Development of the Catalan Periphrastic Past Tense Construction

Despite the name, Indo-European Syntax at NYU is much more of a historical linguistics class than a syntax class, reflecting the expertise of Professor John Costello.

This essay is a review of the development of Catalan's unusual periphrastic past tense form. It's a little denser than most of the other posts on this site and assumes some prior knowledge of syntax and morphology. If you have any questions, please ask.


In the Catalan language, there are three important periphrastic constructions that can be formed with the auxiliary verb anar (“to go”). One is the anar + present participle construction, which is functionally and formally equivalent to the Spanish ir (“to go”) + present participle construction. This construction has the same tense as the tense in which the auxiliary anar is conjugated, and has a progressive aspect. Another construction is the anar a + infinitive construction, which is formally equivalent to the Spanish ir a + infinitive construction, but has a slightly different function: instead of functioning as a periphrastic future tense, as in Spanish, the Catalan construction carries the same tense as the conjugated anar and has an inchoative aspect. The third periphrastic construction with anar is the one that interests us here: it is formed with a non-standard present tense conjugation of anar followed by the infinitive, and functions as a periphrastic past tense. In this essay, I will provide a brief overview of the characteristics of this construction that make it unusual from a linguistic perspective, and outline Antoni Badia’s argument of the development of the periphrastic past tense.

The periphrastic past tense construction is of interest to us for several reasons. Firstly, the conjugation used is not the standard present tense conjugation of anar. Anar in the present tense normally conjugates as follows:

Standard present tense conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)anem
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)aneu
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

The irregular conjugation is due to syncretism of the Latin verbs amnare and vadere as they evolved into Catalan; an ir- root also appears in the future and conditional conjugations of standard modern Catalan, derived from Latin ire. (“anar”, Diccionari) This syncretism can also be found in many of the Western Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese ir (syncretism of Latin ire, vadere and the perfect forms of esse) and Italian andare (syncretism of Latin amnare and vadere). However, when anar is used as part of the periphrastic past tense, it conjugates as follows:

Present tense conjugation of anar in periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)vam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)vau
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

Besides the non-standard conjugation, this periphrastic construction is also significant because of its function. Other Western Romance languages have a formally similar construction that is functionally distinct. In French, for example, the aller (“to go”) + infinitive construction is formally equivalent to the Catalan periphrastic past, but this construction in French serves instead as a periphrastic future tense, rather than as a past tense. The same happens in Portuguese with a periphrastic ir (“to go”) + infinitive future tense construction. As mentioned previously, Spanish has an ir a + infinitive construction that functions as a future tense. Among the major Western Romance languages, Catalan is the only language to form a periphrastic past tense with a present tense form of the auxiliary verb “to go”.

Historically, the preterite form was preferred to the periphrastic form. However, in the written language, the periphrastic past tense now occurs in free variation with the simple past (preterite), and in the spoken language, the periphrastic past tense has virtually replaced the simple past, except in the Balearic Islands, where the simple past continues to be used in speech. Grammars of Catalan are very emphatic in saying that the periphrastic past and the simple past are semantically identical, even if one form may be preferred over the other for stylistic or historical reasons. Antoni Badia, for example, says that “today literary Catalan employs both tenses equally, such that the choice has become a stylistic device… It need not even be said that meaning of the two perfect forms is always identical” (Gramática Catalana, 277). Alarcos Llorach, in his Estudis de Lingüística Catalana, mentions several times while analyzing the preterite form portí (“I carry”, from portar, “to carry”) that it is equivalent to vaig portar (125, 130, 132).

Another reason the periphrastic past tense construction is of interest to us is that the Catalan periphrastic past tense has undergone formal changes since its first appearance in writing. In the earliest written texts such as the Libre dels feyts del rey en Jacme, also known as the Crònica del Jaume I (written in the 13th or 14th century), it appears that the periphrastic past tense might not have been formed with the present tense of anar, but with the preterite conjugation. In Gramàtica Històrica Catalana, Badia points out that the phrases van ferir (with the auxiliary in the present tense, third person plural) and anà’l ferir (with the auxiliary in the preterite, third person singular) both appear in the Crònica. He argues that since the Provençal and Castilian of that era had periphrastic present tense anar + infinitive and ir + infinitive constructions respectively, it seems likely that van ferir was a periphrastic construction for the present tense, and the periphrastic past tense construction could instead have been anà’l ferir. (370) This suggests that at some point, while the Spanish and Provençal forms involving the conjugated present tense either fell out of use or, in the case of Spanish, evolved to become a periphrastic future tense, in Catalan the periphrastic construction evolved in the other direction to become a periphrastic past tense. How did this evolution happen in Catalan, given that it did not happen in any other Western Romance language?

Badia has reconstructed, using “traces that are found in the texts”, a possible early form of the conjugation of anar as used in the periphrastic present and past tenses (Gramàtica Històrica Catalana 370):

Possible historical present tense conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)vau1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)va / vai3rd person plural (3pl)van

Possible historical preterite conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)aní / ané1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)anist2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)anà3rd person plural (3pl)anaren

Badia suggests that as the preterite form became replaced by the periphrastic form, the fact that the 1pl and 2pl forms of anar in the present tense and simple past were identical, coupled with the “constant mix of the historical present and the perfect in old texts”, caused the present tense to be substituted for the preterite in the auxiliary verb anar, resulting in a conjugation that corresponds to the one still used in the modern Algherese dialect of Catalan (Gramática Històrica 371):

Present tense conjugation of anar in modern Algherese, used in the periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

Badia postulates that once the periphrastic past tense became a definitive substitute for the simple past tense, Catalan speakers began to treat, for example, va venir (“he came”) as a single unit, almost as if it were a synthetic form of the verb with an inflected prefix (Gramàtica Històrica 371). Thus, he argues that the 1pl and 2pl forms became regularized to vam and vau to match the other conjugated forms, resulting in the modern standard Catalan conjugation of vaig, vas, va, vam, vau and van (Gramàtica Històrica 371). Because the regularization was tied specifically to the use of anar as an auxiliary, this did not affect the standard conjugation, creating the distinction we see today in the two different conjugations of anar.

There is an alternative conjugation, used only in the periphrastic anar + infinitive construction, that occurs in free variation in Central Catalan with the conjugation shown above in the first verb table:

Alternative present tense conjugation of anar in periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vàreig1st person plural (1pl)vàrem
2nd person singular (2s)vàres2nd person plural (2pl)vàreu
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)varen

The variant forms vàreig, vàres, vàrem, vàreu and varen, Badia argues, came about because if the present tense 3pl conjugation van were a regular conjugation, this would yield a preterite 3pl conjugation of varen, and consequently a var- root propagated into the 1s, 2s, 1pl and 2pl forms with varying degrees of incidence (Gramàtica Històrica 371). This argument seems plausible because if varen were indeed the preterite 3pl form of a verb var, the preterite 3s form of the verb would remain va (compare preterite 3s conjugation cantà for the verb cantar). Badia also notes that of the var- forms of the verb, the 1s vàreig is the least commonly used, which lines up with his hypothesis of a regularized var- form; in this conjugation, vàreig would be an irregular form (compare preterite 1s conjugation cantí for cantar) and it makes sense that it occurs less often than the others. (Gramàtica Històrica 371)

There remains much to be studied in the Catalan periphrastic past tense construction. Given that there are two different conjugations for the same periphrasis in free variation, and the periphrastic form itself is still in free variation with the synthetic form of the verb, at least in the written language, it seems likely that a shift towards one form over the other two will eventually occur, although it will be a slow process. Moreover, it would be instructive to study similar processes of verbal periphrasis in closely-related languages, particularly Occitan, to see if there were any unique linguistic characteristics that caused this periphrasis to develop in Catalan but not in any of its neighboring languages.


Works Cited

  • “anar.” Diccionari català-valencià-balear. Palma de Mallorca: Editorial Moll, 1980-3. Print.
  • Badia i Margarit, Antoni M. Gramática Catalana. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1980. Print.
  • Badia i Margarit, Antoni M. Gramàtica Històrica Catalana. Valencia: Biblioteca d’estudis i investigacions, 1981. Print.
  • Llorach, Alarcos. Estudis de lingüística catalana. Barcelona, Editorial Ariel, 1983. Print.