The perfect pathway

Anybody who knows French or German will be familiar with the fact that the constructions in these languages described as “perfects” tend to be used in colloquial speech as simple pasts1 rather than true perfects. This can be illustrated by the fact that the English sentence (1) is ungrammatical, whereas the French and German sentences (2) and (3) are perfectly grammatical.

  1. *I have left yesterday.
  1. Je suis parti hier.
    I am leave-PTCP yesterday
    “I left yesterday.”
  1. Ich habe gestern verlassen.
    I have-1SG yesterday leave-PTCP
    “I left yesterday.”

The English perfect is a true perfect, referring to a present state which is the result of a past event. So, for example, the English sentence (4) is paraphrased by (5).

  1. I have left.
  1. I am in the state of not being present resulting from having left.

As it is specifically present states which are referred to by perfects, it makes no sense for a verb in the perfect to be modified by an adverb of past time like ‘yesterday’. That’s why (1) is ungrammatical. In order for ‘yesterday’ to modify the verb in (1), the verb would have to refer to a past state resulting from an event further in the past; the appropriate category for such a verb is not the perfect but rather the pluperfect or past perfect, which is formed in the same way as the perfect in English except that the auxiliary verb have takes the past tense. It’s perfectly fine for adverbs of past time to modify the main verbs of pluperfect constructions; c.f. (6).

  1. I had left yesterday.

If the French and German “perfects” were true perfects like the English perfect, (2) and (3) would have to be ungrammatical too, and as they are not in fact ungrammatical we can conclude that these “perfects” are not true perfects. (Of course one could also conclude this from asking native speakers about the meaning of these “perfects”, and one has to take this step to be able to conclude that they are in fact simple pasts; the above is just a neat way of demonstrating their non-true perfect nature via the medium of writing.)

French and German verbs do have simple past forms which have a distinctive inflection; for example, partis and verließ are the first-person singular inflected simple past forms of the verbs meaning ‘leave’ in sentences (2) and (3) respectively, corresponding to the first-person singular present forms pars and verlasse. But these inflected simple past forms are not used in colloquial speech; their function has been taken over by the “perfect”. If you take French or German lessons you are taught how to use the “perfect” before you are taught how to use the simple past, because the “perfect” is more commonly used; it’s the other way round if you take English lessons, because in English the simple past is not restricted to literary speech, and is more common than the perfect as it has a more basic meaning.

The French and German “perfects” were originally true perfects even in colloquial speech, just as in English. So how did this change in meaning from perfect to simple past occur? One way to understand it is as a simple case of generalization. The perfect is a kind of past; if one were to translate (4) into a language such as Turkish which does not have any sort of perfect construction, but does have a distinction between present and past tense, one would translate it as a simple past, as in (7).

  1. Ayrıldım.
    “I left / have left.”

The distinction in meaning between the perfect and the simple past is rather subtle, so it is not hard to imagine the two meanings being confused with each other frequently enough that the perfect came eventually to be used with the same meaning as the simple past. This could have been a gradual process. After all, it is often more or less a matter of arbitrary perspective whether one chooses to focus on the state of having done something, and accordingly use the perfect, or on the doing of the thing itself, and accordingly use the simple past. Here’s an example: if somebody tells you to look up the answer to a question which was raised in a discussion of yours with them, and you go away and look up the answer, and then you meet this person again, you might say either “I looked up the answer” or “I’ve looked up the answer”. At least to me, neither utterance seems any more expected in that situation than other. French and German speakers may have tended over time to more and more err on the side of focusing on the state, so that the perfect construction became more and more common, and this would encourage reanalysis of the meaning of the perfect as the same as that of the simple past.

But it might help to put this development in some further context. It’s not only in French and German that this development from perfect to simple past has occurred. In fact, it seems to be pretty common. Well, I don’t know about other families, but it is definitely common among the Indo-European (IE) languages. There is, in fact, evidence that the development occurred in the history of English, during the development of Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). (This means German has undergone the development twice!) I’ll talk a little bit about this pre-Proto-Germanic development, because it’s a pretty interesting one, and it ties in with some of the other cases of the development attested from IE languages.

PIE (or at least a late stage of it; we’ll talk more about that issue below) distinguished three different aspect categories, which are traditionally called the “present”, “aorist” and “perfect”. The names of these aspects do not have their usual meanings—if you know about the distinction between tense and aspect, you probably already noticed that “present” is normally the name of a tense, rather than an aspect. (Briefly, tense is an event or state’s relation in time to the speech act, aspect is the structure of the event on the timeline without any reference to the speech act; for example, aspect includes things like whether the event is completed or not. But this isn’t especially important to our discussion.) The better names for the “present” and “aorist” aspects are imperfective and perfective, respectively. The difference between them is the same as that between the French imperfect and the French simple past: the perfective (“aorist”) refers to events as completed wholes and the imperfective (“present”) refers to other events, such as those which are iterated, habitual or ongoing. Note that present events cannot be completed yet and therefore can only be referred to by imperfectives (“presents”). But past events can be referred to by either imperfectives or perfectives. So, although PIE did distinguish two tenses, present and past, in addition to the three aspects, the distinction was only made in the imperfective (“present”, although that name is getting especially confusing here) aspect because the perfective (“aorist”) aspect entailed past tense. The past tense of the imperfective aspect is called the imperfect rather than the past “present” (I guess even IEists would find that terminology too ridiculous).

So what was the meaning of the PIE “perfect”? Well, the PIE “perfect” is reflected as a true perfect in Classical Greek. The system of Classical Greek, with the imperfect, aorist and true perfect all distinguished from one another, was more or less the same as that of modern literary French. However, according to Ringe (2006: 25, 155), the “perfect” in the earlier Greek of Homer’s poems is better analyzed as a simple stative, referring to a present state without any implication of this state being the result of a past event. Now, I’m not sure exactly what the grounds for this analysis are. Ringe doesn’t elaborate on it very much and the further sources it refers to (Wackernagel 1904; Chantraine 1927) are in German and French, respectively, so I can’t read them very easily. The thing is, every state has a beginning, which can be seen as an event whose result is the state, and thus every simple stative can be seen as a perfect. English does distinguish simple statives from perfects (predicative adjectives are stative, as are certain verbs in the present tense, such as “know”). The difference seems to me to be something to do with how salient the event that begins the state—the state’s inception—is. Compare sentences (8) and (9), which have more or less the same meaning except that the state’s inception is more salient in (9) (although still not as salient as it is in (10)).

  1. He is dead.
  1. He has died.
  1. He died.

But I don’t know if there are any more concrete diagnostic tests that can distinguish a simple stative from a perfect. Homeric and Classical Greek are extinct languages, and it seems like it would be difficult to judge the salience of inceptions of states in sentences of these languages without having access to native speaker intutions.

It is perhaps the case that some states are crosslinguistically more likely than others to be referred to by simple statives, rather than perfects. Perhaps the change was just that the “perfect” came to be used more often to refer to states that crosslinguistically tend to be referred to by perfects. Ringe (2006: 155) says:

… a large majority of the perfects in Classical Attic are obvious innovations and have meanings like that of a Modern English perfect; that is, they denote a past action and its present result. We find ἀπεκτονέναι /apektonénai/ ‘to have killed’, πεπομφέναι /pepompʰénai/ ‘to have sent’, κεκλοφέναι /keklopʰénai/ ‘to have stolen’, ἐνηνοχέναι /enęːnokʰénai/ ‘to have brought’, δεδωκέναι /dedǫːkénai/ ‘to have given’, γεγραφέναι /gegrapʰénai/ ‘to have written’, ἠχέναι /ęːkʰénai/ ‘to have led’, and many dozens more. Most are clearly new creations, but a few appear to be inherited stems that have acquired the new ‘resultative’ meaning, such as λελοιπέναι /leloipʰénai/ ‘to have left behind’ and ‘to be missing’ (the old stative meaning).

These newer perfects could still be glossed as simple statives (‘to be a thief’ instead of ‘to have stolen’, etc.) but the states they refer to do seem to me to be ones which inherently tend to involve a salient reference to the inception of the state.

There is a pretty convincing indication that the “perfect” was a simple stative at some point in the history of Greek: some Greek verbs whose meanings are conveyed by lexically stative verbs or adjectives in English, such as εἰδέναι ‘to know’ and δεδιέναι ‘to be afraid of’, only appear in the perfect and pluperfect. These verbs are sometimes described as using the perfect in place of the present and the pluperfect in place of the imperfect, although at least in Homeric Greek their appearance in only the perfect and pluperfect is perfectly natural in respect of their meaning and does not need to be treated as a special case. These verbs continued to appear only in the perfect and pluperfect during the Classical period, so they do not tell us anything about when the Greek “perfect” became a true perfect.

Anyway, it is on the basis of the directly attested meaning of the “perfect” in Homeric Greek that the PIE “perfect” is reconstructed as a simple stative. Other IE languages do preserve relics of the simple stative meaning which add to the evidence for this reconstruction. There are in fact relics of the simple stative meaning in the Germanic languages which have survived, to this day, in English. These are the “preterite-present” or “modal” verbs: can, dare, may, must, need, ought, shall and will. Unlike other English verbs, these verbs do not take an -s ending in the third person singular (dare and need can take this ending, but only when their complements are to-infinitives rather than bare infinitives). Apart from will (which has a slightly more complicated history), the preterite-present verbs are precisely those whose presents are reflexes of PIE “perfects” rather than PIE “presents” (although some of them have unknown etymologies). It is likely that they were originally verbs that appeared only in the perfect, like Greek εἰδέναι ‘to know’.2

Most of the PIE “perfects”, however, ended up as the simple pasts of Proto-Germanic strong verbs. (That’s why the preterite-present verbs are called preterite-presents: “preterite” is just another word for “past”, and the presents of preterite-present verbs are inflected like the pasts of other verbs.) Presumably these “perfects” underwent the whole two-step development from simple stative to perfect to simple past. There was plenty of time for this to occur: remember that the Germanic languages are unattested before 100 AD, and the development of the true perfect in Greek had already occurred by 500 BC. Just as the analytical simple pasts of colloquial French and German, which are the reflexes of former perfects, have completely replaced the older inflected simple pasts, so the PIE “perfects” completely replaced the PIE “aorists” in Proto-Germanic. According to Ringe (2006: 157) there is absolutely no trace of the PIE “aorist” in any Germanic language. Proto-Germanic also lost the PIE imperfective-perfective opposition, and again the simple pasts reflecting the PIE “perfects” completely replaced the PIE imperfects—with a single exception. This was the verb *dōną ‘to do’, whose past stem *ded- is a reflex of the PIE present stem *dʰédeh1 ‘put’. Admittedly, the development of this verb as a whole is somewhat mysterious (it is not clear where its present stem comes from; proposals have been put forward, but Ringe 2006: 160 finds none of them convincing) but given its generic meaning and probable frequent use it is not surprising to find it developing in an exceptional way. One reason we can be quite sure it was used very frequently is that the *ded- stem is the same one which is though to be reflected in the past tense endings of Proto-Germanic weak verbs. There’s a pretty convincing correspondence between the Gothic weak past endings and the Old High German (OHG) past endings of tuon ‘to do’:

Past of Gothic waúrkjan ‘to make’ Past of OHG tuon ‘to do’
Singular First-person waúrhta ‘I made’ tëta ‘I did’
Second-person waúrhtēs ‘you (sg.) made’ tāti ‘you (sg.) did’
Third-person waúrhta ‘(s)he made’ tëta ‘(s)he did’
Plural First-person waúrhtēdum ‘we made’ tāti ‘we did’
Second-person waúrhtēduþ ‘you (pl.) made’ tātīs ‘you (pl.) did’
Third-person waúrhtēdun ‘they made’ tāti ‘they did’

Note that Proto-Germanic is reflected as ē in Gothic but ā in the other Germanic languages, so the alternation between -t- and -tēd- at the start of each ending in Gothic corresponds exactly, phonologically and morphologically, to the alternation between the stems tët- and tāt- in OHG.

The pasts of Germanic weak verbs must have originally been formed by an analytical construction with a similar syntax as the English, French and German perfect constructions, involving the auxiliary verb *dōną ‘to do’ in the past tense (probably in a sense of ‘to make’) and probably the past participle of the main verb. As pre-Proto-Germanic had SOV word order, the auxiliary verb could then be reinterpreted as an ending on the past participle, which would take us (with a little haplology) from (11) to (12).

  1. *Ek wēpną wurhtą dedǭ.
    I weapon made-NSG wrought-1SG
    “I wrought a weapon” (lit. “I made a weapon wrought”)
  1. *Ek wēpną wurht(ąd)edǭ
    I weapon wrought-1SG
    “I wrought a weapon”

(The past of waúrht- is glossed here by the archaic ‘wrought’ to distinguish it from ded- ‘make’, although ‘make’ is the ideal gloss for both verbs. I should probably have just used a verb other than waúrhtjan in the example to avoid this confusion, but oh well.)

Why couldn’t the pasts of weak verbs have been formed from PIE “perfects”, like those of strong verbs? The answer is that the weak verbs were those that did not have perfects in PIE to use as pasts. Many PIE verbs never appeared in one or more of the three aspects (“present”, “aorist” and “perfect”). I already mentioned the verbs like εἰδέναι < PIE *weyd- ‘to know’ which only appeared in the perfect in Greek, and probably in PIE as well. One very significant and curious restriction in this vein was that all PIE verbs which were derived from roots by the addition of a derivational suffix appeared only in the present aspect. There is no semantic reason why this restriction should have existed, and it is therefore one of the most convincing indications that PIE did not originally have morphological aspect marking on verbs. Instead, aspect was marked by the addition of derivational suffixes. There must have been a constraint on the addition of multiple derivational suffixes to a single root (perhaps because it would mess up the ablaut system, or perhaps just because it’s a crosslinguistically common constraint), and that would account for this curious restriction. Other indications that aspect was originally marked by derivational suffixes in PIE are the fact that the “present”, “aorist” and “perfect” stems of each PIE verb do not have much of a consistent formal relation to one another (there are some consistencies, e.g. all verbs which have a perfect stem form it by reduplication of the initial syllable, although *weyd- ‘know’, which has no present or aorist stem, is not reduplicated; but the general rule is one of inconsistency); there is no single present or aorist suffix, for example, and one pretty much has to learn each stem of each verb off by heart. Also, I’ve think I’ve read, although I can’t remember where I read it, that aspect is still marked (wholly, or largely) by derivational sufixes only in Hittite.

The class of derived verbs naturally expanded over time, while the class of basic verbs became smaller. The inability of derived verbs to have perfect stems is therefore perhaps the main reason why it was necessary to use an alternative strategy for forming the pasts of some verbs in Proto-Germanic, and thus to create a new class of weak verbs separate from the strong verbs.

So that’s the history of the PIE “perfect” in Germanic (with some tangential, but hopefully interesting elaboration). A similar development occurred in Latin. A few PIE “perfects” were preserved in Latin as statives, just like the Germanic preterite-presents (meminisse ‘to remember’, ōdisse ‘to hate’, nōvisse ‘to recognize, to know (someone)’); the others became simple pasts. But I don’t know much about the details of the developments in Latin.


perfect-pathwayWe’ve seen evidence from Indo-European languages that there’s a kind of developmental pathway going on: statives develop into perfects, and perfects develop into simple pasts. In order for the first step to occur there has to be some kind of stative category, and it looks like this might be a relatively uncommon feature: most of the languages I’ve seen have a class of lexically stative verbs or tend to use entirely different syntax for events and states (e.g. verbs for events, adjectives for states). (English does a bit of both.) The existence of the stative category in PIE might be associated with the whole aspectual system’s recent genesis via morphologization of derivational suffixes. Of course the second part of the pathway can occur on its own, as it did in French and German after perfects were innovated via an analytical construction. It is also possible for simple pasts to be innovated straight away via analytical constructions, as we saw with the Germanic weak past inflection.

It would be interesting to hear if there are any other examples of developments occurring along this pathway, or, even more interestingly, examples where statives, perfects or simple pasts have developed or have been developed in completely different ways, from non-Indo-European languages (or Indo-European languages that weren’t mentioned here).


  1. ^ I’m using the phrase “simple past” here to refer to the past tense without the additional meaning of the true perfect (that of a present state resulting from the past event). In French the simple past can be distinguished from the imperfect as well as the perfect: the simple past refers to events as completed wholes (and is therefore said to have perfective aspect), while the imperfect refers either to iterated or habitual events, or to part of an event without the entailment that the event was completed (and is therefore said to have imperfective aspect). The perfect also refers to events as completed wholes, but it also refers to the state resulting from the completion of such events, more or less at the same time (arguably the state is the more primary reference). In colloquial French, the perfect is used in place of the simple past, so that no distinction is made between the simple past and perfect (and the merged category takes the name of the simple past), but the distinction from the imperfect is preserved. Thus the “simple past” in colloquial French is a little different from the “simple past” in colloquial German; German does not distinguish the imperfect from the simple past in either its literary or colloquial varieties. The name “aorist” can be used to refer to a simple past category like the one in literary French, i.e., a simple past which is distinct from both the perfect and the imperfect.
  2. ^ Of course, εἰδέναι appears in the pluperfect as well as the perfect, but the Greek pluperfect was an innovation formation, not inherited from PIE, and there is no reason to think Proto-Germanic ever had a pluperfect. The Proto-Germanic perfect might well have referred to a state of indeterminate tense resulting from a past event, in which case it verbs in the perfect probably could be modified with adverbs of past time like ‘yesterday’. It is a curious thing that the present and past tenses were not distinguished in the PIE “perfect”; there is no particular reason why they should not have been (simple stative meaning is perfectly compatible with both tenses, c.f. English “know” and “knew”) and it is therefore perhaps an indication that tense distinction was a recent innovation in PIE, which had not yet had time to spread to aspects other than the imperfective (“present”). The nature of the endings distinguishing the present and past tense is also suggestive of this; for example the first-person, second-person and third-person singular endings are *-mi, *-si and *-ti respectively in the present and *-m, *-s and *-t respectively in the past, so the present endings can be derived from the past endings by the addition of an *-i element. This *-i element has been hypothesised to be have originally been a particle indicating present tense; it’s called the hic et nunc (‘here and now’) particle. I don’t know how the other endings are accounted for though.


Ringe, D., 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic: A Linguistic History of English: Volume I: A Linguistic History of English (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.


4 responses to “The perfect pathway

  1. I may have to read this post through again to better digest the explanations and arguments. But I’ll note here that currently I live far enough north in Italy that only the perfect is used in informal conversation, as in German or French. (I’m told that in southern Italy, only the simple past is used, while in-between there is a continuum where the perfect is used for more recent events than the simple past is.) I’m not sure that it ever occurred to me that, as in the example of “I have left yesterday”, a true perfect tense was being used — despite having had to correct some Italians who tried to use such an expression in English!

    • Yeah, I think I’ve read that French, German and northern Italian are the main languages where the analytical perfect construction has replaced the simple past. Analytical perfects involving auxiliary verbs meaning ‘be’ or ‘have’, distinguished from the simple past, are found across a wider range (including English, obviously, as well as Spanish and Greek, probably more). It’s a nice case of an areal linguistic feature where a ‘core’ region within the area has developed the feature a little further. I think I saw a really cool map on Tumblr once showing all the different languages in Europe and classifying them by their perfect constructions; unfortunately, I can’t remember what blog I saw it on 😦

      • I would be interested to know whether there are any languages far away from this region (say, in Asia) which use auxiliary verbs to form perfect tenses in a similar way. Right now I can’t seem to think of any.

  2. David Marjanović

    the French and German sentences (2) and (3) are perfectly grammatical

    Verlassen is a transitive verb, so (3) is only grammatical if “yesterday” is a person, a building or a post for example. The way to say “I (have) left” is ich bin weggegangen if I walked away, ich bin weggefahren if I went away on wheels, and so on – closer to the French way than to the English one, actually.

    *weyd- ‘know’, which has no present or aorist stem

    What about the imperfective meaning “see”? I thought “I know” < “I’m in the state of having seen” was textbook wisdom?

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