Linguistic-external forces on language change: The Preterit and the Present Perfect in Argentinian River Plate Spanish

Celeste Rodriguez Louro

University of Melbourne, Australia


This paper investigates the relation between the use of the Preterit (e.g. Juan llegó ‘Juan arrived’) and the Present Perfect (PP) (e.g. Juan ha llegado ‘Juan has arrived’) and a set of sociolinguistic variables in Argentinian River Plate Spanish (ARPS). It also challenges the established Saussurean position in linguistics that “internal analysis is the serious business while external factors are of no central concern” (Milroy 2001: 552). Previous cross-linguistic studies have noted the prevailing use of the PP to encode perfective (i.e. finished) situations in the past in various languages including French, German, Northern Italian and Spanish (Comrie 1976; Bybee, Perkins and Pagliuca 1994; Schwenter 1994). However, ARPS does not fit the proposed historical development for Spanish. Moreover, these proposals do not account for the ways in which linguistic-external factors influence language change. The present paper analyzes 10 hours of casual conversation (24 speakers), written questionnaires (100 speakers), and 21 newspaper articles. The Preterit prevails over the PP throughout (e.g. 4.8% PP versus 85.4% Preterit in newspaper data). A statistical analysis of the interaction between linguistic variables (e.g. presence of temporal/frequency adverbials e.g. hoy ‘today’ and ya ‘already’), and the sociolinguistic variables of style, age, education, and gender was utilized. Findings suggest that (1) contrary to claims by Dahl (1985), time and frequency adverbials do not trigger PP usage; (2) the PP is used more frequently in formal styles; (3) university-educated informants and women employ the PP more often.This sociolinguistic distribution indicates that the PP is a conservative linguistic variable in this dialect and that its use is favored by educated (female) speakers in formal styles (cf. Labov 2001). It is suggested that the low percentage of occurrence of the PP hinders its grammaticalization into a perfective form, as high frequency of use is a prerequisite for automation of language structure (Bybee 2003). I conclude by discussing language use as a mirror to the social realities of a given speech community, and ground this in the all-important role of speakers in steering the direction of language change.


Bybee, J., Perkins, R. and Pagliuca, W. 1994. The evolution of grammar: The grammaticalization of tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bybee, J. 2003. Mechanisms of change in grammaticization: The role of frequency. In R. Janda and B. Joseph (eds.), Handbook of historical linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Comrie, B. 1976. Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Ö. 1985. Tense and aspect Systems. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Labov, W. 2001. Principles of linguistic change: Social factors. London: Blackwell.

Milroy, J. 2001. Language ideologies and the consequences of standardization. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5/4: 530-555.

Schwenter, S. A. 1994. The grammaticalization of an anterior in progress: Evidence from a peninsular Spanish dialect. Studies in Language 18-1: 71-111.

Session: Paper session
Variation 2 (Grammar)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 09