The usage of the Historical Present in Old Irish narrative prose
Loon, D. van
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By analyzing all the verbal forms used in the Old Irish text Táin Bó Cúailnge I have endeavoured to investigate the usage of the historical present in Old Irish narrative prose. All verbal forms were labeled according to different types of criteria regarding their contextual ‘footprint’. I have linked these labels to the terminology used in the study of verbal aspect. This labeling has resulted in a large table presenting the contextual function of every verbal form. I then formulate several hypotheses regarding the usage of different types of verbal forms to represent a past event. It was necessary to focus on all these types of verbal forms as the usage of the historical present could not be researched independently. These hypotheses are then discussed in detail, with examples from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. I have endeavoured to show that the historical present is used to indicate imperfectivity. When a sequence of verbal forms (i.e. two or more verbal forms that occur in subsequent clauses) is put in the present tense the verbs become temporally closely linked. They represent one single Situation. It would appear that the author of a text could also imply a temporally close link between two verbs even if they are in fact perfective by using present tense verbal forms. The preterite verbal forms show the opposite of the historical present. Preterite verbs are, according to my hypothesis, used to indicate perfectivity. Preterite verbs represent single, complete Situations. The percentages, which I derived from my database, show a mirror-relation between the usage of the historical present and preterite verbal forms. The preterite verbal forms do show a slightly larger amount of problematic verbal forms, but the majority of those verbs have been demonstrated to be Middle Irish. In this paper I answer the question why and how present tense verbal forms are used to indicate an event in the past. If my hypotheses are accepted, then a new feature of the Old Irish language has been discovered. In future translations of Old Irish narrative prose texts we can utilize the hypothesis regarding the usage of the historical present in order to arrive at the correct interpretation of the text. The element of imperfectivity, which historical presents represent, results in translations of prose texts that are dynamic and full of tension, rather than a simple chronological summary of past events.