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Maria Stambolieva

(Department of English Studies, New Bulgarian University)


1. The topological definition of situation types and Slavonic Action Modes

Aspectology of the first decades of the 21st century is marked by the growth of studies and terms alongside with the somewhat chaotic use of established terminology. Basic terms are understood by separate authors to refer to phenomena of a very different order. One of the main reasons for the terminological indeterminacy existing in the field is the definition of very different phenomena, such as verb class, situation type, atemporal and temporal situations, in terms of the same semantic primitives. Among these primitives, boundedness holds a privileged position.

Situations, as perceived by humans, fall into a number of different types, each of specific length and structure. We see some situations as momentary, others as very long; some situations are more or less homogeneous, others have a more complex structure. One approach to the formal modelling of situations is based on the use of “intervals”. In Interval semantics, situations are presented as sets of points forming a continuous line:


Figure 1. Topological presentation of situations.


Humans view most situations as having a beginning and an end. The beginning or end of a situation are events and can be seen as a change against a relatively stable, “static” background. The separate phases of a situation can be presented topologically – a presentation based on the cognitively strong “time as a straight line” metaphor. I refer to the inner structure of an interval as “situation structure”.

Topologically, the “change of state”, or eventive, phase of a situation can be defined as the presence of a “bound” at the beginning (Figure 2a) or end (Figure 2b) of the interval. Situations of the 2a type are called “closed-open situations” or Inchoatives.


Figure 2a. One-Bound, Closed-Open (Inchoative) Situations.


Inchoative situations may mark either a transition to a new state or the initial phase of a situation. In Bulgarian, as in all languages of the Slavonic group, these situations can be expressed lexically within specially marked (prefixed) verbs. Slavonic aspectual tradition refers to the verbs exemplifying the first of the above situation types as Effectives and those exemplifying the second – as Ingressives. Thirteen of the eighteen Bulgarian verbal prefixes can form verbs of the Effective or Ingressive type – Cf: oglusheya (become deaf), nagolemeya (become larger), smalya se – (become smaller), zabogateya (become rich), vgorcha se – (become bitter), etc. Bulgarian Ingressives correspond to English phase verb structures of the “start V-ing” type – Cf. zapeya (start singing), proyam (start eating), etc. The subclassification of closed-open situations into Effective and Ingressive is not based on topologically definable criteria.

Situations of the 2b types are called “open-closed situations” or Finitives/Completives.


Figure 2b. One-Bound, Open-Closed, Finitive/Completive Situations.


Slavonic Finitive verbs focus on the final phase of a situation – Cf. Bulgarian pretsaftya (stop flowering, fade), otyade mi se (stop feeling hunger), while Completives stress the completion of a situation, the beginning and middle phase being presupposed, as in the English phrases finish reading, count to the end, etc. Bulgarian prefixed finitives are marked with one prefix only: do: dovarsha (finish doing), dozreya (finish ripening). The subclassification of open-closed situations into Finitive and Completive is not based on topologically definable criteria.

Closed-open and open-closed situations are “one-bound situations”.

Some situations are seen as “complete” events, without specific focus on the initial or final phase, and can be presented as consisting of either two bounds (forming the situation structure of non-extended situations) or two bounds divided by a set of points – Cf. Figure 2c below. We call such situations “two-bound situations”.

[ (…) ]

Figure 2c. Two-Bound Situations.


Typical examples of non-extended two-bound situations are “One-Act Situations”, as the English have a bite, give a knock, etc. In Slavonic languages, the English phrases can be translated either with parallel structures or with affixed verbs: chukna (give a knock), smigna (give a wink), etc. The Bulgarian Lexicon contains eight lexico-semantic groups of verbs expressing non-extended, two-bound situations. Extended two-bound situations are of two major types: Resultative and Non-Resultative. Non-Resultative situations are expressed in Bulgarian by a lexico-semantic group of verbs called Delimitatives, formed with the prefix po-: polezha (lie a while), porabotya (work for a while), etc. Resultative situations fall into two major subtypes: Saturatives – naspya se (have one’s sleep out), nayam se (eat one’s fill), otzhiveya si (live one’s fill) – and Resultatives. Resultatives in turn fall in two large groups (Affectives and Directionals), each with a number of subgroups. (Stambolieva 2008 offers a comprehensive lexico-semantic analysis of the Bulgarian verbs stock, with all situation types and Action Modes defined and exemplified.) The subclassification of closed situations into Extended and Non-Extended can be defined topologically. The subtypes within the Non-Extended group, however, including those expressing the opposition Resultative/Non-Resultative, cannot be defined on topological grounds. They all fall under the two-bound situation structure type. It is worth noting in this context that the standard strings on which discussions of Aspect and aspectuality are based in the so-called “Western” tradition of studies of the category of Aspect usually exemplify only one out of the twenty-two subtypes of extended two-bound situations: general resultatives of the type X read a book, Y ate a sandwich.

The closed, open-closed and closed-open situations topologically defined and exemplified above are all subtypes of a generalised situation type called “event”.

If a situation is viewed irrespective of its initial and final phase, “from inside”, it is said to be “open” or “nonbounded”. An interval, the set of points of which is presented as potentially unlimited, without bounds, is an “open interval”. Figure 3 is a generalized topological presentation of such intervals:


Figure 3. Open Situations.


The topological structure above can be exemplified with verbs of the Statal – sedya (sit), spya (sleep), vonya (stink), prilicham (look like) – and Evolutive – gledam (watch), ticham (run), yam (eat), pusha (smoke) types.

Not all open situations have the simple structure of Figure 3. Some can be made up of an open series of bounded situations (events), presenting either a series of non-extended events, as with Multiacts like migam (blink), bumkam (roar), chukam (knock), kapya (drop), kiham (sneeze) etc.(Cf. Figure 3a), or Habituals, which in some languages have grammatical markers. I use the term “Iteratives” for all situation types defined by the topological presentation in Figure 3a below:


] [] [] [] [


Figure 3a. Iteratives.


Another type of complexity involves the presence of a potential bound on the right-hand side of an open situation, as in Figure 3b. The orientation of a situation towards reaching an inner bound is called predelnost in Slavonic linguistics. In Non-Slavonic studies, the terms “Telicity” and “Telics” are used, not always with the same content. Telicity is defined by Ö. Dahl (1981) as the orientation of a situation towards “attaining a goal or limit at which the action exhausts itself” (1981: 81).


Figure 3b. Telics.


Peter is winning the race, I am finishing the paper are open, telic situations. Slavonic languages have verbs/verbal forms (Cf. 2. below) like zapyavam, dopisvam which can be used to describe either iterativity, or telicity (be-about-to-start-singing, be-on-the-point-of-completing-the-writing, etc.) S. Karolak (1996) considers Telicity to be the dominating meaning of these forms and refers to them as Telics.


2. Verb Class, Telicity and Aspect

The topological classification of the situations defined above is based on an opposition of + / – Boundedness, i.e. on the presence of at least one bound in the active structure of the interval, abstracting away from potential bounds/non-bounds lying outside the interval itself. Situations having at least one bound were called Bounded, those with open situation structure types – Nonbounded. In the Lexicon of some languages, this basic opposition is reflected as a semantic grouping of words. It is based on this opposition that the lexico-semantic classes of Slavonic verbs (called Modes of Action, Action Modes or Aktionsarten) are regrouped into larger situation structure types; it is, again, based on this opposition that situation structure types generalize to form the opposition of Perfective/Imperfective Aspect. Dahl (1981) defines (Perfective) Aspect – “the P-Property” in terms of Telicity:

“A situation, process, action, etc. has the P-Property if and only if it has the T-Property and the goal, limit or terminal point in question is or is claimed to be actually reached”.

This definition, while presenting a major step towards the understanding of Aspect, is too narrow to account for Slavonic Aspect and needs reformulation. Dahl correctly observes that, presupposing the presence of a final bound in the structure of the interval, Telicity forms a potential for the realization of Perfective Aspect, but that not all Telic situations are perfective. However, Perfectivity is not solely based on Telicity: many perfective verbs express Inchoativity. It is boundedness that forms the potential of Perfectivity, and Telicity relates to only one type of boundedness. I therefore propose a modification of Dahl’s statement, substituting a B(oundedness)-Property for his T-Property:

A situation/verb phrase/verb has the B-Property iff its situation structure type contains at least one non-potential bound at its extremes. A situation/verb phrase/verb has the P-Property iff it has the B-property.

In other words, Slavonic Aspect can be viewed as the grammaticalisation of the B-Property. Both Slavonic and Germanic languages have the lexical means to express the presence of a potential bound in the situation structure of a verb. English phrasal verbs of the eat up, sit down, pour out, breathe in, etc. type are genetically related to Slavonic Action Modes. Just as in Slavonic languages, Phrasal verbs are separate lexical entities, and often separate dictionary entries, with a specific lexical meaning and subcategorisation frame. Other possibilities to mark boundedness in English are: structures of the have a look, have a bite type, the use of phase verbs (as in start eating, finish working, etc.,), resultative constructions of the hammer the metal flat type (Cf. Beavers 2012), etc. Slavonic and Germanic languages differ in that the former, and not the latter, have grammaticalised the activation of the Bound. Verbs denoting situations with active Boundedness are Perfective. Verbs where the situation structure either does not contain a bound, or else contains a bound which has not been reached, or is not in focus (i.e. is not active) are Imperfective.

In view of the clear aspectual bipartition of situations as grammaticalised in Slavonic languages, it is interesting to note that in the long history of European linguistics situations have traditionally been studied in terms of tripartitions. This tradition follows Aristotle’s classification of Verbs as referring to Events, Processes and States. Rather surprisingly, where classifications propose a reanalysis of the Aristotelian classes based on binary oppositions, the first division appears not between events and non-events, but between states, on the one hand, and processes and events, on the other. Figure 4 presents an influential taxonomy of situation types proposed by A. Mourelatos (1981):




                                                                                  States                      Occurrences

                                                                                                         Processes                Events

                                                                                                                                 Developments  Results


Figure 4. Situation types: A. Mourelatos

The classification proposed by Mourelatos, like those of Z. Vendler (1967) or C. Smith (1991), is based on a number of different criteria, with dynamicity at the top. Other authors adopt a division along the lines of Figure 4, claiming however that it is based on Boundedness. Thus, Desclés and Guentcheva (2012) define events as situations bounded on both sides by states, while processes are asserted to be “characterized by an initial event marking discontinuity” (Desclés and Guentcheva 2012: 136). According to Desclés (1991), processes are bounded situations because, marking a change from an initial to a final situation, a process must have a beginning. Proceeding in this vein, one could argue that the world began with an event, went on as a process, and only contains states as interruptions of these processes – and that states are hence no less bounded situation types. The linguistic relevance of such a line of thought is, however, not obvious. Above all, this view does not find confirmation in data-based investigations across languages, where the binary opposition of +/- Boundedness, setting events apart from other situations, dominates. As demonstrated above, it is on the opposition between the event and the non-event that the Slavonic category of Aspect is based.

Slavonic Aspect realizes the semantic opposition which was topologically defined above as two oppositions of verbs and forms. 1. An opposition marked by specific suffixal markers, where the unmarked member is Perfective and the marked one – Imperfective; Cf. the Bulgarian pairs kupya -> kupuvam (buy – Perfective and Imperfective), nakupya -> nakupuvam(buy in large numbers – Perfective and Imperfective), napisha -> napisvam (write – Perfective and Imperfective), pozhalteya -> pozhaltyavam (become yellow – Perfective and Imperfective), etc. 2. A grammatical opposition of an inherent type, where most (but not all) unprefixed verbs are of the Imperfective aspect, while prefixed ones (before the addition of suffixal imperfectivizing markers) are Perfective. The opposition of type A includes aspectually opposed pairs of the same lexical unit. In the Lexicon, these are listed within the same entry. The opposition of type B groups verbal lexemes in two aspectual classes. The non-prefixed and prefixed verbs have different lexical meaning and, sometimes, different subcategorization requirements. In the Lexicon, they are listed as different entries. Neither of these oppositions forms part of the systems of Germanic or Romance languages. Analyses of parallel Bulgarian-English and English-Bulgarian corpora (Cf. e.g. Stambolieva 1987) have clearly demonstrated that in English, aspectual values are obtained on the level of the sentence and situation types cannot directly be related to verb classes. In Bulgarian, on the other hand, even in the presence of clear contextual markers, the expression of boundedness presupposes the presence of a perfective verb.


3. Aspect and the English Progressive

A couple of years ago, I was asked to review an MA thesis, in which the student enthusiastically reported on an educational experiment – the presentation of the English Progressive to sixth grade Bulgarian students of English via reference to the Bulgarian Perfective/Imperfective Aspect opposition. This idea immediately struck me as ill-conceived, seeing that the semantic content of the oppositions on which Slavonic Aspect and the English Progressive/Non-Progressive are based, is very different. However, many authors define the English Progressive/Non-Progressive opposition as Aspectual – taking a very broad and/or unconventional view of Aspect. Mair (2012), for one, views the Progressive as a subtype of the Continuous, this latter in turn forming a subpart of the Imperfective. The Imperfective being opposed to the Perfective, in Mair’s classification the English Progressive ends up as aspectually opposed to the Perfective – which is, simply, wrong. While Slavonic Imperfectives are opposed to clear Perfective verbs or forms, the English Progressive is opposed to a Non-Progressive, which is aspectually unmarked – Compare: the Present, Past and Perfect Progressive/Non-Progressive oppositions:

(1) John is reading your book vs. John reads your book every day

(2) John was reading your book all day yesterday vs. John read your book all day yesterday

(3) John has been reading your book for a week now vs. John has read your book for a week now

English grammars and reference books list a number of “meanings” of the Progressive, which I summarize below, contrasted again to the Non-Progressive:

1. Non-momentary situations:

(4) I now raise my arm vs. I am raising my arm

(5) The house falls down vs. The house is falling down

Commentators of fast-moving sports, such as football, tennis, or box, where events are perceived as momentary, use the Non-Progressive Present Tense:

(6) Greaves shoots for goal.

(7) Dixon serves.

Compare with:

(8) Oxford are rowing well.

2. Situations of limited continuity:

(9) I live in Sofia vs. I am living in Sofia

3. Situations which may not be completed:

(10) The bus stops vs. The bus is stopping

(11) The man drowned vs. The man was drowning

(12) I read from 10 to 11 vs. I was reading from 10 to 11

4. Temporal frames for other situations:

(13) When we arrived, she made some fresh coffee vs. When we arrived, she was making fresh coffee.

5. Situations marked by increasing or decreasing dynamism?

(14) He resembles his father vs. He is resembling his father more and more

(15) It doesn’t matter much vs. It is mattering less and less

6. Situations of limited iterativity.

(16) In those days people got up very early vs. In those days we were getting up very early

7. Frames for repetitive situations.

(17) Whenever I visit her, she watches TV vs. Whenever I visit her, she is watching TV.

8. Persistent or sporadically repeated situations, with negative emotional colouring, in well specified contexts:

(18) I often forget people’s names vs. I am continually forgetting people’s names

(19) He sometimes gives his wife expensive presents vs. He is always giving his wife expensive presents

(20) She breaks things vs. She is always breaking things

9. Expected situations in the future:

(17) The train leaves at 4 vs. We are leaving at 4

Of the seventeen examples above, in only two – (9) and (13) the Non-Progressive and the Progressive might, but need not, be aspectually opposed. The Bulgarian equivalents of all the sentences containing a Progressive form will contain a verb of the Imperfective aspect. A verb of the same aspect will (or, in the two cases mentioned above – could) appear in the translation equivalent of the sentences containing a Non-Progressive form.

Mair devotes a special discussion to recent changes in the English Progressive, related to its pragmatic and stylistic overtones. He points out that, first, the progressive form has become demonstrably more frequent in its established uses in texts in the course of the past few centuries and second, that new uses of the progressive have emerged. He quotes Denison (1998: 143) according to whom the progressive construction has undergone some of the most striking syntactic changes of the Late Modern English period and its overall frequency has been increasing continuously. Dennis (1940) estimates an approximate doubling of the uses of the Progressive every century from 1500, though with a slowing down in the eighteenth century and a spurt at the beginning of the nineteenth. Arnauld, working from a corpus of private letters and extrapolating to the speech of literate middle-class people, estimates a threefold increase during the nineteenth century alone. According to Mair, the increase in discourse frequency of the Progressive may well result in its becoming a Continuous or even a generalized Imperfective. (Cf. Mair 2012: 816-822). If this happens, the Non-Progressive might well end up one day as a Perfective. For the time being, however, the English Progressive/Non-Progressive opposition neither forms a clear-cut Aspect opposition, nor expresses a clear-cut semantic content. It has very little to do with the expression of situation structure Boundedness / Unboundedness, which defines the Slavonic category of Aspect.


4. Correlation, Boundedness and Aspect: Is the Perfect an Aspect?

A point in common between the English Progressive and Slavonic Aspect is that they define situation structures per se, without specific reference to time or to other situations. There are linguists, however, who use the term “Aspect” to refer to Correlation – the positioning of a situation in relation to another situation. The motivation behind this is either the lack of understanding that Aspect relates to inner boundedness, or the desire to equate Aspect and Boundedness. Such an approach is undesirable because, first, defining a morphologically marked category with the terms used to define situation types contributes to the overall terminological indeterminacy, and second, because the Perfect does not express, in many languages, a unitary grammatical content. While the French Perfect (Passé Composé) is only formally a Perfect, while in fact functioning as a Preterite, the English Present Perfect has a number of functions, for which not all grammarians even attempt to find a common denominator:

1. A resultative situation, as in

(18) Stoyan has arrived = Stoyan is here.

2. A situation which occurred at least once in an interval reaching up to the moment of speech, as in

(19) I have been to Sofia.

3. A situation holding over a whole period reaching up to the moment of speech, as in

(20) I have worked here for over five years.

4. A recent situation, as in

(21) I have just written to him.


The situations described are placed in different relations to a reference point – in the above cases, coinciding with the moment of speech. Although in three out of the four meanings of the Perfect above one could argue that the situations are over, hence bounded, this boundedness can be defined not as part of the inner makeup of the situation, but rather as completion before a reference point – hence the traditional term “Correlation”. Again, the use of the term “Aspect” instead of Correlation can only cause misunderstanding. Bulgarian translations of the above sentences will contain verbs of the Imperfective Aspect in all cases except (18). Further, in the system of the Bulgarian language, Aspect and Correlation coexist harmoniously. Any native speaker of the language is aware that the Perfect (called Indefinite Past) is compatible with both Imperfective and Perfective verbs:

(22) Stoyan e pristignal / e chel tazi kniga / e prochel tazi kniga. (Past Indefinite: Stoyan has arrived (Perfective verb) / has read this book (Imperfective verb) / has read this book (Perfective verb).

(23) Bil sam v Sofia. Hodil sam v Plovdiv. Zhivyala e v Parizh. (I have been to Sofia, I have been to Plovdiv, She has lived in Paris. Past Indefinite of Imperfective verbs).

(24) Rabotya tuk ot pet godini. (I have lived here for five years. Present tense of an Imperfective verb).

(25) Toku-shto poluchih pismoto. (I have just received the letter. Perfective aspect, Aorist).

(26) Toku-shto yadoh. (I have just eaten: Imperfective Aspect, Aorist).

In summary, English sentences containing verbs marked for the Perfect can be translation equivalents of Bulgarian sentences containing either Perfective or Imperfective verbs. If any unitary meaning of the Perfect can be glimpsed from the data, it relates to “precedence”.


6. Boundedness and Temporality. Is the opposition Aorist / Imperfect aspectual?

In many IndoEuropean languages, the Preterite is formed by an opposition between the Aorist and the Imperfect. In French, this used to be a contrast between the Passé simple and the Imparfait; in Modern French, the passé composé has substituted the Passé simple. The Aorist presents a situation which centers on a secondary reference point preceeding the moment of speech and which is temporally bounded, i.e. takes up a closed temporal interval. This boundedness has very little to do with the atemporal boundedness of the situation per se, expressed by Aspect. In Bulgarian, where the IndoEuropean Aorist/Imperfect opposition is very well preserved and coexists with the Perfective/Imperfective one, the Aorist is compatible with both Perfective and Imperfective verbs:



Figure 5. The Aorist: a closed (temporally bounded) interval on the deictic time axis preceding the Moment-of-Speech reference point.


(27) Vchera boyadisah (Per.) kolata. – I painted the car yesterday.

(28) Vchera dva chasa govorih (Imperf.) s neya po telefona. – Yesterday I spent two hours talking to her over the phone.

(29) Kakvo pravi (Imperf.) vchera? – What did you do / were you doing yesterday?

(30) Vchera napisah doklad.. – I wrote a report yesterday.



Figure 6. The Aorist of Perfective verbs: a bounded situation placed in a closed interval on the axis of deictic time.


(24) Vchera tsyal den pisah doklad. – I wrote/was writing a report (all day) yesterday.



Figure 7. The Aorist of Imperfective verbs: a non-bounded situation placed in a closed interval on the axis of deictic time.


Similarly, the Imperfect, which can be topologically defined as an open interval on the time axis preceding the Moment-of-Speech reference point, can be used with Perfective verbs, along with its more typical co-occurrence with Imperfective ones:



Figure 8. The Imperfect: an open (temporally non-bounded) interval on the deictic time axis preceding the Moment-of-Speech reference point.


(25) Chesto idvashe u nas, mnogo govoreshe, vnimatelno slushashe (…) – He visited us often, he talked a lot and listened carefully.



Figure 9. The Imperfect of Imperfective verbs: a non-bounded situation placed in an open interval on the axis of deictic time.


(26) Doydeshe, prisedneshe, pomalcheshe i pak si tragneshe. – He would come, would sit silent for a while, then would leave.

-----]-[] [] []--|-[] [] []--[-----|----


Figure 10. The Imperfect of Perfective verbs: a series of bounded situations placed in an open interval on the axis of deictic time.


The fact that the Aorist expresses closed (temporally bounded) situations has sometimes led to the definition of the opposition in the Preterit as Aspectual: another brick in the wall of aspectual confusion. Aspect relates to Atemporal Boundedness only. The Aorist and the Imperfect are compatible with the expression of both Perfectivity and Imperfectivity.

Modern aspectology begins with the study of Slavonic Aspect, the term “Aspect” itself being a calque of the Slavonic “Vid”. Existing attempts to stretch the application of the term Aspect (which we defined in terms of situation structure, of Atemporal Boundedness) to cover Progressivity, Correlation or Temporality are based on the generalization of a semantic primitive – Boundedness – over a number of different phenomena, such as situation structure, temporality and relations of precedence, and on the definition of Boundedness in this generalized view as Aspect. In view of the growing need for applications capable of correctly analyzing and translating strings marked for Aspect, Correlation and Tense, a conscious effort of the linguistic community towards the clarification of concepts and the unification of basic terminology would be a welcome move. This paper was conceived as a step in this direction.



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About the author

Dr. Maria Stambolieva is Associate Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures of New Bulgarian University and Lecturer at IFAG, Sofia, where she teaches Morphology, Syntax, Computer and Translation, General English and Business English. M. Stambolieva is the pioneer of Bulgarian computational corpus linguistics, the author of the first monolingual corpus of Modern Literary Bulgarian, of a multilingual parallel corpus of Bulgarian, English and French, of corpus-processing software. She has participated in and directed many international and national research and educational projects. Her interests are in the field of formal linguistics, corpus linguistics and computational linguistics; she is the author of books and articles in her areas of interest. M. Stambolieva co-chairs the Bulgarian national association of corpus and computational linguists ANABELA.

E-mail: mstambolieva at nbu dot bg