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The Development of Aspect in Middle Persian

Iranian languages usually exhibit aspect as a morphologically marked category of the verb. The verbal stems can be identified as aspect stems in Old Iranian, while most modern Iranian languages mark aspect secondarily by means of affixes.An exception is represented by Middle Iranian (approximately 3rd c. BCE to 7th c. CE), which is said not to exhibit aspect. Evidence in the morphology is disregarded as stylistic variation and the two core forms of the Middle Iranian verbal system, present and preterite (or simple past), are interpreted as pure tense forms.There is, however, evidence for aspectual use of present and preterite:

  1. The present can be explained as a merger of Old Iranian present and imperfect (the imperfective of the present and past tenses). Moreover, the earliest Middle Persian texts contain remnants of Old Iranian imperfect forms and the present is used for present tense as well as past tense, partly in an abrupt alternation with the preterite (which renders a stylistic interpretation as a historical present unlikely).
  2. The preterite derives from the analytic perfect, which emerged in Old Iranian and took over functions of perfect an aorist (perfective) in Old Persian. In Middle Persian, the preterite is also used for present tense and future tense. In present tense, it expresses a case of coincidence, i.e., the completion of an event at the moment of utterance (paraphrased by „herewith the hymn begins“). This is a function of the present perfective.
  3. Modern Iranian languages either continue the Old Iranian aspect system (Hawrami) or they display aspectual use of the present as an imperfective and of the preterite as a perfective (Pamir languages). The morphological development of modern Iranian languages can best be derived from a Middle Iranian aspect system.The traditional interpretation of present and preterite as pure tense forms is based on the situation in most of the modern Iranian languages where the present stem is used for the non-past and the preterite serves as a base for all past tenses. Thus, in these languages, the aspectual stems changed into tense stems.

The project intends to exemplify the existence of aspect in Middle Persian and to trace the development of this category in history: the reanalysis of verb stems as well as the emergence of secondary aspect markers. The comparison with neighbouring languages gives evidence of the trigger of the development (inherent to the Old Iranian language system, triggered by language contact or independent development).The results will represent an exceptional example for grammaticalisation theory and comparative linguistics. They will yield information on the motivation of parallel developments in neighbouring languages (genetically related ones such as the Indo-Aryan languages or contact languages such as Aramaic). For modern Iranian languages without historical attestation, they will form an important point of reference.


07/2019 – 06/2022

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