Compositionality in the domain of tense, mood and aspect

Angeliek van Hout

How to acquire the compositional nature of tense and aspect? L1 acquisition of eventculmination across languages

The aim of this talk is to derive expectations about children’s acquisition of tense and aspect framed within Henk Verkuyl’s compositional theory of tense and aspect, focusing specifically on the acquisition of event culmination, or rather, following Verkuyl’s (2021) terminology, full actualization of an eventuality: event descriptions which involve an entailment of event completion. Traditionally, event culmination is analyzed as the result of combining telic predicates with perfective aspect. In this talk, I will apply Verkuyl’s binary tense theory, in particular, the notion of full actualization, to define the acquisition challenge of tense and aspect. I will then confront the theory with a striking puzzle from child language development: up to the age of five children accept terminative-perfective sentences for situations in which an event has not culminated (van Hout, 2018). This non-target-like interpretation is modulated by language: in some child languages it persists longer (for ex., Germanic languages) than in others (for ex., the Slavic languages, Martin et al., 2020).

The learner’s challenge in acquiring the form-meaning mappings of her language is outlined by the amount of crosslinguistic variation in the domain of tense-aspect. The variety of tense and aspect forms and meanings in the languages of the world sets the search space for the learner, and the wide variety presents the learner with a tough acquisition task.

In his new book, Verkuyl (2021) develops a theory in which the contribution of tense and aspect are derived in a compositional fashion following a particular hierarchy. This compositional theory is argued to be universal. At the bottom of the derivation there is a tenseless eventuality variable which is characterized as durative or terminative, as determined by properties of the verb and its arguments. In the next layer, a PERF or IMP operator adds to the eventuality an aspectual perspective of full actualization or indeterminate actualization, respectively, as determined by the aspectual meaning element in the various tenses. The next layer contributes a synchronous or posterior index for the interval in which the eventuality is located, determining a temporal or modal dimension. And at the final stage, a tense operator, PAST or PRES, existentially closes the eventuality variable and produces a proposition in either a past or present domain, as determined by the temporal properties of the various tenses.

Verkuyl’s theory takes position as to which properties of tense-aspect systems are universal, and which are variable and allow for crosslinguistic variation. Focusing on event culmination, or full actualization, I will derive expectations for acquisition from his theory. Actualization arises from the combination of the PERF, SYN and PAST operators. This holds both for terminative and durative event descriptions. Within Verkuyl’s theory, the non-culmination puzzle from child languages could be located in the domain of aspect: does the learner initially misconstrue a particular tense (aspect marker) as involving an IMP operator? Alternatively, it could lie at the level of the eventuality description: does the she misanalyze the event description as durative rather than terminative?

In my talk I will discuss to what extent Verkuyl’s (2021) insights about terminativity and perfective aspect across languages can help explain children’s non-culminating interpretation of terminative- perfective sentences.


van Hout, A. 2018. On the acquisition of event culmination. In Kristen Syrett and Sudha Arunachalam (Eds) Semantics in Language Acquisition, 95-121. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Trends in Language Acquisition Research series.
Martin, F., Demirdache, H., García del Real, I., van Hout, A., & Kazanina, N. 2020. Children’s non-adultlike interpretations of telic predicates across languages. Linguistics, 5, 1447-1500. 0182
Verkuyl, H. 2021. The Compositional Nature of Tense, Mood and Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.