.

In the meantime, imagine the pictures and audio that accompany this story, from right after the families have returned home from the trip to Milan for the races and the engagement:

hodiē Lūcius amīcum, cui Mārcus nōmen est, vīsitat. Lūcius cum Mārcō in domō colloquitur. Mārcus “quid agis, mī amīce?” rogat. “nōnne familia tua nūper ad urbem Mediolānum iter fēcit?”

Lūcius “ita vērō, mī Mārce,” respondet. “in urbe Mediolānō est Circus optimus. in Circō lūdōs optimōs spectāvimus. in urbe Mediolānō habitat ille Quārtus Vipsānius, amīcus patris et frāter amitae meae Vipsāniae. apud Vipsānium mānsimus. pater meus cum illō Quīntō Vipsāniō dē nūptiīs sorōris meae multōs annōs iam colloquitur. dum Vipsānium vīsitāmus, illī tandem dē dōte consēnsērunt. māter mea et Valeria hōs octō diēs nihil nisi nūptiās commemorant. vae! heu! necesse est mihi ex istā vīllā exīre! necesse est mihi tē vel Cāium vīsitāre! heu! quam mē taedet nūptiārum!”

We may well pause at this point in the story for a brief aspectual note, or we may save it for later. Either way, here it is:

quid novī?

Did you notice some places where the Latin tempus and the English verb tense would be significantly different? Latin sometimes uses a verbum temporis praesentis to express an action that started in the past, but continues into the present:

multōs annōs iam colloquitur. Valerius and Vipsanius started talking about the marriage of Vipsanius and Valeria years ago, but they’re still talking about it. So Latin uses a verbum temporis praesentis. In English, you’d say something like “Valerius has been talking with Vipsanius for many years,” which English grammarians would call a present perfect progressive tense verb.  Different languages, different approaches!

octō diēs nihil nisi nūptiās commemorant. Again, Caelia and Valeria started talking about the wedding eight days ago, but they’re still talking about it. So Latin uses a verbum temporis praesentis, while an English speaker might say “they have been talking for eight days.” Incidentally, if you ever had a somewhat-older sibling get married when you were still, relatively speaking, a child, you may be able to relate to Lucius’ attitude here! 🙂

If we do pause for this brief excursion, we’ll then return to the story, which continues as follows:

Mārcus sēcum rīdet et celeriter respondet, “mī Lūcī, nōnne Cāius noster mihi rem tōtam heri nārrāvit? tū tamen multa rīdicula haud commemorās! nōnne iste Cnaeus in lutum cecidit? nōnne lacrimāvit? nōnne equum calcitrāvit?”

Lūcius, “ō mī Mārce,” amīcō respondet, “nōs nōn decet Cnaeum ita dērīdēre. nōnne Cnaeus consōbrīnus meus est? num decōrum est mihi dē Cnaeō iocārī?” Mārcus tandem interpellat, “ō Lūcī, Lūcī, quam pius et benignus es! nōn tamen necesse est tibi dē Cnaeō iocārī; Cnaeus enim sē ipsum iocum semper facit!”

Lūcius, quī sē retinēre haud potest, valdē cachinnat. tandem “ō mī Marce, quam crūdēlis es! Cnaeum miserum! sed vērum dīcis, et Cāius quoque vērum dīcit. octāvā hōrā itineris Cnaeus ‘quam longum est iter!’ exclāmāvit. tum sorōrēs suās vituperāvit; Cāium castīgāvit; equum suum vehementer verberāvit. nōnne iste equus Cnaeum in lutum subitō coniēcit? nōnne Cnaeus multum lutī hausit? nōnne lutum tōtum corpus Cnaeō operuit? nōnne tōta familia rīsit? nōnne equus ipse, sī equī rīdēre possunt, etiam nunc in stabulō rīdet? Cnaeus, postquam ē lutō surrēxit, equum vehementer calcitrāvit … et equus Cnaeum!”

You can probably imagine the comprehension exercises, so we’ll omit them for the moment; they’ll be available, of course, at when this Lectiō is published there. What I want to focus on at the moment is the exercise that practices distinguishing aspect – technically, of course, this is a return to language learning after the acquisition that’s taken place with the story. We begin with a quick review of the words perfectum (in the sense of completed or finished) and infectum (in the sense of incomplete or unfinished). Then we ask

quāle verbum est …? with a choice of perfectum or infectum each time. So

  • quāle verbum est vīsitat?
  • quāle verbum est colloquitur?
  • quāle verbum est fēcit?
  • etc.

If a learner misses the question, he or she sees a complete listing of the principal parts of the verb, and the question is repeated. If there’s still a problem, the relevant part is highlighted. And if there’s still a problem, we loop back to yesterday’s explanation about how the aspect of a verb is related to the stem from which it’s formed. Gratias maximas, by the way, to our faithful reader Moss P, who confirms this invariable connection! 🙂

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • I know that some of us were concerned about the possible confusion for learners between imperfective aspect and the imperfect tense. My goal is to avoid the confusion by having us thoroughly familiar with imperfective present tense verbs – and perfective perfect-tense ones – before we introduce the tempus praeteritum inperfectum. Thus, I hope, no confusion … especially if we can borrow the word infectum to represent imperfective.
  • Ann M, our faithful reader and colleague, noted that the very Latin names of the tenses (praeteritum inperfectum, praeteritum perfectum, etc.) imply that the Romans were aware, on some level, of the difference between time (praeteritum) and aspect (inperfectum / perfectum). What do you think of this point?
  • Did you find the story comprehensible in context?
  • Do you think learners could easily distinguish – or at least comprehend – how and why perfect vs. present tenses were being used?
  • What do you think of the grammatical exercise?
  • And what did you think of the story itself? I did promise that we’d find out what happened when Cnaeus was bored on the trip! And no, I haven’t forgotten my old promise about Cnaeus and the cow … before too long, you will find out how his mom used poor Fortūnāta to punish Cnaeus’ laziness! 🙂

Tune in next time for a longer story, with more female characters, that explores verbal aspect more fully. And in the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming … and, if you like what you’ve seen, please spread the word about the Tres Columnae project to your Latin-learning friends and neighbors! 🙂


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