Aspectual distinctions in the comics

Today’s Zippy involves a distinction in the interpretation of the VP own thirty-one muu-muus:

Does Zippy happen to own (only) 31 muu-muus at the moment? Griffy asks how many muu-muus Zippy owns, and that’s what Zippy apparently says in reply.

Or is Zippy’s way of life such that he always has (only) 31 muu-muus in his possession? That would indeed predict that Zippy has (only) 31 at the moment, but it would also predict that if you took one away, he’d have to get a new one to replace it, and that if you gave him a new one, he’d have to get rid of an old one — all to maintain the stable state of owning 31 muu-muus. That’s what Zippy says in his reply.

The distinction is aspectual, corresponding very roughly to the circumstances in which you’d choose a ‘to be’ verb in Spanish: estar (roughly) for temporary situations, not necessarily extending beyond the reference time period (hence mutable, contingent), ser (roughly) for enduring, even permanent situations, extending through time before and after the reference time period (hence unchanging, even necessary).

Tense distinctions have to do with times (or, better, time periods): event time, locating the relevant situation; speech time, locating the description of that situation; and reference time, locating the point of view from which that situation is described. Aspectual distinctions, on the other hand, have to do with course or development of a situation in time, either internally (is it uniform throughout its duration? does it crucially have a beginning point? does it crucially have an end point? etc.) or within some larger situation (as with the temporary / permanent distinction above).

Aspectual distinctions can be explicit, formally realized in a language, or implicit, entirely a matter of how expressions are interpreted.

Two ways of explicitly registering an aspectual distinction in a language:

lexically, with different lexical items encoding different aspectual categories, as in a distinction between verbs denoting states (like contain) and verbs denoting processes (like fill), or in the estar / ser distinction in Spanish; in this case, the lexical items are said to belong to different Aktionsarten (literally ‘types of action’)

morphosyntactically, via a choice of inflectional morphology or of syntactic construction; in this case, the morphosyntactic categories in question are referred to as different aspects: for example, simple vs. progressive aspects, distinguished inflectionally in some languages, by choice of syntactic construction in English (simple aspect using unmarked syntax, as in I spoke to them; progressive aspect using a construction with the modal verb be + a PRP complement, as in I was speaking to them)

But tense+aspectual distinctions aren’t always overtly expressed, in either of these ways. Simple PRS-form Vs in English, for instance, can convey a wide range of combinations of tense and aspectual categories:

enduring state: The stir-fry contains peanuts.

habitual activity: They eat hot dogs with knife and fork.

hot-news accomplishment: France wins the World Cup!

historical present in narrative: Dr. Jekyll poured out the liquid. He studies it for a moment, then drinks it down.

futurate present: Your train leaves at midnight.

(These names are just labels, not definitions.)

Back to Zippy and his muu-muus. Zippy is treating own much like have, available for aspectually permanent use for inalienable possession (We all have two ears. Sandy has a knack for abstract algebra.) as well as aspectually temporary use for alienable possession (Terry has big ears. I have tools in the car.). Own normally conveys alienable possession and so is aspectually temporary — but in this, as in so many things, Zippy goes his own way.

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