I have two questions on this topic. The firstmay be too general, but basically, I am curious as to how tenses evolve and whether tenses between languages can be used to help find out whether languages are related to eachother.

My other question is more specific. I am wondering whether the english plubperfect tense came from the french, past composite tense since both languages use the verb, "to have" to indicate the tenses.

  • There are millions of ways that tense systems change. They are not generally useful as an indication of historical relatedness, except under the general principle of grouping according to shared innovation where independent development can be ruled out. Certain common patterns like the usurpation of a verb meaning "want" for future or "finish" for completive are so independently likely as to be useless for purposes of historical grouping. – user6726 Mar 30 '16 at 22:43
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    It also appears that you need to explain what you mean by "tense" – user6726 Mar 31 '16 at 2:03

English and French pluperfect constructions are not descended from a common ancestor

The English pluperfect tense (along with all the other composite tenses made with "have") is not what is called "genetically" related to the French past composite tense (or any of the other composite tenses made with "avoir"). The use of "genetically" in the preceding sentence might be confusing; if it is, here is an explanation. It doesn't have anything to do with genes. In historical linguistics and etymology, words or structures in different languages are said to have a "genetic" relationship, or just to be "related," only under very specific circumstances.

First, the two languages must descend from a common ancestral language. This is true for English and French: they have a common ancestor that is reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European.

Second, the words (or structures) that we are comparing must come from a common source word (or structure) in that ancestor. This is not true for have and avoir. If we look these words up on Wiktionary, it says have is descended from Proto-Indo-European *keh₂p-, while avoir is descended from Proto-Indo-European *gʰh₁bʰ-. These are completely different roots.

There is also a third requirement: the words must have been continuously present in each language since the common ancestor. Pairs where one language has borrowed the word, such as English infant and French enfant, do not count as "related" for the purpose of historical linguistics. This is kind of an unintuitive use of the word "related," so be aware that etymologists generally use the word differently from the normal, broader definition. Another term that generally means "genetically related" is "cognate."

But the languages are believed to have influenced each other in this area

Now that that's said: although "have" and "avoir" are not etymologically related, it is generally believed that the use of the cognates of "have" in the Germanic languages influenced the use of the cognates of "avoir" in the Romance languages (and vice versa). If you look at this map on the World Atlas of Language Structures, "The Perfect," you can see that perfects formed with the verb "have" are generally rare (these are the languages coded as "From possessive"). But there's a relatively large amount of languages with this construction clustered near each other in Europe.

Unfortunately, I don't know the details of how and when this construction developed, and which language group could be considered the origin of it.

So while this similarity does not in the end show that French and English are related to each other, it does provide some evidence that they developed in the same area and influenced each other historically.

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English doesn't have a "pluperfect tense", so it couldn't have come from anything. English has two tenses: past and non-past. It has a progressive aspect marker (-ing) and a perfect construction (have). The various "tenses" like the "pluperfect" just arise naturally from the various combinations of those elements.

I'm not sure what the origin of the English perfect construction is, but in general, it is definitely true that grammatical features including tense change. For example, you can look at Wikipedia's summary of Old English verbs, which had distinct morphological forms for infinitives, subjunctives and imperatives, none of which exist now in Modern English.

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  • Some people consider the English perfect to be a tense (or at least, to have a temporal component as well as an aspectual component). It seems to be a debatable point. For example, see here: acsu.buffalo.edu/~jb77/sula2jb.pdf – brass tacks Mar 30 '16 at 23:30
  • @sumelic I think it's very closely related to tense, but distinct. Tense is the grammaticalisation of location in time, or the grammaticalisation of temporal reference. The perfect construction shifts the reference point for a clause's tense. – curiousdannii Mar 30 '16 at 23:40
  • Well, it's certainly not the same thing as the "tense" distinction between "eat" and "ate" (although the two systems interact). But that doesn't necessarily mean one system is tense, and the other is not. They can be considered two different types of tense. Huddleston and Pullum call them "primary tense" and "secondary tense." – brass tacks Mar 30 '16 at 23:48
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    @sumelic Sure, it doesn't matter too much. But for those who are learning English (or linguistics) I think its more instructive to keep them as more independent categories. Too many people treat the perfect as something that can be listed in a paradigm with the true/primary tenses, but that leads to silly things like the pluperfect. The progressive and the perfect should be seen as things which get combined with tense and with each other as language is used, not as ingredients which get mixed to produce the grammatical inventory of a language. – curiousdannii Mar 30 '16 at 23:52
  • I guess so. It would be nice if we had a third term besides tense and aspect, since while the first may suggest the perfect is the same kind of thing as the normal past tense, the second could suggest it is the same kind of thing as the progressive aspect. – brass tacks Mar 30 '16 at 23:56

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