Native Portuguese speakers (myself included) often have a hard time dealing with the English present perfect tense-aspect.

In English, the present perfect is used for expressing past actions with present consequences. This is different from the simple past, which expresses actions wholly contained in the past. In Portuguese, this distinction is not marked. Sentences using the present perfect in English are usually translated to Portuguese using the simple past. So, for example, the sentence I have received a letter gets translated into Portuguese as Eu recebi uma carta (literally, “I received a letter”).

On the other hand, Portuguese has a different tense-aspect with the same structure of the English present perfect, but equivalent in meaning to the English present perfect continuous:

Eu tenho trabalhado muito
I  have  worked     a lot
“I have been working a lot”

How did the two languages develop similar structures (have-aux + verb-past participle), that mark different grammatical tense-aspects? Did one language borrow the construction from another and changed its meaning over time? Is it just pure chance? Or some other explanation?

  • Why do you find it weird that have + pp has different meanings in different languages?
    – Louis Rhys
    Nov 9 '11 at 2:06
  • 1
    It's not weird. I'm just wondering how it happened. I've edited the question to make this point clearer. Nov 9 '11 at 10:55
  • have+pp also exists in German. How many other Romance and Germanic languages?
    – smci
    May 14 '12 at 11:43
  • Macedonian has this periphrastic construction too.
    – Atamiri
    Sep 27 '13 at 20:36
  • 1
    Interestingly, the usage of perfect present vs simple past in Spanish is different between Spain and America. It seems that such a change doesn't need thousands of years of divergent history between languages.
    – Pere
    Jun 3 '20 at 8:24

This type of construction seems to be found in quite a few Romance and Germanic languages, and also Basque. A quick check of the OED shows that the construction is found at least as early as the Old English period for English. One idea is that the construction has been maintained in Western Europe by areal pressures.

  • +1 for the paper reference. Is the full text available for download? Nov 11 '11 at 22:19
  • It looks like the author hasn't posted the conference paper to her website. My guess she's revising it for publication. If you are very interested, sending her an email wouldn't hurt, and might get you something more substantial.
    – user483
    Nov 12 '11 at 2:36
  • Actually, the conference hasn't happened yet, it's in early December. If I were you I'd shoot her an email the week before the conference and ask her if I could have a copy of the handout.
    – user483
    Nov 12 '11 at 2:44

Periphrastic forms with "have" are fairly common -- one might think of "have to" in "I have to win" (and its Spanish equivalent, "Tengo que ganar"!) as auxiliaries, and all of the future tenses in Romance are formed from a verb followed by an inflected form of the word "have" in Latin.

In any event, if I remember correctly, the way that the English present perfect was formed was via reanalysis of constructions like "I have the cat fed", in which "have" is the lexical verb, and "fed" is some kind of secondary predicate of the noun "cat". It's not too hard to see why it got used as a present perfect -- the "have" is expressing that the state is taking place now, and the past participle form "fed" expresses that the relevant event is completed. I imagine that Portuguese probably went through a different trajectory to get the meaning it has, or it followed a similar trajectory, and then semantically drifted to where it is now. Someone would need to check the facts, though.

  • 1
    In fact, Spanish got the "have to" construction twice! You can also say hay que ganar meaning something like "one must win" or "winning is necessary." Nov 9 '11 at 18:28
  • Do you know where could I find more information about the history of this construction in Portuguese? Nov 10 '11 at 19:19
  • 1
    Actually using "have" to express the perfect is quite rare outside the Indo-European family. Of the 222 languages sampled by WALS, only 7 had this construction, and all 7 of them are Indo-European languages. wals.info/feature/68A Jul 13 '13 at 18:32
  • Reg. "I have the cat fed" - my native language is Czech and we have vary similar constructions too, like "mám to hotové" ("I have it ready" = "I have finished it"). Since many of the complements (the adjective at the end) can be past participles, it seems to be slowly evolving to similar construction (but it is still far from it). I suspect it might have to do with semantics associated with the verb "have" in IE languages, which sort of presumes some sort of previous acquisition, or change of state from "not have" to "have" happening in the past.
    – Eleshar
    Oct 30 '16 at 14:06

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