African American Vernacular English/Verbs/Aspect

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Aspect in English is similar to tense. Linguistics use the term "Tense-Aspect-Modality" or TAM to describe the three rules which make up so-called verb "tenses." Generally:

  1. Tense is used to say what point in time something happened.
  2. Aspect is used to say how something happens: how often something happens, and whether it has been completed.
  3. Modality is the truth value of how likely something happened: declarative, subjunctive, conditional, imperative. However questions and negation are generally not considered part of modality.

Aspect in General English[edit]

English, or at least most prestige varieties of English are generally understood to have four aspects: simple, continuous, perfective, and perfective continuous, as well as three tenses (past, present, future), and a wide variety of modalities formed by modal verbs, plus the subjunctive and imperative.

In MAE, the "perfective" marker "has" has three different meanings.

  1. Done up until the present, possibly finished.
  2. Done frequently through the present, always(?) used with an adverb of time.
  3. Done once in the past, at an indefinite time.

AAVE, by contrast, has different aspects for each of these.

Aspect in AAVE[edit]

Done[edit]

"Done" in AAVE is a perfective marker, used to mean that an action has been completed.

  • He done run. = He's just run.

Been[edit]

"Been" is used in AAVE to indicate that an action has been going on, repeatedly for awhile. In this, it is unlike the MAE auxiliary "has," which can mean it happened and continued to the present, or that it has happened frequently.

  • He been running. = He's been running frequently

Note that an adverb of time can only indicate how long something has happened, and not how often. Sentences marked with an asterisk* are ungrammatical and semantically nonsense.

  • He been running two hours. = He's been running two hours, every day.
  • *He been running every week.
  • He run every week. = He runs every week.

BIN[edit]

Bin, which is stressed, is used in a similar way as "been," however it indicates that the action was completed. Thus:

  • He been running. = He's been running, often, for a while.
  • He BIN running. = He has been running, but has stopped.

In this way, the stressed "BIN" is similar to the MAE example:

  • He was running. = Earlier, he was running.
  • He WAS running. = Earlie, he was running, but he stopped.