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March 21, 2009 2:47 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin in English of the present continuous tense (present progressive tense)?

I've just been studying a bit of Latin based languages and they do not seem to have the same Present Continuous / Present Progressive verbs for "I am running" or "He is asking a question".

Also wikipedia seems to suggest not many other languages have this verb congugation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Present_tense

I've also been told that its a recent occurance in English - ie Shakespeare did not use it nor do older translations of the Bible. So where did it come from?
posted by mary8nne to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Actually I've founds somethign that seems to suggest that it exists as a distinct verb form in Irish and Welsh.

And my question is basically the same as the original question for that thread.

What other languages have a distinct verb construction for the present continuous. that is Distinct from say "I run" and is not a round about way of saying "I am in the process of to run".

In English it has come to dominate, and yet I don't think it even existed say 500 years ago?
posted by mary8nne at 2:59 AM on March 21, 2009

Japanese has got the present continous tense. It is constructed by adding "iru" (to be) after the 'te' form of the verb, e.g "I am running"

Watashi wa hashite iru.
posted by dydecker at 4:05 AM on March 21, 2009

I think your current approach will not answer the question: how did the progressive tenses evolve historically? However, there is a related and also interesting question which you might be able to answer with casual contributions from users here: what grammars are similar to English's in their inclusion of these progressive tenses?

The problem with using the latter combined with some basic geographical and historical knowledge to infer the former (inferring a cladistic phylogeny from essentially formal taxonomic data,) is that, even with great rigor, it's still quite possible that your maximally parsimonious estimation will be historical false.

(For example, Evolutionary biology gives us some good guesses, but its answers are, as yet, far from indisputable. Here is an interesting paper relating to that topic: Systematic Generalization, Historical Fate, and the Species Problem)

Anyway, to answer your question, your best bet is probably to find a copy of this dissertation: The Progressive in Modern English: A corpus-based study of grammaticalization and related changes

I have reproduced the opening paragraph of its abstract below.
I think it's what you're looking for.
Based on a detailed analysis of the occurrences of the progressive form in the British part of ARCHER-2 (a corpus of historical English registers, version 2, covering the period 1600-1999), the thesis discusses the development of the English progressive within the Modern English period. The development is understood as a process of (secondary) grammaticalization, as the construction be + v-ing evolves from a rather infrequent construction which partly conveys aspectual meaning and partly merely emphasis to a grammaticalized expression of progressive aspect, which in some contexts is obligatory in PDE. This development is characterized by a variety of accompanying changes, concerning e.g. frequency, spread through diverse genres, different linguistic contexts, as well as changes in function.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:16 AM on March 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Korean is very similar to Japanese. You use the "go" form of the verb and then add "eet-da" (to be) to the end. Using the verb for "to go," we get this example:

Kago eet-da = (I) am going (informal)

That said, you can use the simple present to perform the same functions as the present continuous.
posted by smorange at 4:19 AM on March 21, 2009

To answer the latter (unasked) question, Modern Mandarin has a progressive aspect, which Wikipedia page gives. The Chinese version of the page doesn't have any more detail on the present progressive (Chinese:進行體,) but it does reference this text as authoritative. (Unfortunately, I don't have access to a Chinese academic library right now, so I cannot on its quality.)

You can, however, be fairly confident that, despite the similarities, the English present progressive did not evolve from its Mandarin equivalent. :)
posted by Sangermaine at 4:38 AM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've just been studying a bit of Latin based languages and they do not seem to have the same Present Continuous / Present Progressive verbs for "I am running" or "He is asking a question".

I'm not sure which Latin based languages you've been studying. In Spanish, our usual use of Present Progressive in English would just be translated to Present in Spanish. However, to emphasize that you are doing something right now, the stronger meaning of Present Progressive, you can use estar plus a present participle.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:06 AM on March 21, 2009

oh there is a page on Wikipedia. Thanks. My searching failed to find that I guess as I didn't know to use the term aspect. thanks for the answers
posted by mary8nne at 5:46 AM on March 21, 2009

Oh and I was doing some French recently and had vague recollections of it not existing in Spanish or Italian. But I was evidently wrong.
posted by mary8nne at 5:49 AM on March 21, 2009

Well, it is very difficult to find two bits of tense/aspect morphology that line up in every single detail of meaning, across languages. For instance, the English simple present (which you might think is simple) is in fact quite idiosyncratic and different even from other Germanic languages. Add to this the fact that the terminology for describing a tense or aspect (the lines between which, by the way, are not exactly clear) in a particular language (or family of languages) typically originates from an independent grammatical tradition focusing on those languages, and it becomes very hard to know if what is called e.g. "continuous aspect" in one language is really the same thing as something with the same name in another language. But this said, most of the meanings you seem to be interested in are often expressed using some kind of imperfective aspect in languages that have one; all Romance languages do IIRC. If you're interested in understanding more, this book would be one good place to start.
posted by advil at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2009

Both French and Italian have present progressive forms but the English progressive is, in many cases, translated into the present tense in those languages.
posted by charlesv at 8:39 AM on March 21, 2009

Is this the difference in French between, say, "je fais quelquechose" and "je suis en train de faire quelquechose" or is the latter a circumlocution to similar effect?
posted by Rumple at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2009

Guy Deutscher has an excellent book The Unfolding of Language which goes into the development of verb forms in great but accessible detail. One of the things he describes is how some common spatial metaphors underpin the development of language to describe things in time. There's a whole chapter in the book on how verbs evolved in Semitic languages which is used as an example for language in general. (I know that sounds dry as dust, but it was great! Trust me! Run to your public library immediately!)

It might be helpful to distinguish the construction itself ("to be" + participle"), which occurs in some other languages too with somewhat similar meaning, from the aspect - lots of languages have conventional ways to express progressive action that aren't necessarily part of the verb at all.

It struck me when I was learning German that there is a similar construction ("er ist am schreiben", "he is writing") but it doesn't mean exactly the same thing - it feels more like a description than a verb form - and is far less common than the simple present. It seemed to me as though it were a larval form of the English progressive which German speakers didn't feel the need for, but if they ever did, it's there waiting. Meanwhile Germans use adverbs of time (like "noch", "still") when they want to express continuous action.

Another language which I know somewhat, Maori, conveys the progressive by using particles of location or posession. Verbs aren't conjugated as such at all. In "E tukua ki Metafilter ana", "I am posting to Metafilter", "e" and "ana" are particles that usually express where something is. Tense and aspect are totally conveyed by other words in the sentence.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:13 PM on March 21, 2009

My German teacher in high school was an elderly German man. He fully understood the use of the progressive, but liked to avoid it when possible. The German phrase "Es regnet" would be translated by this man as he stood next to a drizzly window: "Hmm. It rains."" There was always something slightly creepy about that :-)
posted by jefficator at 9:09 PM on March 21, 2009

Thanks for all the help - I've been reading The Unfolding of Langauage and its all making so much more sense now.
posted by mary8nne at 4:26 AM on April 23, 2009

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