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verbal aspect

The most common verbal aspects in Gaelic are –


perfectives [+/-]

A verbal expression has perfective aspect if it presents a situation (event, activity, process or state) as a single, unanalysable, bounded whole, perhaps preceded and followed by others. In Gaelic, as in English, past perfective situations are typically encoded in the simple past tense –

  • Dh’fhosgail mi an doras. Chaidh mi a-steach agus shuidh mi (sìos) aig a’ bhòrd. ‘I opened the door. I went in and sat down at the table.’

Simple futures and conditionals can also be used to mark perfective situations in ‘irrealis’ contexts (non-factuals, conditionals, hypotheticals, ...) –

  • Ma bhios an t-uisge ann, fosglaidh mi an doras agus thèid mi a-steach.‘If it rains, I’ll open the door and go in.’
  • Nam biodh / Nan robh an t-uisge ann, dh’fhosglainn an doras agus rachainn / dheighinn a-steach. ‘If it were raining, I would open the door and go in.’

Note also that almost all verb forms in the simple past mark perfective situations, with the obvious exceptions being the past simple forms of bi (bha, robh) and is (bu). Things are more complicated with simple futures and conditionals, as discussed below.


inchoatives [+/-]

A perfective verbal expression has inchoative aspect if it describes the starting point of a situation, usually by means of an aspectual auxiliary verb –

  • Thòisich Iain air an doras fhosgladh. ‘John started to open the door.’
  • Theann Màiri ri seinn. ‘Mary began to sing.’

cf. tòisich, teann ‘start, begin, commence’.


cessatives [+/-]

A perfective verbal expression has cessative aspect if it describes the ending point of a situation, again usually by means of an aspectual auxiliary verb or verb compound –

  • Sguir Iain a dh’fhosgladh an dorais. ‘John stopped opening the door.’
  • Stad Màiri a sheinn. ‘Mary stopped singing.’

cf. sguir, stad ‘stop, finish, end’, (thig/thoir) gu crìoch ‘(come/bring) to an end’.


imperfectives [+/-]

A verbal expression has imperfective aspect if it presents a situation as ongoing and non-bounded, without explicit start or end points. Imperfective situations are often presented as descriptive background to foregrounded perfectives.


progressives [+/-]

An imperfective verbal expression has progressive aspect if it describes an event, activity or process as continuous or ongoing – a situation that has started but not yet ended. In Gaelic, the normal way of marking progressive aspect is by means of verbal compounds of the form bi ag + verbal noun –

  • Chaidh mi a-steach. Bha Iain a’ leughadh. ‘I went in. John was reading.’
In this example, the activity described by the second sentence is presented as progressive background to the foregrounded perfective event described by the preceding sentence.

We can also have present, future and conditional progressives –

  • Dè tha thu a’ dèanamh? / Tha mi ag ithe ubhal. ‘What are you doing? / I’m eating an apple.’
  • Feasgar a-màireach aig seachd uairean, bidh Màiri a’ coimhead air an telebhisean. ‘Tomorrow evening at 7, Mary will be watching TV.’
  • Thuirt i gum biodh Seumas ag obair anns a’ ghàrradh an làrna-mhàireach. ‘She said that James would be working in the garden the following day.’

In Gaelic, it is normal to use semantically stative verbs in the progressive, where English would use a simple present or past –

  • Tha mi a’ tuigsinn nan rudan seo. ‘I understand these things.’

cf. ag ‘in the process of’.

In addition, there are a handful of Gaelic verbs that form stative progressive constructions of the form bi na + verbal noun –

  • Tha mi nam shuidhe aig a’ bhòrd. ‘I am sitting at the table.’
  • Thàinig mi dhachaigh. Bha Seumas na chadal. ‘I came home. James was sleeping.’

cf. an ‘in’.


habituals [+/-]

An imperfective verbal expression has habitual aspect if it describes a non-continuous, but ongoing, sequence/iteration of identical situations. In Gaelic, the traditional way of marking habitual aspect is by using simple future tense forms for present (and future) habituals, and simple conditional tense for past habituals, often elaborated or intensified by a frequency adverbial –

  • Sgrìobhaidh mi dàn gach madainn. ‘I write a poem every morning.’
  • Nuair a bha mi òg, sgrìobhainn dàn gach madainn. ‘When I was young, I wrote [would write, used to write] a poem every morning.’

Note that, unlike in English, it is not appropriate to use the simple past in Gaelic to describe habitual aspect –

  • Nuair a bha mi òg, *sgrìobh mi dàn gach madainn.

In more modern usage, the Gaelic progressive ag construction is often used as a generic marker of (introspective – see below) imperfectivity, including habitual aspect –

  • Tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh dàn [ùr] gach madainn. ‘I write a [new] poem every morning.’
  • Nuair a bha mi òg, bha mi a’ sgrìobhadh dàn [ùr] gach madainn. ‘When I was young, I wrote a [new] poem every morning.’

Habituals can be distinguished from strict progressives by using the future progressive to mark present habituals and the conditional progressive to mark past habituals –

  • Bidh mi a’ sgrìobhadh dàn [ùr] gach madainn. ‘I write a [new] poem every morning.’
  • Nuair a bha mi òg, bhithinn a’ sgrìobhadh dàn [ùr] gach madainn. ‘When I was young, I used to/would write a [new] poem every morning.’


retrospectives [+/-]

An imperfective verbal expression has retrospective aspect if it describes a situation that constitutes the aftermath of a preceding situation. In Gaelic, the normal way of marking retrospective aspect is by means of verbal compounds of the form bi air + infinitive or bi an dèidh + infinitive –

  • Tha Iain sgìth. Tha e air litir a sgrìobhadh. ‘John is tired. He has written a letter.’
  • Chaidh mi a-steach. Bha Màiri an dèidh ithe [mar-thà]. ‘I went in. Mary had [already] eaten.’

Retrospective progressives are also possible, implying non-completion –

  • Tha Iain sgìth. Tha e air a bhith a’ sgrìobhadh litir. ‘John is tired. He has been writing a letter.’
  • Chaidh mi a-steach. Bha Màiri an dèidh a bhith ag ithe. ‘I went in. Mary had been eating.’

cf. air ‘on’.


prospectives [+/-]

An imperfective verbal expression has prospective aspect if it describes a situation that constitutes the prelude to a following situation. In Gaelic, the normal way of marking prospective aspect is by means of verbal compounds of the form bi a’ dol a + verbal noun or bi gu(s) + infinitive –

  • Tha Iain a’ dol a cheannach taigh. ‘John is going to buy a house.’
  • Chaidh mi a-steach. Bha Màiri gu falbh. ‘I went in. Mary was about to leave.’

cf. gu, an impis, air lunn, air thuar ‘(seem to) be about to’.