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Volume 29, Issue 2


Conceptualizations of time in French depuis ‘since, for’ constructions

James Law
Published Online: 2018-05-05 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2017-0102


The two most common constructions with the French preposition depuis ‘since, for’ represent alternate temporal conceptualizations of events. The temporal point (tp) construction situates events with respect to a starting point in the past from which mental scanning tracks to the present. The temporal duration (td) construction situates events by reference to their duration. Adoption of the Cognitive Grammar framework leads to the insight that all other depuis constructions are variations of the tp construction, while the td construction is distinct in its construal of situations. This corpus study gives an account of how the td construction developed as an extension of the tp construction starting in the fourteenth century, as well as a pragmatic analysis of the contexts that favor use of the td construction in modern French. The findings show that the td construction is nearly always used to emphasize duration for some communicative purpose.

Keywords: time; cognitive grammar; historical linguistics; pragmatics; temporal adverbials

1 Introduction

The French preposition depuis ‘since, for’ can take two types of temporal nominal complements, exemplified in (1) and (2):


Il habite à Paris depuis 2014.

‘He has lived in Paris since 2014.’


Il habite à Paris depuis trois ans.

‘He has lived in Paris for three years.’

In (1), referred to in this paper as the temporal point construction (henceforth, tp construction), the complement of depuis is a point in the past at which begins a situation which continues until the present. In (2), referred to in this paper as the temporal duration construction (henceforth, td construction), the complement of depuis is a time span leading up to the present during which the situation occurs. Both constructions can be used to denote the same situation, offering somewhat different perspectives. 1

Previous research on depuis has minimized the contrast between these two constructions. Choi-Jonin and Lagae (2010) and Wisman (1983) describe both constructions without exploring differences in their usage. Fagard (2007) mentions the distinction only briefly, placing greater focus on comparison with constructions in which depuis takes a nontemporal complement (3) or a clausal complement (4), or in which depuis acts as an adverb (5).


Elle a lu toute la Bible depuis la Genèse jusqu’à l’Apocalypse.

‘She read the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation.’


Il ne fume plus depuis qu’il s’est marié.

‘He hasn’t smoked since he got married.’


Elle l’a quitté en décembre, et elle habite chez ses parents depuis.

‘She left him in December, and she’s been living with her parents since.’

From a cognitive perspective, this approach to depuis constructions is not ideal. While the tp and td constructions may be syntactically similar, and evoke similar basic meanings, they arrive at a conceptualization of events in quite different ways. In fact, in terms of the way the situation is conceptualized, the tp construction shares more in common with the constructions in (3)–(5) than it does with the td construction in (2). Reanalysis of depuis constructions from this perspective is therefore warranted.

In this paper, I present an account of the semantics of these constructions within the framework of Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 2008a). The analysis incorporates a diachronic component and a pragmatic component. The diachronic component builds upon previous work by Fagard (2007), which documented the use of depuis constructions historically but did not distinguish between the tp and td constructions. I show that the td construction appeared in the fourteenth century and gradually increased in usage to become the dominant depuis construction by the twentieth century. An intermediate stage between the tp and td constructions, common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, facilitated this development. This supports Haspelmath’s (1997) claim that the td construction can be derived historically from the tp construction in languages in which the same word is used for both. 2 The pragmatic component considers the discourse environments in which the td construction is used. Since this construction places the duration of a situation in direct focus, it is used frequently in certain discourse contexts in which an emphasis on that duration is desired. Both of these components involve quantitative analysis of corpus data, although the pragmatic component is also qualitative in nature.

This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 briefly introduces the Cognitive Grammar framework used in this study. Section 3 contains a semantic description of the various types of depuis constructions in modern French. Section 4 describes the data and methods used in the corpus analysis. Section 5 presents the diachronic analysis of the data, while Section 6 presents the synchronic, pragmatic analysis of a selection of the corpus from the twentieth century. Section 7 offers some concluding observations and suggestions for further research.

2 The Cognitive Grammar framework

The framework adopted for this study is the theory of Cognitive Grammar (CG) introduced by Langacker (1987) and further developed in Langacker (1990, 1991, 1999, 2008a, 2009). Within this theory, grammar is seen as a symbolic system which is inherently meaningful. The grammar of a language is composed of symbolic units, which are pairings of a form with its meaning. CG overlaps with the various theories that constitute Construction Grammar (CxG), in that it is concerned with describing constructions, in which symbolic units are combined in a symbolic assembly. 3 Constructions are meaningful units just as much as individual words are. Meaning is defined simply as the conceptualization, or cognitive representation, associated with a linguistic expression. This conceptualization includes not only the objective content referred to in the expression, but also its construal, the subjective manner in which that content is viewed. In this view, the depuis constructions which are the focus of this paper have meanings, and it is expected that any variation in the construction used would correspond to some variation in the meaning expressed, as “form and function are of course interdependent” (Langacker 2008a: 137).

Grammatical constructions have meanings which are more schematic than those of lexical items. By this, it is to be understood that their meanings are more abstract. However, grammar and lexicon form a gradient, as meanings may be more or less abstract. In CG, the meaning of an expression is composed not only of the meanings of the individual words in that expression, but also of the meanings of the constructions involved in the assembly of the expression. The meaning of complex expressions can be represented by symbolic assemblies, in which the relatively more specific meanings of lexical items elaborate the more schematic meanings of the constructions in which they appear. This assembly can in turn elaborate the meaning of larger constructions in which it appears.

A central component of conceptualizations is focusing, in which some entities are placed in greater prominence while others are accorded lesser prominence. Humans make use of focusing in many cognitive activities such as visual and auditory perception (Langacker 2008a: 58). In the conceptualization of a relation described by a linguistic expression, the participant placed in primary focus is known as the trajector, while the participant with secondary focus is known as the landmark. The focused participants and their relation are said to be profiled, while other entities included in the conceptualization form the base. This figure/ground relationship finds its analog in visual perception, in which an item that is the focus of attention must be perceived in relation to the rest of the visual field.

In CG, traditional grammatical categories such as noun and verb are used, but they are defined in terms of their meanings rather than their distributional properties, in keeping with the theory’s semantic focus. Nouns profile things, which are defined quite broadly to include objects as well as any entity which is conceptualized as a reified unit. Verbs profile processes, or relations between things which are tracked through time. Since depuis acts as a preposition and as an adverb, these categories are of particular interest here. Prepositions profile a relation between a trajector, which can be a thing or itself a relation, and a landmark, which must be a thing. In the case of depuis, the trajector is always a relation. Adverbs also profile a relation as the trajector, but do not profile a landmark. Instead, the trajector of adverbs is modified by some entity which is not a focused participant.

A final concept which is relevant to the discussion of depuis is mental scanning. Cognitive activity, like any activity, takes time. The time in which a conceptualization is processed is called processing time, and is distinguished from time as an object of conception, known as conceived time. The conceptualization of dynamic situations, such as a path of movement, involves a series of conceptualizations which are processed sequentially through the course of processing time. For example, the conceptualization of a ball rolling down a hill involves the conceptualization of the ball at various stages beginning at the top of the hill and ending at the bottom, whether this situation is processed as it is observed or only imagined (Langacker 2008a: 109). Mental scanning refers to the tracking of these multiple stages through processing time, which is perceived as continuous. Static situations can also be perceived dynamically, such as in the expression ‘He was dressed in black from head to toe’. Although there is no movement inherent in the situation, its description in these terms directs mental scanning starting at the head and proceeding downward to the toes. One type of mental scanning is summary scanning, in which the scanning of multiple stages in a sequence results in a holistic view of all stages at once which is built up in a gestalt (Langacker 2008b). For the expression ‘He was dressed in black from head to toe’, summary scanning results in a holistic conceptualization of the man dressed in black. A summary representation of a ball rolling down a hill could involve a complete conception of the ball’s path. Mental scanning, and summary scanning in particular, are useful components in the description of depuis constructions.

3 Depuis constructions

Under a traditional analysis, the tp and td constructions are quite similar. In both, depuis functions as a preposition, and its complement is a nominal referring to time. These naturally contrast semantically with constructions which do not refer to time at all. A clear syntactic contrast is found with constructions in which depuis takes as its complement a finite clause introduced by the complementizer que as in (4). An even greater syntactic contrast is found where depuis functions as an adverb rather than a preposition as in (5). A classification of depuis constructions in these terms, as displayed in Figure 1, is valid for some purposes.

Syntactic typology of depuis constructions.
Figure 1:

Syntactic typology of depuis constructions.

However, I argue that a binary classification which sets the td construction against all others, as in Figure 2, is more justified when considering the problem from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

Cognitive typology of depuis constructions.
Figure 2:

Cognitive typology of depuis constructions.

This section is therefore organized according to such a classification. I first discuss the tp construction, followed by nontemporal and clausal complements and adverbial uses, which differ in nontrivial ways but nevertheless may be organized under a single conceptual schema. After this, I discuss the td construction.

3.1 The tp construction

Depuis can take several types of complements which designate a point in time. These can be an objectively defined point such as a date (1789, octobre ‘October’, Noël ‘Christmas’) or time (cinq heures ‘5 o’clock’, le matin ‘the morning’). The point can also be situated deictically, as with hier ‘yesterday’. Also possible are people, places, and events which are meant to refer to points in time metonymically, such as Louis XIV, i.e., “the time of the reign of Louis XIV,” or Chernobyl, i.e., “the time of the disaster at Chernobyl”. The expression depuis lors ‘since then’, which is restricted to the formal register, is an example of the tp construction, as is the interrogative depuis quand ‘since when’.

All of these must designate a point in time previous to the vantage point from which the situation is viewed. Typically, this vantage point is the time of the utterance, with the interpretation that the situation described by the sentence begins in the past and continues into the present. However, this does not have to be the case, as shown in (6).


Jean était inquiet. Sa copine ne lui avait pas téléphoné depuis la veille.

‘John was worried. His girlfriend hadn’t called him since the night before.’

In this example, the vantage point is the point in time at which John feels worried, the day after his girlfriend’s last telephone call. This vantage point is clearly not the same as speech time, as the past tense is used in the expression Jean était inquiet ‘John was worried’. Wherever the vantage point is situated, the complement of depuis must designate a starting point prior to it. It cannot designate a starting point at or subsequent to the vantage point. A separate expression, à partir de ‘starting from’, exists in French for this purpose. 4

From the starting point designated by the complement of depuis, mental scanning proceeds to an endpoint as the situation is conceptualized. The vantage point, whether it be at speech time or otherwise, serves as a default, implicit endpoint. However, a different endpoint may be specified, often with the preposition jusqu’à ‘until’ (7).


Il a travaillé au magasin depuis mars jusqu’à septembre.

‘He worked at the store from March until September.’

With an explicitly stated endpoint, it is understood that the situation concludes at that point. In the case of (7), for example, it is understood that the subject’s employment at the store did not continue past September. However, with an implicit endpoint at the vantage point, there is no implication that the situation comes to an end at that time. In (1), for example, it is understood that the subject currently lives in Paris, and there is no implication of an imminent move. The endpoint of mental scanning in the conceptualization of the situation and the actual end of the situation should therefore not be confused.

In a CG perspective, summary scanning can be seen to play a role in the conceptualization of the tp construction. In this construction, situations are construed dynamically, as mental scanning begins at the point designated by depuis and tracks the situation to the implicit or explicit endpoint. In (7), the situation is scanned through six months of conceived time, but this mental process occupies perhaps only a second of processing time. Once this scanning is complete, however, the situation can also be construed as a static whole, as the period from March to September viewed all at once on a timeline. Therefore, though the tp construction only explicitly designates a point in time, an amount of time can also be calculated and indirectly form part of the profile.

Figure 3 illustrates how this occurs in a symbolic assembly of the expression depuis hier ‘since yesterday’.

Symbolic assembly of depuis hier ‘since yesterday’.
Figure 3:

Symbolic assembly of depuis hier ‘since yesterday’.

I will explain the elements of Figure 3, starting with the box in the lower left of the figure which represents the conceptualization of depuis as used in the tp construction. As stated above, prepositions like depuis profile a relation between a trajector (tr) and a landmark (lm). The trajector, the landmark, and the arrow representing their relation are given in bold in the diagram to show that they are profiled, and with dashed lines because they are only schematic in their meanings until they are elaborated by more specific entities in an expression. In the tp construction, the trajector is a process, a relation tracked through time, and the landmark is a point in time. Although not profiled, a vantage point is included in the base. This is because the landmark must be positioned earlier in time than the vantage point, and the trajector is situated in time so that it begins at the landmark and continues to the vantage point. Dotted correspondence lines connect the endpoints of the trajector to these points, and this section of the timeline is bolded to show that the amount of time is invoked by the profile. The conceptualization of the word hier ‘yesterday’ is represented in the bottom right box. On the base of the conceptualization of a series of days, hier profiles the day immediately prior to the day in which the vantage point is situated. In the assembly of depuis hier, the landmark of depuis is elaborated by the day profiled by hier. This elaboration process is shown by a dotted correspondence line. The composite expression represented in the top box inherits its profile from depuis, its head. The landmark of the composite expression has been elaborated by hier, so it is represented with solid rather than dashed lines. The schematic trajector is situated such that the process begins somewhere in the day prior to the vantage point and extends to the vantage point.

In the conceptualization of this expression, the duration of the trajector is invoked without being designated directly by the landmark. The time span is inherent in the conception of the profiled relationship, but it is not per se the conceptual referent of any element. It is this aspect of the conceptualization that contrasts with the td construction. Exactly how the duration is invoked without being directly profiled by an element of the construction is not fully clear, but summary scanning provides a reasonable explanation. Under this proposal, as mental scanning proceeds from the landmark to the vantage point, a gestalt is built up of the duration as a whole. I will adopt this view as a description of the mental process involved in conceptualizing depuis constructions, but summary scanning is not essential to the basic distinction between the tp and td constructions. The essential point is that in a sentence utilizing the tp construction, direct primary focus is on the starting point of a situation, and not on the duration of the situation, which is only invoked indirectly.

The schematic meaning of the tp construction described here is similar in its essential structure to the related constructions described in Sections 3.2, 3.3, and 3.4. Although some elements such as the domain in which the profile is situated may differ, all of these constructions elaborate a more abstract schema in which depuis directs attention to a starting point from which mental scanning tracks the trajector along a path to an endpoint. This schema forms the basis for the next three sections, which discuss the details of these related constructions.

3.2 Nontemporal complements of depuis

Depuis can designate starting points in other domains besides time. For instance, in (3), repeated here for convenience, depuis designates a starting point in the domain of the books of the Bible.


Elle a lu toute la Bible depuis la Genèse jusqu’à l’Apocalypse.

‘She read the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation.’

This would be an example of what Fagard (2007) calls the “enunciative” use of depuis. This refers to expressions in which depuis locates a starting point within a text. This domain shares several similarities with time. Texts have a one-dimensional, unidirectional progression. Mental scanning of a text always proceeds forward, towards the end of the text. Because of this, if a starting point is designated, it is already known that reading would proceed from that point in the only logical direction. Movement through a text, which typically involves reading, also must take up time. Although conceived time may not be profiled in an enunciative use of depuis, it therefore forms part of the background.

Another nontemporal use of depuis is what Fagard (2007) refers to as the “enumerative” use. The domains of time and text incorporate a natural path for mental scanning to follow. Other domains do not have this type of one-dimensional, unidirectional organization, so they must be construed in this way in order to be used with depuis. In enumerative expressions, the members of a category are conceptualized in a linear and ordered fashion, such that one member of the category is known as the “first” and another as the “last”, with others arranged in between these. This usage allows for depuis to indicate a starting point within just about any conceivable domain. For example, (8) involves the domain of comedy.


le comique peut passer ici par un si grand nombre de degrés, depuis la plus plate bouffonnerie jusqu’aux formes les plus hautes de l’humour et de l’ironie

‘…the comic can proceed here with so many degrees, from the flattest buffoonery to the highest forms of humor and irony…’

(Bergson, 1900, Le rire)

Here, the members of the category “types of comedy” are organized in a linear fashion, conceived of vertically according to the metaphor high status is up (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), beginning with lower forms of humor and ending with higher forms. Depuis and jusqu’à mark the first and last points in this arrangement, respectively. Because of this linear organization, there is a path for mental scanning to follow.

Depuis can also be used in the spatial domain. Here again, there is no clear path for mental scanning to follow. Because space incorporates three dimensions, the designation of a starting point is not sufficient to direct scanning; an endpoint must also be indicated. For this reason, most spatial uses of depuis explicitly mark an endpoint with jusqu’à, as in (9).


Tous les endroits par lesquels il est passé, depuis Fréjus jusqu’à Paris, étaient illuminés le soir.

‘All the places he passed by, from Fréjus to Paris, were illuminated at night.’

(Aulard 1901, Histoire politique)

However, the endpoint can also be indicated in other ways. In (10), the path is one of visual perception rather than motion. Therefore, the location being viewed is the endpoint of the path which begins with the viewer.


Hier, depuis la route, j’ai reconnu à la crête de la colline les maisons parmi les clos…

‘Yesterday, from the road, I recognized at the crest of the hill the houses among the plots…’

(Claudel 1901, La Jeune Fille Violaine: 2. version)

In either case, mental scanning follows a path from the landmark of depuis to an indicated endpoint. As this is done, a representation of the distance as a whole is built up through summary scanning.

While Fagard (2007) separates nontemporal uses into enunciative, enumerative, and spatial categories, I group these together for my analysis. Although these three uses of depuis have some differences, they can be grouped under a single schema with the following properties: (a) the landmark of depuis indicates a starting point in some domain, (b) an endpoint is indicated often using jusqu’à, and (c) mental scanning traces the path from the starting point to the endpoint. This schema of course shares its essential characteristics with the tp construction, which differs in the operative domain but is otherwise quite similar.

3.3 Clausal complements of depuis

In addition to nominal complements, depuis can also take a finite dependent clause as its complement. These are always introduced by the complementizer que ‘that’. Because finite clauses are grounded in time, they designate a point in time which serves as the starting point for the trajector of depuis. In this way, this construction is conceptually very similar to the tp construction. The examples in (11) illustrate this similarity.


Il est toujours très content depuis qu’il s’est marié.

‘He is always very happy since he got married.’


Il est toujours très content depuis son mariage.‘He is always very happy since his wedding.’

In (11a), the complement of depuis is a finite clause, while in (11b) the complement is a noun phrase. The noun phrase in (11b) refers to an event – a wedding – which we understand to have taken place in the past, making this an example of the tp construction. In (11a), the verb se marier ‘to get married’ is in the passé composé form, which indicates past tense and perfective aspect. This grounds the clause at a point in the past which serves as the starting point for mental scanning. Despite the syntactic difference, both designate a point in time previous to the vantage point (the present) and depuis situates its trajector beginning at that past point and extending to the present.

The clausal complement of depuis need not be grounded in the past. Consider (12), in which the verb of the dependent clause is in the present tense.


Lucie a changé depuis qu’elle habite avec Albert.

‘Lucie has changed since she’s been living with Albert.’ (lit. ‘lives with Albert’)

When the dependent clause is in the present tense, depuis directs attention to the change of state which resulted in the situation described in the dependent clause. The interpretation of (12) is that it is between the time when Lucie began living with Albert and the present (in which she still lives with him) that she changed. Even in this situation, depuis still designates a point in the past where mental scanning begins.

3.4 Adverbial uses of depuis

In addition to its prepositional functions, depuis can also be an adverb. In CG, adverbs differ from prepositions in that they do not profile a landmark. They only have one participant, the trajector, which is modified in some way. Adverbs differ from adjectives in that they modify a relationship, while adjectives modify a thing. However, Langacker argues that the division among adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions is problematic, and they are better viewed as “overlapping subclasses” within the class of nonprocessual relationships (2008a: 122). Depuis is one example of how the class of adverbs overlaps with prepositions. The adverb depuis always refers to a point in time available in the discourse and situates its trajector relative to it. For example, in (5), repeated here for convenience, depuis refers back to the point in time described by the first part of the sentence, décembre ‘December’, when elle l’a quitté ‘she left him’.


Elle l’a quitté en décembre, et elle habite chez ses parents depuis.

She left him in December, and she’s been living with her parents since.’

This point in time is not a syntactic complement of depuis, and may not be profiled as a landmark, but it is an integral part of the conceptualization’s base. These prepositional and adverbial uses of depuis differ in the focal prominence placed on this starting point, but not in its presence.

Sometimes, the point in time referred to by adverbial depuis is explicitly stated and can be easily located in the nearby context, such as in (13).


On en avait voté les articles essentiels en 1789. Beaucoup d’autres articles avaient été votés depuis

‘The essential articles had been voted on in 1789. Many other articles had been voted on since…’

(Aulard 1901, Histoire politique)

In this example, the year 1789 is referred to in the previous sentence. This point in time is the most prominent possible point of reference for depuis when it is used. Because of this, it is the starting point in the base of the conceptualization of depuis relative to which the trajector is situated. This usage is analogous to the tp construction. Reference to 1789 might actually be repeated after depuis here, making it a preposition and leaving the meaning essentially unaffected. However, because this point in time is already available in the discourse, it is left out.

Adverbial depuis need not be closely preceded by explicit reference to a moment in time, however. Consider (14), where depuis simply refers back to the previously described event.


Je désirais encore lui parler, mais avec la main elle me fit signe qu’elle voulait être seule, et depuis, elle ne m’a plus dit un mot.

‘I wanted to keep talking to her, but with her hand she signaled to me that she wanted to be alone, and since, she hasn’t said another word to me.’

(Claudel 1901, La Jeune Fille Violaine: 2. version)

If (13) is analogous to the tp construction, (14) is analogous to the construction with clausal complements described in Section 3.3. Depuis refers back to the event described in the previous clause, elle me fit signe ‘she signaled to me’. The time of this event is the starting point for the expression modified by depuis. Just as 1789 could have been repeated in (13), depuis in (14) could be replaced by the more explicit expression depuis qu’elle m’avait fait signe ‘since she signaled to me’ with no notable change in meaning. However, since this event is already the most prominent temporal reference point in the discourse, it does not need to be repeated.

The use of depuis as an adverb differs from the other depuis constructions already discussed in terms of the focal prominence assigned to the starting point it invokes. Other than this factor, however, this use of depuis can still be grouped within the general schema of the other constructions. When used as an adverb, depuis situates its trajector relative to the vantage point and an earlier starting point, and directs mental scanning to track the path from the starting point to the vantage point. In these essential features, this conceptualization is the same as the tp construction and depuis constructions with nontemporal and clausal complements. The td construction, however, departs from this schema.

3.5 The td construction

In contrast to all of the other uses of depuis is the td construction. In this construction, depuis always functions as a preposition and takes as its complement a measure of temporal duration. A common type of complement for this construction is a quantified amount of what Haspelmath (1997: 25) calls “canonical time periods”, which include units such as hours, weeks, and centuries. These units can be quantified with a number, as in depuis deux mois ‘for two months’, or with some other quantifier, as in depuis quelques jours ‘for a few days’. This construction can also take as its complement an adverb of temporal quantity, as in depuis longtemps ‘for a long time’ or depuis toujours ‘since forever’. The interrogative depuis combien de temps ‘for how long’ is also included here.

Shared with other uses of depuis is the positioning of its participants relative to a vantage point. The td construction indicates that the trajector begins at some point in the past and extends to the vantage point such that its duration is that designated by the landmark. Unlike the tp construction, the explicit designation of another endpoint besides the vantage point using jusqu’à ‘until’ is not possible in the td construction. In expressions with a specific duration, calculation of the starting point of the trajector is possible. It is for this reason that depuis 2014 ‘since 2014’ in (1) and depuis trois ans ‘for three years’ in (2) can refer to the same situation. However, the td construction also allows landmarks of vague duration (such as depuis longtemps mentioned above), for which it would be impossible to create a strictly equivalent expression in the tp construction.

Mental scanning does not play the same role in the td construction as it does in the tp construction. In the tp construction, the conceptualization of the situation’s duration as a whole is invoked indirectly, possibly built up through summary scanning. Therefore, judgment of the duration, such as whether it is a long or short duration, can only be done indirectly. In Figure 3, although the duration of the trajector is profiled as a section of the timeline, it is not the conceptual referent of any element, and can be seen as a product of mental scanning. In the td construction, a conceptualization of the situation as a whole is directly profiled. The duration is profiled not as the result of mental scanning but as the landmark itself.

Figure 4 illustrates this with a symbolic assembly of the expression depuis un jour ‘for one day’. 5

Symbolic assembly of depuis un jour ‘for one day’.
Figure 4:

Symbolic assembly of depuis un jour ‘for one day’.

The vantage point remains part of the base of the conceptualization of depuis, as the landmark and trajector are positioned relative to it. The terminal endpoint of the landmark is aligned with the vantage point, and the landmark, the trajector, and the focused portion of the timeline are coextensive. Un jour ‘one day’ involves no vantage point, as it is ungrounded and not positioned relative to any deictic center. In the assembly of depuis un jour, the profiled day elaborates the schematic landmark of depuis, and the trajector is situated with a duration of one day extending up to the vantage point.

Apart from the td construction, every other depuis construction directs mental scanning to begin at a starting point and proceed towards an implicit or explicit endpoint. Through summary scanning, a conceptualization of the path (temporal or otherwise) as a whole is created. This is not to say that the notion of a path is not inherent to the meaning of every use of depuis. Depuis always profiles a schematic path, as shown in the lower left boxes of Figures 3 and 4. However, the way in which that path is elaborated differs depending on the nature of the landmark. When the landmark profiles a starting point, the path is elaborated indirectly, through mental scanning from the starting point to the vantage point. The td construction profiles a conceptualization of the path which is elaborated directly, without mental scanning. Mental scanning is of course still involved in the apprehension of the trajector as a process, but this construction accords greater focal prominence to the duration of the situation.

In CG, focusing is a gradient phenomenon (Langacker 2008a: 57). The use of thick and thin lines in diagrams to represent the profile and the base is therefore only a crude approximation of the cognitive process of focusing. Not all elements in the profile are equally prominent, as the trajector is given greater focus than the landmark. It could likewise be said that not all entities in the base are equally prominent. In all depuis constructions, the distance between the starting and ending points of the trajector is profiled, whether this distance is spatial, conceptual, or temporal. However, the td construction places this distance, or duration, in greater prominence than other constructions because the duration is a landmark, a profiled participant in the relation with the trajector. In the other constructions, this distance is given less prominence, and only forms part of the conceptualization as it is built up through summary scanning. This is the fundamental difference which sets the td construction apart and warrants reanalysis of these constructions.

4 Data

The purpose of the diachronic analysis is to describe the diachronic variation in the use of the depuis constructions presented in the previous section, with a particular focus on the td construction. Two corpora were used. For earlier centuries, I used the Base du Français Médiéval 2016 corpus (henceforth, BFM) (ICAR, ENS-LSH & CNRS), consisting of 153 texts from the ninth–fifteenth centuries. I also used the ARTFL-FRANTEXT corpus (ATILF, CNRS & ETS, June 2017 version under PhiloLogic 3), consisting of 3,558 texts from the twelfth–twentieth centuries. Together, these corpora contain over 219 million words. Some results from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the FRANTEXT corpus were from modern French translations of sources, so these were excluded, but otherwise the full corpora were used.

Following Fagard (2007), queries included the standard form depuis as well as the alternate spellings despuis and de puis. I also included the forms depuys and depuiz, which were encountered in the fourteenth–seventeenth centuries. A total of 127,111 tokens were found in the combined corpus. Once the tokens were collected, those in which depuis was immediately followed by the complementizer que were automatically categorized as instances of the clausal complement construction described in Section 3.3. The remaining tokens were categorized by hand. From the sixteenth century onward, because of high token counts, only samples of 1000 tokens from each century were categorized. The results of the categorization are presented in the next section.

5 Diachronic analysis

In addition to French, Haspelmath (1997: 132) notes several other languages in which the same word is used in the tp construction (used for what he refers to as the “posterior-durative” function) and the td construction (the “distance-posterior” function, see fn. 2). These are German seit, Italian da, Romanian de, Latin a/ex, Polish od, Bulgarian ot, Albanian prej, Hungarian óta, Welsh ers, Arabic munðu, and Swahili tangu. He claims that this situation must arise from extension of the tp construction to the td construction. Furthermore, he claims that the td construction incorporates the semantic content of a distance-past marker (such as ‘ago’ in English) while omitting its phonological content. That is, ‘for three years’ in a sentence such as (15a) is essentially equivalent to ‘since three years ago’ (15b).


He has been a dentist for three years.


He has been a dentist since three years ago.

Haspelmath provides no historical evidence to support this position. However, the diachronic analysis presented here reveals that depuis followed exactly this pathway of change, undergoing extension from the tp construction to the td construction with an intermediate stage incorporating a distance-past marker.

Depuis first appears in my corpus in the thirteenth century. 6 As Fagard (2007) describes, the form puis (the product of regular sound change from proto-Romance *postius, related to Lat. post ‘after, next’, TLFi 2012) appears in some of the earliest records of French. In these early records, puis retains the adverbial uses of post, but has also developed prepositional uses. As he notes, this is a common pathway of grammaticalization (see Svorou 1994; Amiot and De Mulder 2002; Hopper and Traugott 2003). In Fagard’s data, prepositional puis can take a point in time or a duration as its complement in these earliest records, so it is not possible to date the advent of the td construction with puis. According to Fagard’s analysis, prefixation of de- or des- reinforced the meaning of puis as designating a starting point and brought a spatial component to the meaning which allowed for its use as a spatial preposition, as prior to this puis was only temporal. After prefixation, puis and depuis followed separate paths, with puis losing its prepositional function in the seventeenth century and its meaning shifting from ‘since’ or ‘after’ to ‘then’. This loss of prepositional function should not be seen as a case of degrammaticalization, however. It is rather a case of incomplete grammaticalization, since the original function as an adverb was never lost.

Table 1 presents the distribution of each depuis construction in each century. Figure 5 presents the same information as a graph. From its earliest uses in the thirteenth century to the modern day, depuis acts both as a preposition and as an adverb. Adverbial uses are dominant at first, but rapidly decrease starting in the eighteenth century. As prepositional uses increase in frequency, they also diversify. In the thirteenth century, the only prepositional uses are the tp construction and those with clausal complements. The fourteenth century sees the first nontemporal uses of depuis, as well as the first appearance of the td construction. Both of these increase in frequency in the following centuries, with the td construction ultimately becoming more frequent than all others combined by the twentieth century.

Table 1:

Depuis constructions since the thirteenth century.

The delayed appearance of nontemporal, and especially spatial uses of depuis is unexpected, because it suggests that spatial uses developed from temporal uses. In the fourteenth century, depuis can denote the starting point of a clearly spatial path (16), while all tokens from the thirteenth century are strictly temporal.


chascun d’eulx feussent condampnez à estre menez en une charrete depuis le Chastellet jusques au pilory

‘They were each condemned to be led in a cart from the Châtelet to the pillory.’

(Registre criminel du Châtelet 1389–1392)

This would be a reversal of the well-established pattern by which temporal expressions develop from spatial expressions. According to Haspelmath, “the transfer from space to time can be said to be universal” (1997: 3). Many temporal expressions arise through the related metaphors time is a moving object and time is stationary and we move through it, which both express temporal relationships in terms of spatial motion (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). This directionality is related to the more general grammaticalization pathway in which items shift from more concrete meanings to more abstract meanings, with time being more abstract than space (Heine et al. 1991; Heine and Kuteva 2002; Heine 1993; Heine 1997; Heine 2003a). A shift in the opposite direction, from time to space, could be a potential case of degrammaticalization, which is highly controversial (Traugott 2001; Heine 2003b; Norde 2011).

Fagard (2007) argues that the extension to the spatial domain results not from metaphor or degrammaticalization, but from prefixation of de-, which provides the spatial meaning. In Fagard’s data, spatial uses appear at the same time as prefixation of de-, making this a compelling explanation. This argument is weakened by the additional texts added to the BFM corpus since the publication of Fagard (2007), which contain earlier prepositional uses of depuis that are only temporal. The token in (16) is the earliest with a clearly spatial meaning, almost two centuries after the first appearance of depuis in my corpus.

There are however at least two reasons why depuis should not be considered a major challenge to the unidirectionality of grammaticalization and space-time metaphors. The first is that unidirectionality does not necessarily require the total absence of any counterexamples. Many historical linguists view grammaticalization as a statistically robust tendency which holds despite a few counterexamples (Traugott 2001). If the spatial meaning of depuis arose through some type of degrammaticalization, this does not negate the overwhelming trend in the other direction. Furthermore, the development of spatial uses of depuis only involves a semantic change, with none of the phonological, morphological, or syntactic changes which normally accompany grammaticalization. Norde’s definition of degrammaticalization requires multiple coordinated changes on different levels of linguistic structure (2009: 120). The second reason is that although spatial uses of depuis do not appear at the same time as prefixation of de- within my corpus, prefixation cannot necessarily be ruled out as the cause for the development of a spatial meaning. The availability of texts in the thirteenth century is very limited, so it is quite possible that depuis was used to indicate spatial starting points in the spoken French of that period, but at low enough frequencies that this use did not appear in the written record until the following century. In all centuries, the nontemporal use of depuis is quite low in frequency. Given this, Fagard’s explanation remains a plausible one.

The td construction’s appearance in the fourteenth century, a century after the appearance of depuis, is consistent with Haspelmath’s hypothesis that the td construction is derived from the tp construction. At first, the td construction is marginal, only comprising 2.6 % of depuis tokens. However, its frequency gradually increases and by the twentieth century, more than half of all depuis tokens analyzed were in that construction.

A closer look at the td construction in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reveals that many of these tokens actually invoke a somewhat different conceptualization than that of the modern td construction. Although these still involve a temporal duration as the landmark of depuis, their trajector is not a durative situation which continues until the present, but rather a nondurative situation which takes place at a point in the past. The landmark denotes the distance between the trajector and the present, rather than the duration of the trajector. This could be rightly termed the temporal distance construction (henceforth, tds construction). An example from the fourteenth century is provided in (17).


Item, confesse que, sus les fossez de Paris, lui qui parle, lesdiz Henriet, Simonnin, Perrinet, François, et un appellé Guillemin, autrement de leurs noms n’est record, ne là où il demourent, ont desrobé X ou XIJ personnes sur les fossez de Paris, depuis IIJ sepmaines ençà, et d’iceulx larrecins ont eu IIJ ou IIIJ frans, n’est record lequel, lesquelz ilz ont parti ensamble; et dist que, en ce faisant, ilz contrefaisoient les sergenz.

‘And also, he confesses that, on the ditches of Paris, according to him, the aforementioned Henriet, Simonnin, Perrinet, François, and someone named Guillemin, he does not remember their full names or where they live, robbed 10 or 12 people on the ditches of Paris, 3 weeks ago [lit. since 3 weeks onwards], and from these thefts got 3 or 4 francs, he does not remember which, which they shared together; and says that, in doing so, they imitated sergeants.’

(Registre criminel du Châtelet 1389–1392)

The trajector in (17), (ils) ont desrobé X ou XIJ personnes ‘(they) robbed 10 or 12 people’, has point-durational aspect, with the verb conjugated in the passé composé form. The situation described cannot continue until the present, so the intended interpretation is that it took place ‘three weeks ago’ rather than ‘for three weeks’. Haspelmath (1997) calls this construal the “distance-past function”. This meaning of depuis is represented as a diagram in Figure 6.

Relative frequency of depuis constructions across time.
Figure 5:

Relative frequency of depuis constructions across time.

The temporal distance construction.
Figure 6:

The temporal distance construction.

The landmark of the tds construction is identical to that of the td construction (see Figure 4). However in the td construction, the trajector is situated concurrently with the landmark on the timeline, and its terminal endpoint corresponds to the time of the vantage point. In the tds construction, on the other hand, the trajector is separated from the vantage point by the distance designated by the landmark.

In many of these tokens, including (17), this meaning is reinforced by the archaic word ençà ‘onwards’, which in this construction serves the same function of indicating temporal distance. In the medieval period, ençà is in competition with a (18). While ençà does not appear to continue past the sixteenth century, a, which is the 3rd-person singular present conjugation of the verb avoir ‘have’, continues to serve the temporal distance function as part of the phrase il y a ‘ago’ in modern French, although not usually in combination with depuis 7.


Congneut avecques ce, que depuis un an a ou environ, ainsy comme il pour lors estoit varlet d’un escuïer nommé Guillaume, du surnom duquel il n’est record, ala avec sondit maistre, et au mandement de mons.

‘It was discovered with this, that about a year ago [lit. since one year has], as he was then valet of an esquire named Guillaume, whose last name is unknown, he went with his master, and at his lord’s command.’

(Registre criminel du Châtelet 1389–1392)

One token from the fifteenth century, given in (19), also uses passez ‘past’ in this role.


Et depuis plusieurs ans passez//Portay a Romme .ix. volumes//De livres de loys et coustumes//Et des secrés de Rommel ou temps//Que la gouvernoit par bon sens//Tarquinius Priscus, et lors//Estoit moult affoibli mon corps.

‘And several years ago [lit. since several years past] I carried to Rome 9 volumes of books of laws and customs and secrets of Rome of the time that it was governed by common sense by Tarquinius Priscus, and at the time my body was very weak.’

(de Pisan 1402, Le Livre du chemin de lonc estude)

All of these serve the same purpose of reinforcing the tds interpretation of depuis. These reinforcing particles are common in the medieval period, but depuis can also invoke temporal distance without them (20).


Item, congnut que depuis trois ans, autrement du temps n’est record, lui et ledit Courtaillon alerent de nuit en un moulin assez près dudit lieu de Porrez…

‘And also, it is known that three years ago, he doesn’t remember more specifically, he and the said Courtaillon went by night to a mill fairly close to the aforementioned place of Porrez…’

(Registre criminel du Châtelet 1389–1392)

In the fourteenth century, 10 out of 11 tokens of depuis with a time span as a complement could be more specifically classified as the tds construction rather than the td construction. In the fifteenth century, 9 out of 20 classified as td could more specifically be classified as tds. (17)–(20) are examples of these. Reinforcing particles such as ençà and a are rarely found in the sixteenth century in my corpus, by which point the tds construction has largely disappeared in favor of the td construction as it is known today. However, a clear-cut distinction between a tds meaning and a td meaning is not always possible due to ambiguities in the aspectual properties of past participles. Consider (21), where both interpretations would be possible in medieval French. Because morphology is relevant in this example, an interlinear gloss is provided.

Ilestmortdepuiscinq ans.
hebe.3s.presdead/die.ppsincefive years

‘He’s been dead for five years’/‘He died five years ago.’

In modern French, where depuis is strongly associated with the td meaning and has lost its use as a tds marker, the first meaning, ‘He’s been dead for five years’, would be the only possible interpretation. In this interpretation, mort ‘dead’ acts as an adjective and est ‘is’ as a copula. To express ‘He died five years ago’ in modern French, the preposition il y a ‘ago’ would be used instead of depuis. 8 In this interpretation, mort would act as the past participle of mourir ‘die’ with est as an auxiliary. In the medieval period, however, where depuis was used for marking both temporal duration and temporal distance, either interpretation would be possible. This ambiguity highlights the strong association between the tds and td constructions. It is for this reason that despite the difference in meaning, both are classified as the td construction in Table 1, with the tds construction being considered a subcategory.

In the history of depuis, the tds construction can be seen as an intermediate stage in the extension of the tp construction to the td construction. The tds construction allowed for depuis to take a duration as its complement while still referring to a point in the past. At first, additional markers of temporal distance were included, but these became unnecessary over time.

This intermediate stage helps to explain the advent of the td construction, but it does not explain how it became so frequent in modern French. This explanation must be sought in the discourse effects produced by the td construction. Speakers use this construction for certain reasons, to accomplish certain communicative purposes, and therein lies the motivation for its increase in frequency. This is the subject of the next section.

6 Pragmatic analysis

As explained in Section 3.5, the td construction differs from other uses of depuis in that it profiles the duration of the trajector’s process directly rather than invoking it through an indirect process such as summary scanning. This conceptualization lends itself to situations for which the duration is viewed to be of primary importance. The purpose of the following pragmatic analysis is to identify those situations.

In the diachronic analysis, out of 1000 tokens sampled from the twentieth century, 523 were categorized as the td construction. All of these come from the ARTFL-FRANTEXT corpus. For the pragmatic analysis, these 523 tokens were reexamined in their individual contexts for indications of why an emphasis on duration might have been desired. This type of qualitative analysis necessarily involves some subjective judgment on the part of the researcher. The discourse context of every token is unique, so the identification of general trends requires abstraction of some details. By describing these trends while also examining multiple examples, I hope to achieve a balance between a broad characterization of the data and a more detailed discourse analysis. Although some numbers are provided for the tokens which exhibit certain properties, these are only intended to provide a general picture of the strength of certain trends, and not as a basis for any statistical analysis.

Among these tokens of the td construction, a common pattern was for the trajector to be a situation that is viewed negatively by the speaker. Many of these spoke of suffering, torture, and anguish. A representative example of this sort of context is given in (22).


Mais je l’ai demandé sans foi, sans espérance, sans amour, ayant été si cruellement déçu, depuis vingt ans! Je ne sens rien en moi que la présence, à une profondeur où je n’ose descendre, d’un sombre lac de douleurs dont les vagues furieuses me submergeront peut-être à l’heure de mon agonie.

‘But I asked it without faith, without hope, without love, having been so cruelly disappointed, for twenty years! I feel nothing in me but the presence, at a depth to which I don’t dare descend, of a dark lake of pains the furious waves of which will perhaps overcome me at the hour of my agony.’

(Bloy 1900, Journal)

In this example, the trajector ayant été si cruellement déçu ‘having been so cruelly disappointed’ already has a negative portrayal in itself, and is also described negatively by its association with words such as douleurs ‘pains’ and agonie ‘agony’. The duration of twenty years is long for such an experience; the emphasis on duration underscores the point of the sentence, which is that the subject has endured suffering for a long period of time. If the tp construction were used here instead, the suffering would be less emphasized because its long duration would not be in focus.

Of the tokens examined, 215 or 41% included some evidence in the context that the trajector was viewed negatively. The type of negative emotion associated with the trajector ranged from fear (shown with words such as menacé ‘threatened’) and suffering (souffrance ‘suffering’, supplice ‘torture’) to despair (larmes ‘tears’, desespéré ‘despairing’) and annoyance (gêner ‘bother’). It was not merely the presence of these words in the context of depuis which was identified with this property, but the actual association of the trajector with these negative emotions. A subtler example is given in (23).


j’étais lasse aussi, lasse à l’excès, écœurée de ne manger depuis huit jours que des confitures faites avec des groseilles tournées

‘…I was tired also, tired of excess, sickened by eating nothing for eight days except jam made with redcurrants gone bad…’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

In this example, although the situation is not as extreme in its negativity as that from (22), the subject clearly views it negatively and expresses that emotion with the words lasse ‘tired’ and écœurée ‘sickened’.

Although applying to a much smaller set of examples, the opposite can also be true, where duration is emphasized because the trajector is viewed positively. The sentence in (24) is an example of this type of context.


Ah! La vie ne me fut pas douce! … Depuis trois semaines, pourtant, une accalmie se déclare.

‘Ah! Life has not been gentle to me! … For three weeks, however, a respite has broken out.’

(Bloy 1900, Journal)

In this and other such contexts, a positive situation is portrayed as out of the ordinary. A relatively short duration is focused, with the effect that the positive emotion is emphasized by its contrast with the typical state of affairs.

Another common reason found for emphasizing duration was to contrast with another duration. For example, in (25) the duration that depuis denotes, trois ans ‘three years’, is contrasted with the longer duration indicated on the certificate.


Je demande bien pardon à madame… je suis mariée depuis trois ans… et ce certificat date de six ans…

‘I beg your pardon, madame… I’ve been married for three years… and this certificate dates to six years ago.’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

It would of course be possible to convey the same message using the tp construction, but by placing emphasis on the duration the contrast is made clearer, as six years is obviously twice as long as three years.

A particularly common situation involving such a contrast of durations is that in which a situation which has been in place for a long amount of time is juxtaposed with a recent and usually unexpected change. Many tokens involved a recent encounter with a person not seen for many years, including the example provided in (26), which is presented within a larger context because of relevant elements in the discourse.


19 Avril-déjeuné chez Demay, qui s’étonne de m’entendre parler de la providence et qui m’objecte niaisement le hasard.

- Cher ami, dis-je à ce pauvre garçon, un homme viendra tout à l’heure pour moi et cet homme, peut-être, me sauvera. J’ignore son nom, je ne sais d’où il viendra, mais je sens qu’il va venir. Appellerez-vous cela le hasard?

Exclamations de Demay, qui se déclare prêt à me regarder comme un prophète si l’effet se produit. Un quart d’heure après, le personnage annoncé se présente sous les traits d’un ami perdu de vue depuis plus d’un an, qui s’informe de mes affaires et me fait espérer d’éblouissants et prochains subsides.

‘19 April – lunched with Demay, who is surprised to hear me speak of providence and who counters naively with coincidence.

- “Dear friend,” I say to this poor boy, “a man will come for me later and this man, perhaps, will save me. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he’ll come from, but I feel that he will come. Will you call that coincidence?”

Exclamations from Demay, who declares himself ready to regard me as a prophet if the effect is produced. A quarter hour later, the announced person presents himself in the form of a friend lost from view for more than a year, who inquires about my affairs and makes me hope for magnificent subsidies to come.’

(Bloy 1900, Journal)

The writer recounts this anecdote of meeting an old friend as evidence of providence, as just prior he was debating with Demay on the subject of coincidence and providence. By using the td construction, he places emphasis on the long amount of time that he has not seen this old friend. This heightens the sense of implausibility of the friend’s sudden appearance, strengthening his argument. Were the tp construction to be used here, perhaps with un ami perdu de vue depuis l’année dernière ‘a friend not seen since last year’, this effect would be diminished.

The tokens in which emphasis is placed on duration for contrastive effect are highly varied. This property is admittedly not rigidly defined, but by my count 13 % of the twentieth-century tokens of the td construction involved some contrasting of durations. In these tokens, the td construction often serves a discursive purpose to create a sense of surprise or show that a situation is unexpected.

Although many tokens do not fit such a common pattern, individual motivations can usually be found for use of the td construction. In (27), a duration viewed to be short (note the use of à peine, ‘barely’) is emphasized to highlight unexpected productivity. In (28), in which the writer objects to rules regarding property ownership as a requirement for elected office, a duration viewed to be long is emphasized to highlight the unfairness of the rule.


L’industrie s’anime: la fabrique de M. Langevin, à peine créée depuis sept ans produit 5. 000 pièces;

‘The industry is coming to life: Mr. Langevin’s factory, barely created seven years earlier produces 5,000 pieces.’


Quoi! L’auteur du contrat social, quoique domicilié depuis vingt ans n’aurait pas été éligible?

‘What! The author of the social contract, although in residence for twenty years would not have been eligible?’

(Jaurès 1901, Histoire socialiste: Tome 1. La Constituante)

In both of these examples, use of the td construction is essential to the rhetorical purpose of the statement.

Convention also plays a role in motivating the use of the td construction. The example in (25) referred to the duration of marriage, for which there is a tradition of counting anniversaries. For a handful of tokens, this tradition appeared to be sufficient motivation for referring to the duration of a marriage in such terms rather than with a temporal point such as the date of the wedding. (29) is another example of this pattern.


Monsieur et madame étaient mariés depuis cinq ans

‘The gentleman and his wife had been married for five years…’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

In a dialog, it seems natural to form a response using the same conceptualization as used in the question. Consider the dialog in (30), which contains two tokens of depuis, in a question and in the response.


Mais tu es une très chic fille… me dit-il… depuis combien de temps es-tu donc ici?

- Depuis trois semaines, monsieur.

- Ça, c’est épatant! …

- Qu’est-ce qui est épatant, monsieur?

- Ce qui est épatant, c’est que je n’aie pas encore remarqué que tu fusses une si belle fille.

‘“But you’re a very nice girl…” he said to me, “How long have you been here for then?”

-“For three weeks, sir.”

-“That’s marvelous!” …

-“What’s marvelous, sir?”

-“What’s marvelous is that I hadn’t yet noticed that you’re such a beautiful girl.”’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

In both the question and the response, the td construction is used. The man asking the question is motivated to emphasize duration in order to contrast his recent noticing of the woman’s beauty with the longer duration of her employment. This type of motivation was discussed previously, and is quite common. The woman’s response simply mirrors the construction used in the question. The only exception found within the data to this mirrored dialog is shown in (31).


Depuis quand êtes-vous mariés?

- Depuis six ans… répondit la femme.

‘“Since when have you been married?”

For six years…” responded the woman.’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

Here, the question uses the tp construction, while the response uses the td construction. However, as discussed previously, there appears to be a tendency for the td construction to be used when discussing marriage. It seems that this tendency overrode the tendency towards mirrored dialog in this example.

The most common pattern observed with the td construction is that it is used to indicate durations of indeterminate length. The tp construction can only be used when the starting point for the trajector is known. Estimation is possible, such as by coordinating multiple points, for example depuis le cinq ou six juillet ‘since the fifth or sixth of July’. However, the td construction allows much more freedom to be vague in specifying the duration of a situation. Vague quantifiers such as quelques ‘a few’ or plusieurs ‘several’ can be combined with canonical time periods, such as in (32).


Malade depuis quelques jours, elle a été emportée avant-hier soir par une soudaine attaque de congestion pulmonaire…

‘Sick for a few days, she was taken the evening before last by a sudden attack of pulmonary congestion…’

(Mirbeau 1900, Le journal d’une femme de chambre)

In (32), it is likely that the speaker does not know or remember the exact duration, which would make use of the tp construction difficult. To be even more vague, toujours ‘always’ and longtemps ‘a long time’ can be used as landmarks, indicating a long duration but being no more specific than that. Including these, 52 % of the examined td constructions had a landmark of vague duration.

This pattern is not so much about emphasizing duration as it is about taking advantage of the ability to be vague when using the td construction. However, in many cases multiple motivations can apply. Many of the tokens which seemingly emphasize duration to make a negative situation seem worse also are vague regarding the length of the duration. The example in (33) exhibits three of the discussed properties at once. The trajector is portrayed negatively, with joys being forbidden, its duration is contrasted with a recent change, and that duration is of indeterminate length (si longtemps ‘so long’).


Maintenant que tout était prêt, l’angoisse de l’enfantement passée, et que l’attendaient de nouveau les joies pures, depuis si longtemps interdites…

‘Now that everything was ready, the anguish of childbirth past, and that pure joys awaited him again, forbidden for so long…’

(Alexis 1901, Vallobra)

Not all cases of the td construction show a clear motivation for its use over the tp construction. For 6 % of the tokens examined, I was unable to identify an element in the nearby context which would favor an emphasis on the duration of the situation. However, 83 % of the tokens exhibited one or more of the most common motivating properties: a negatively viewed trajector, contrast with another duration, or a landmark with a vague duration. For the remaining 11 %, a variety of more context-specific motivations were found, several examples of which have been discussed. In some situations, it is clear that a choice must simply be made between the tp and td constructions, with either construction being a valid option. In these cases, a variety of more complex factors could be at play, such as dialect or speaker preference.

7 Conclusion

Previous research on depuis takes for granted a categorization of constructions in which temporal prepositional uses are highly similar while nontemporal and clausal complements, as well as adverbial uses, are more markedly different. I have proposed an alternative organization in which the td construction is the marked use, and all others can be organized under a single organizational schema. This organization is based on the way depuis constructions conceptualize situations rather than on syntactic structures. Because this cognitive perspective sets the td construction apart, I have performed a corpus analysis of this construction to understand its historical development and modern pragmatic functions.

A major contribution of this paper is confirmation of Haspelmath’s (1997) claim that the td construction is derived historically from the tp construction. Not only does the td construction with depuis appear a century after the first uses of depuis, including the tp construction, but in its early appearances, the td construction is in a transitional stage in which it indicates temporal distance and is usually reinforced by temporal distance particles such as a or ençà. This relationship, in which the notion of temporal distance provides a sort of bridge between temporal point and temporal duration, was hinted at by Haspelmath, and is now shown to be a major element of the evolution of depuis.

A further contribution is the insight that because the td construction conceptualizes situations with primary focus on their duration, and differs from other uses of depuis in this respect, it is used to emphasize duration for a number of rhetorical purposes. The most common of these are to exaggerate a negative portrayal of a situation by emphasizing its length and to contrast the duration of a situation with that of a new or different situation. The td construction is also used when the starting point of a situation is uncertain, as it can indicate a vague duration in French.

As noted earlier, Haspelmath (1997) lists several languages in multiple families which, like French, use the same word as the basis for a tp construction and a td construction. To my knowledge, the supposed extension from the tp construction to the td construction in these languages has not been investigated. These might have followed a pathway similar to French, or they may have developed differently, especially for those outside of the Romance family. The td construction may be used universally for the reasons discussed in Section 6, especially to emphasize duration, or it may serve other purposes in different languages. These are important questions for potential future research.

Mental scanning plays a key role in the conceptualization of processes and how they are situated in time. According to the present analysis, the depuis constructions examined here are just one example of how constructions which situate events temporally can utilize mental scanning in different ways to place focus on different aspects of a situation. I hope that this case study of a French preposition and adverb can contribute to the body of work on temporal representation in the cognitive linguistic tradition.


I would like to thank Cinzia Russi for her invaluable support, as well as Brendon Kaufman, the University of Texas Syntax and Semantics Research Group, John Newman, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. I am also grateful for a Julia Walther Summer Research Fellowship which allowed me to refine this paper.


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  • 1

    Note that if (1) and (2) were uttered by a speaker in the year 2017, they could refer to exactly the same situation. 

  • 2

    Haspelmath uses different terminology, calling the tp construction “the posterior-durative-past function” and the td construction “the distance-posterior function”. While these terms are useful within the system of temporal adverbial functions described in Haspelmath (1997), they could be confusing if taken out of that context and used to describe the specific French constructions that are the focus of this paper. Therefore, I propose the terms temporal point and temporal duration. 

  • 3

    Although CG and CxG are closely linked, one way in which CG perhaps differs from CxG is in a stronger emphasis on how meaning motivates form. This paper explores how the structure of depuis constructions is semantically motivated. The tools of CG, including its diagrams, are well suited to the description of constructions for these purposes. 

  • 4

    Choi-Jonin and Lagae (2010) devote considerable attention to a comparative analysis of depuis and à partir de. 

  • 5

    Because un is polysemous as a number (e.g., un ou deux jours ‘one or two days’) and an indefinite article (e.g., un jour d’automne ‘an autumn day’), depuis un jour may seem out of context to be ambiguous between the tp and td constructions. The intended meaning for this example is the td construction, as with deux jours ‘two days’, trois jours ‘three days’, etc. 

  • 6

    This is a century earlier than the first appearances of depuis documented by Fagard (2007), who also uses the BFM and FRANTEXT corpora. However, several thirteenth-century texts were added to the BFM in 2012 and 2013, and it is in these texts that most of my tokens from that century were found. 

  • 7

    My thanks go to an anonymous reviewer who pointed out that il y a is attested in combination with depuis in Modern French, e.g., j’ai détruit deux fois le nid depuis il y a une semaine qu’elle a refait ‘I destroyed the nest twice since a week ago that she remade it’ (http://chant-chardonneret.activebb.net/t9534-qui-fait-de-l-elevage-de-chardonneret-ici, accessed 18 March 2018). This combination is fairly non-standard, although it appears that certain contexts and/or dialects permit it. 

  • 8

    Of course, under normal conditions, the statement ‘He died five years ago’ implies that ‘He’s been dead for five years’ is also true. These statements are not the same, however. If the subject of the sentence was raised from the dead, ‘He’s been dead for five years’ would not hold true. 

About the article

Received: 2017-09-02

Accepted: 2018-01-15

Revised: 2018-01-12

Published Online: 2018-05-05

Published in Print: 2018-05-25

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, Volume 29, Issue 2, Pages 163–195, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2017-0102.

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