Languages may have different kinds of tense-aspect systems. In this feature, we do not look at the whole range of possible aspect and tense categories. Regarding tense, we look only at present and past situations; in the aspectual domain, we restrict ourselves to the opposition of perfective vs. imperfective.
Tense concerns the order relations that a situation denoted by a verb may have with the moment of utterance or another temporal-deictic moment of reference. Three relations are distinguished: anteriority, simultaneity, and posteriority.
Grammatical aspect is understood here as referring to the marking of the internal temporal structure of an event (beginning, middle, and end). The imperfective aspect refers to a point of time within the boundaries (beginning, end) of an event. In narrative texts, imperfective markers are often used to refer to backgrounded events. The perfective aspect refers to the whole situation, with beginning, middle, and end. Perfectively marked stative verbs may also refer to the beginning of the state (inchoative function). In narrative texts, perfective aspect markers – which in pidgin and creole languages are mostly zero-markers – often refer to foregrounded events (story-line events).
Note that there are other aspectual categories like resultative or completive, but these are disregarded for this feature.
We distinguish the following four values:
|Purely aspectual system||10|
|Purely temporal system||1|
|Mixed aspectual-temporal system||56|
|No or only one tense or aspect marker||8|
A purely aspectual system (value 1) only has a perfective aspect marker (possibly realized as a zero morpheme) that normally refers to perfective past situations, and an imperfective marker that can be used for both present and past situations (ongoing process, current state, or habitual event).
Purely aspectual systems are found in five Southeast Asian Portuguese- and Spanish-based languages, in two English-based languages, in two Malay-based languages, as well as in Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin. In the examples below, the first or first two show the use of an imperfective marker for present and past time reference, while the last example shows a perfective past situation expressed by a perfective marker.
Note that in most languages with a purely aspectual system, the perfective marker is an overt marker; the exception to this is Ghanaian Pidgin English.
Languages with a purely temporal system (value 2) only mark present, past, and future situations, regardless of aspect. The only language exhibiting this feature is Afrikaans.
Languages with a mixed temporal-aspectual system (value 3) are the most widespread type. (For this value, it is not important whether tense marking is obligatory, optional, or bound to certain contexts.) In these languages, imperfective marking can be combined with a present/past distinction, as the (a) and (b) examples below show.
The difference between a purely aspectual system and a mixed tense-aspect system lies in the domain of the imperfective: purely aspectual systems cannot mark the difference between present imperfective and past imperfective, whereas mixed tense-aspect systems do.
Value 4 (no or only one tense and aspect marker) refers to languages that use only time adverbs or have only one overt tense or aspect marker (future markers are not relevant for this feature). Value 4 occurs in Chinuk Wawa, Eskimo Pidgin, and Pidgin Hindustani (have no tense and aspect markers), in Chinese Pidgin English (has only a perfective aspect marker hab), in Chinese Pidgin Russian (has only a perfective suffix –la), in Pidgin Hawaiian (has only an imperfective marker ana), in Sango (has only a habitual marker ka), and in Tayo (has only a progressive marker atra nde).
Whereas mixed temporal-aspectual systems prevail in nearly all regions, purely aspectual systems are found almost exclusively in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with the exception of Ghanaian Pidgin English in the Atlantic area. The fact that the Southeast Asian languages exhibit purely aspectual systems is due to Malay and Philippine substrate or adstrate influence.