On Cross-linguistic Equivalences

It is, without doubt, interesting to highlight the values2 that are inherent to a language by comparison with other languages. This practice can often reveal facts that would otherwise risk remaining unnoticed. But trying to establish (determine, identify) and describe those values by translating them into other languages can be dangerous.

Thus, it is true that Romance “perfects” often cor­respond, in translation, to the perfective aspect of Slavic languages; however, the respective language values are radically different. Translation only shows us that the Romance “perfects” and the Slavic perfective aspect can designate the same real states of affairs: it allows us to establish a (partial) coincidence in designation3; but no signification4 coincidence can be deduced from the latter. It is very important to refrain from applying categories to a linguistic system that are alien to it. Indeed – unlike the Slavic perfective –, the indefinite preterite (passé défini) of Romance languages may very well designate “durative” actions: It. caddi lungamente per quella china, Sp. estuve leyendo, Port. estive a estudar, Fr. je fus pendant longtemps ouvrier ébéniste; and the imperfect may de­signate “global” and even “momentary” actions: It. la polizia si recava al domicilio del colpevole e lo arrestava; Rom. Dară Manea ce făcea? Sabia ’n mînă apuca…; Fr. il prenait une voiture et, un quart d’heure après, il descendait au Palais X; Sp. el 3 de agosto, a las 8 de la mañana, establecíamos el contacto con el enemigo; etc. On the other hand, in cases that are perfectly analogous to those that are adduced to support the functional similarity between the Romance “perfects” and the Slavic perfective, the equivalence is also far from being absolute. Speakers of Romance languages say, for instance, Sp. escribí (he escrito) todo el día, Port. escrevi o dia inteiro, It. scrissi (ho scritto) tutto il giorno, Rom. am scris toată ziua, etc., that is, the same way they say escribí (he escrito) la carta, etc., while Russian speakers say ja napisal pis’mo (with the perfective), I’ve written the letter’, but ja pisal celyj den’ (with the imperfective), I’ve been writing the entire day’. Spanish speakers say leí (he leído) a Puškin (and so do, mutatis mutandis, the speakers of other Romance languages); Russian speakers, in contrast, say ja čital Puškina, with the imperfective. All this is due to the fact that the specific temporal determination expressed by Romance “perfects” does not coincide with the per­fectivity expressed by the Slavic verb. Slavic expresses the verbal action as considered with its objective end or without its end, while Romance languages express the action with limits that are defined in time or without limits; more strictly speaking, the action outside its development and in its very development.


1 All footnotes are from the translator.

2 On the concept of linguistic value, see Saussure 2011, 111ff.

3 Coseriu (1971, 486) defines designation as “the reference to extralinguistic reality or extralinguistic reality itself, be it facts or be it ideas (i.e. facts of the mind)”.

4 Coseriu (1971, 486) defines signification as “the linguistic content in a particular language”. Other English terms used by him to refer to the same phenomenon are significance (Coseriu 1967) and meaning (Coseriu 1985).