Aktionsart is a property of (mostly verbal) predicates. It concerns the internal temporal constituency of a (type of) situation denoted by a given predicate (cf. Bache 1985: 10). The (originally German) term aktionsart is approx. equivalent to the English terms lexical aspect and kind of action.
The concept of aktionsart has a long standing history. Its origins are often traced back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics IX. Aristotle distinguishes between enérgeia (incomplete movement, process) and kíne:sis (complete movement, actuality), which designate the two basic types of situation found in our natural environment (cf. Verkuyl 1993: 43). Lexical aspect and its difference from grammatical aspect has been prominently investigated in Slavonic linguistics. The linguistic term aktionsart was coined later in Germanic linguistics.
Relation between tense, aspect and aktionsart
Aktionsart is to be distinguished from aspect (more precisely, grammatical aspect), even though the difference between the two concepts is non-trivial (cf. Tôbîn 1993: 3). Grammatical aspect concerns the viewpoint from which a situation is viewed. Aktionsart, by contrast, relates to the inherent temporal structure of a situation as determined by the predicate and the context. The category of tense describes the temporal situation of an action relative to the moment of utterance or some other temporal point of orientation.
The three basic verbal concepts of tense, aspect and aktionsart are closely interrelated. For example, the progressive aspect is distributioanlly restricted to predicates with specific kinds of aktionsart (see: progressive aspect).
Classification (types of situations)
The most influential classification of aktionsarten to date has been provided by Vendler (1957) (“the quadripartition at the lexical level”; cf. Verkuyl 1993: 33). He distinguishes four types of possible situations: states, achievements, activities and accomplishments. Achievements, activities and accomplishments can be subsumed under the term occurrence.
Aktionsart and temporal adverbials
The different types of situation can only combine specific temporal adverbials.
Activities are often accompanied by a for-adverbial, which denotes an atelic duration over a longer stretch of time (cf. Borik 2006: 23).
- He slept for ten hours.
Accomplishments are typically used with a (telic) in-adverbials. In the following example, a time span and a related terminal point is given which specifies the instant when the reading of the book was finished.
- I read the book in an hour.
Achievements are mostly modified by definite, punctual time adverbials of the type at x o’clock.
- I found my keys at seven o’clock in the afternoon.
The construction It took him x time to do x ... can only co-occur with accomplishments, since it only allows a durative and telic interpretation.
- It took him five hours to paint the picture.
The relationship between the meaning of a verb and a specific type of situation is not absolute (cf. Bache 1995: 230). Some verbs can have completely different meanings, depending on the sentential context, and may therefore belong to more than one class of aktionsart. "This alternation can be made explicit if it is disambiguated by means of temporal modifiers or specific non-linguistic contexts" (Trautwein 2005: 37).
- I think you are an idiot.
- What are you doing? – I’m thinking.
In the first example, think denotes a state (of cognition). In the second example, it describes a cognitive activity (of thinking).
- He has been running the whole afternoon.
- He ran a mile today.
Run is a typical activity verb, as in the first example. However, if one adds an adverb (here a locative) or another modifier restricting or limiting the activity, run becomes an accomplishment verb. The modifier a mile defines the terminal point of the process and makes it telic (cf. Dowty 1979: 60).
- Bache, Carl. 1985. Verbal Aspect: A General Theory and Its Application to Present-Day English. Odense: Odense University Press.
- Bache, Carl. 1995. The Study of Aspect, Tense and Action: Towards a Theory of the Semantics of Grammatical Categories. Frankfurt am Main: Lang.
- Binnick, Robert. 1991. Time and the Verb: A Guide to Tense and Aspect. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Borik, Olga. 2006. Aspect and Reference Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Dowty, David R. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar: The Semantics of Verbs and Times in Generative Semantics and in Montague’s PTQ. Dordrecht: Reidel.
- Huddleston, Rodney D. 2002. 'The Verb.' In: Huddleston, R. & G. Pullum (eds.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 71-212.
- Leech, Geoffrey N. 1971. Meaning and the English Verb. London: Longman.
- Rothstein, Björn. 2007. Tempus. Heidelberg: Winter.
- Tôbîn, Yišay. 1993. Aspect in the English Verb: Process and Result in Language. London: Longman.
- Trautwein, Martin. 2005. The Time Window of Language: The Interaction between Linguistic and Non-Linguistic Knowledge in the Temporal Interpretation of German and English Texts. Berlin: De Gruyter.
- Verkuyl, Henk J. 1993. A Theory of Aspectuality: The Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ziegeler, Debra. 2006. Interfaces with English Aspect: Diachronic and Empirical Studies. Amsterdam: Benjamins.