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Most linguists recognize two tenses in English, present and past, although other verb forms are often mistakenly described as tenses. I walk is present tense and I walked is past tense. A form such as I am walking would be described not as the present progressive tense, but as a construction expressing progressive aspect, and made up of the present tense of be and the –ing form of walk. In other words, to qualify as a tense, an English verb form has to show inflectional variation.

Books for foreign learners of German, in my experience, describe as tenses all finite verb forms, even though only the present and imperfect show inflectional variation.

Here’s my question: Do German professional linguists also describe all verb forms as tenses, or do they recognize that Ich bin gegangen, for example, is best understood in terms of aspect?

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Who says it's mistaken. These are called "compound tenses". I think you're confusing tense and inflection. Even languages with no inflection at all can have tense. But maybe I'm just having trouble reading what you're trying to say? –  hippietrail Nov 21 '11 at 9:13
Another point is that tense is only one property of verbs which affect inflection. Other properties are mood and voice and person and number. This is what makes inflecting languages different to agglutinating languages. For some reason though it seems very common that people misinterpret "tense" to mean "inflected form of a verb". They are related but distinct. –  hippietrail Nov 21 '11 at 9:15
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Unfortunately I am not a linguist and thus am unable to scientifically answer your question but let me try to give you my humble understanding of the linguistic concept of aspect in German grammar.

Like in English German has only a limited morphological spectrum for flexion of verbs, these include the tenses "Präsens", and "Präteritum".

Im Deutschen werden nur einige wenige Flexionsmerkmale des Verbs rein morphologisch (d.h. in einfachen Verbformen) ausgedrückt, so beim Tempus etwa nur Präsens und Präteritum. Das Deutsche hat also kein morphologisches Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt oder Futur. Auch das Passiv wird syntaktisch gebildet.Hilbrig. Grammatik der deutschen Gegenwartssprache. Verben

According to this building other tenses, and (linguistic) aspect is done by using syntactic constructions:

Ich gehe - I go
Ich ging - I went
Ich bin gegangen - I am gone
Ich werde gehen - I will go

When buliding an aspect of a continued process like it is done in the English -ing form we may add e.g. an adverb:

Ich ging gerade zur Tür hinaus, als...

An aspect may also be generated by using a different tense but this may only be done with verbs that make such a distinction possibleP. Eisenberg: Grundriß der deutschen Grammatik

Es regnete - some indefinite time in the past
Es hat geregnet - in the past from the spoken time view

However if the verb is by meaning a self-limiting pocess like in

Der Luftballon platzte
Der Luftballon ist geplatzt

the aspectual distinction is no longer given and both tenses are interchangeable in the sense of aspect.

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Thank you. I think that's about as close an explanation of the position as we're likely to get within the constraints of a discussion such as this. –  Barrie England Nov 20 '11 at 15:58
@BarrieEngland: There are libraries written on that matter ;) –  Takkat Nov 20 '11 at 18:01
I have no doubt! –  Barrie England Nov 20 '11 at 18:20
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I'm not sure if this answers your question, because I'm not sure what you mean with "aspect" in this context. Just let me say it is handled a little bit different in German:

A tense in German is called "Zeitform" or "Tempus" (plural: Tempora).

We have the following Tempora in German:
Präsens, Präsensperfekt, Präteritum, Präteritumperfekt, Futur, Futurperfekt

Three of them are "Grundtempora" (base tenses, what comes closer to the definition of "tense" in English):
Präsens, Präteritum, Futur

The others are called "Perfekttempora". They are constructed with "haben" or "sein".

To avoid misunderstandings let me also add, that a (real) progressive form does not exist in German; neither an imperfect.

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German linguists, then, unlike English linguists, perhaps describe tense in terms of meaning rather than form. –  Barrie England Nov 20 '11 at 15:56
@John. You can read about aspect on the Wikipedia article Grammatical aspect. –  hippietrail Nov 21 '11 at 9:18
Thanks, @hippietrail. –  John Smithers Nov 21 '11 at 10:14
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I can't give a qualified answer, but as I have learned English as a foreign language, I can say that in almost all books for English learners "I am walking" is considered present progressive tense, so these books may not really be good sources. On the other hand, I don't think that your example of "Ich bin gegangen" can be understood in aspect. It doesn't mean that the person is "went" in the same way in that a person can be "hit", but rather that the person did walk. This means that there is a strong semantical difference between "Ich bin gegangen" and "Ich bin geschlagen", as the first form is active and the second passive. To make the second tense active, you would have to say "Ich habe geschlagen". This subtlety of having to use "sein" with verbs connoting movement ("Ich bin gegangen") and having to use "haben" with verbs connoting anything else ("Ich habe geschlagen", "Ich habe gesagt" etc.) IMHO qualifies the German perfect as a tense.

BTW: In German class in school (I'm a native speaker), we considered it a tense, too.

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Thank you. English linguists on the whole regard tense morphological featue, rather than syntactical one. That may not be the case with German linguists. Yes, I understand the grammatical difference between 'Ich bin gegangen' and 'Ich bin geschlagen', but with most verbs, of course, German uses 'werden' to form the passive. –  Barrie England Nov 20 '11 at 15:53
Actually from hanging out in the linguistics Stack Exchange a bit I got the impression that linguists more and more are coming to the conclusion that the line between syntax and morphology is just too fuzzy after all and they're now thinking of them together and calling it morphosyntax. –  hippietrail Nov 27 '11 at 13:20
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