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Review of  Tense across Languages

Reviewer: Celeste Rodriguez Louro
Book Title: Tense across Languages
Book Author: Renate Musan Monika Rathert
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Kalaallisut
Guaraní, Paraguayan
Issue Number: 23.2360

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EDITORS: Musan, Renate and Monika Rathert
TITLE: Tense across Languages
SERIES TITLE: Linguistische Arbeiten 541
YEAR: 2011

Celeste Rodríguez Louro, University of Western Australia

“Tense across languages” offers a fresh look at the multifaceted category of
tense ‘from different perspectives, across languages as well as across
phenomena’ (page 1). This diversity is clearly reflected in the volume’s
tripartite concern with tense as it relates to mood and modality (Part A),
typological variation (Part B), and tenseless languages (Part C). To this end,
editors Renate Musan and Monika Rathert bring together ten papers that offer
formal semantic and typological treatments of tense in distinct structural,
geographical and methodological contexts. The breadth and depth of the
discussions presented in the volume make this work an exacting addition to
previous treatments on the semantics and typology of tense (e.g., Comrie 1985;
Dahl 1985; Bybee & Dahl 1989; Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994; Klein 1994).

The volume -- based on talks presented at the “Tense across languages” workshop
organized for the annual meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für
Sprachwissenschaft at Bamberg University in February 2008 -- begins with a
to-the-point introduction by Musan and Rathert and is then presented to the
reader in three parts. In Part A, “Tense, Mood and Modality”, Eva-Maria
Remberger deals with “Tense and Volitionality”, Magdalena Schwager investigates
“Imperatives and Tense” and Anastasia Giannakidou discusses “(Non)veridicality
and Mood Choice in relation to the Subjunctive, Polarity and Time”. Part B,
“Understudied Tense Phenomena and Typological Variation”, features work by
Cheng-Fu Chen who deals with “Use and Temporal Interpretation of the Rukai
Future Tense”, Julia Landgraf and her study of “Tense in the Scottish Gaelic
Verbal System” and Michael Rödel, who explores “New Perspectives on Double
Perfect Constructions in German”. The volume concludes with Part C, “Tense in
Tenseless Languages and Sequence-of-Tense Phenomena”, and includes work by Maria
Bittner – “Time and Modality without Tenses or Modals” -- , Katharina Haude and
her treatment of “Tense Marking on Dependent Nominals in Movima”, Judith
Tonhauser and her examination of the “Paraguayan Guaraní Future Marker -ta”, and
Hamida Demirdache and Oana Lungu who tackle “Zero-Tense versus Indexical
Construals of the Present in French L1”.

The three chapters in Part A revolve around the polyfunctionality of verbs and
their potential to express tense and modality (e.g., in HE WILL RUN the verb
phrase encodes a future event [tense] as well as the likelihood that this event
will transpire [epistemic modality]). In the first paper, Eva-Maria Remberger
investigates—adopting a compositional analysis—different kinds of shift
phenomena related to tense in general and to the time-relational organization of
volitional modal constructions in particular. The latter constructions are
largely represented by the modal verb WANT (in various languages), which
displays a set of properties that clearly sets it apart from other modal verbs.
Amongst the many special characteristics of WANT, Remberger focuses on its
potential to grammaticalise as modals evolve into markers of futurity (Bybee et
al. 1994: 310-311; Heine & Kuteva 2002). This process, the author remarks, takes
place in Romanian, Greek and English with the evidential representation of WANT
restricted to specific time-relational configurations in German. The second
paper of Part A, by Magdalena Schwager, investigates the relationship between
Imperatives and Tense, referring from the outset to the multifunctionality of
imperatives (including the speech acts of giving advice, expressing wishes or
curses, and giving permission) and claiming that ‘a standard semantics for
imperatives has not yet been established’ (page 37). The argument that ensues --
based partly on Schwager’s 2006 dissertation -- is that a satisfactory semantic
account of imperatives needs to explicitly represent temporality at the level of
recursive semantics since imperatives used to give advice and express wishes are
flexible in their temporal orientation (i.e., unlike commands, they are not
strictly future-oriented). This future orientation is further compromised in the
presence of quantificational adverbials. Schwager thus proposes a general
analysis including modalised propositions that is able to account for
interaction with temporal adverbials, temporal qualification, and German present
perfect morphology. Relying mostly on German and English for illustration,
Schwager also argues her points by mentioning Dutch and North American Indian
languages such as Cheyenne. The last paper in Part A is by Anastasia Giannakidou
and explores the lexical parameters determining the choice of the subjunctive in
Greek. Giannakidou argues that sensitivity to nonveridicality is grammatically
expressed via mood selection, mood triggering and NPI (negative polarity item)
licensing. The relationship between these is presented as an implicational one:
if, like English, a language has no mood distinctions, NPI licensing is to be
expected. Conversely, in languages like Greek, mood selection, mood triggering
and NPI licensing are likely.

The three contributions in Part B tackle typological variation concerning
underexplored tense phenomena. This section opens with Cheng-Fu Chen’s treatment
of the future tense in Rukai, an Austronesian language spoken in the southern
and southeastern areas of Taiwan, including the Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Taitung
counties. The Rukai tribe is made up of three branches, together speaking six
dialects and Chen focuses on the Budai dialect. Chen analyzes the interaction of
the Rukai future marker with negation, aspectual markers and modals to argue
that the future marker in a future/non-future system can be a real tense.
Indeed, Chen’s position is that the Rukai future conveys an intrinsic temporal
relation of posteriority that involves a given reference time (Reichenbach 1947)
and that -- in embedded constructions -- where the reference time may or may not
be anchored to the speech time, the future behaves like a relative tense (Comrie
1985). The Rukai future also occurs with morphologically realised modals, which
serves to specify finer modal distinctions, with the future establishing a mere
temporal relation. Chen suggests a compositional analysis since Rukai provides
empirical support for a separation between future and modality in the domain of
morphosyntax. Julia Landgraf, in the second chapter in Part B, tackles tense in
the Scottish Gaelic verbal system. Unlike other languages and with the exception
of the copula/auxiliary configuration, Scottish Gaelic does not feature a simple
present tense and the present progressive (employed in a strictly progressive
sense) and the future tense are used to express present time. Interestingly, the
future tense is also used with a habitual or historical present time reference
value (cf. Wolfson 1982 on the use of the historical present in narratives).
Given this, while the present tense is used in languages like English, French,
Spanish and German to encode futurity (e.g., John ARRIVES tomorrow at 10pm), the
opposite is true of Scottish Gaelic where the future tense expresses present
time. In the last section Landgraf tackles the three main modal verb categories
in Scottish Gaelic: the independent, dependent and relative forms. The dependent
form is only used when particles indicating specific polarity types are present.
Interestingly, rather than tense, it is the distinction between dependence and
independence that is marked morphologically on the verb. The last chapter of
Part B by Michael Rödel examines double perfect constructions in German, which
he labels ‘a typical phenomenon of the substandard’ (page 127). Rödel suggests
that a compositional temporal analysis cannot account for these constructions,
adding that, instead, aspect plays a crucial role. Rödel ponders the
advisability of posing two different double perfect categories: constructions
with GEHABT and constructions with GEWESEN. The author also asks whether German
might need more than a single category for the perfect in line with the
HABEN-perfect/resultative division already posited by some linguists.

Part C features four chapters on tenseless languages and sequence-of-tense
phenomena. The first chapter by Maria Bittner tackles time and modality in the
absence of tenses or modals, or in the author’s words ‘anaphoric tenses and
anaphoric modals’, asking what semantic universals are. The comparative analysis
draws on English (a language that marks verbs for tense) and Kalaallisut (a
tenseless language spoken in Greenland that marks verbs for illocutionary mood).
Bittner contends that -- despite the absence of grammaticalised tense in
Kalaallisut -- the language uses mood to express temporal relations akin to
those encoded via grammaticalised tense in English. Formal compositional
semantics is presented in support for the relevant structures in both languages.
The second paper in Part C is by Katharina Haude who deals with tense marking on
dependent nominals in the endangered, unclassified Bolivian language Movima.
Movima is shown to display what, from a functional perspective, Nordlinger and
Sadler (2004) label ‘nominal tense marking’. That is, relevant semantic
distinctions -- including non-past, recent past and past -- are expressed not by
marking on the verb but, crucially, by prenominal articles. Based on this, Haude
contends that the function of the article has moved from merely indicating the
location and existence of the nominal referent to signaling the relation between
the event time and the time of speaking. The third chapter in Part C, by Judith
Tonhauser, examines the future marker -ta in the variety of Guaraní spoken in
Paraguay, adopting a formal semantic and cross-linguistic perspective. The main
contention in this paper is that Paraguayan Guaraní -ta expresses future time
reference in present and past contexts and that it is compatible with the modal
nuances of intention and prediction. A cross-linguistic comparison using English
and St’át’imcets (spoken in British Columbia, Canada) is offered at the end. The
comparison between English WILL/WOULD and St’át’imcets KELH reveals that the
meaning of Guaraní -ta is the most restrictive (unlike WILL/WOULD, -ta expresses
future time reference and is only compatible with intention and prediction;
unlike KELH, -ta only has universal quantificational force). Part C -- and the
volume -- finishes with Hamida Demirdache’s and Oana Lungu’s examination of the
opposition between zero tense and indexical construals of the present in L1
French. Based on findings from an experimental study conducted in Nantes with 14
five to seven year-old monolingual French children, the authors argue that --
like adult Japanese speakers (Ogihara 1996) and unlike adult French speakers --
French children have an indexical present and a tenseless or zero present. The
authors’ contentions are supported by scopal analysis of tense in relative
clauses and by the ‘observation of isomorphism’; that is, the claim that
children show a strong bias for surface scope interpretations.

In line with the editors’ aim to explore tense ‘from different perspectives,
across languages as well as across phenomena’ (page 1), the volume offers a
wealth of innovative treatments in relation to unexplored grammatical topics
(‘nominal tense’ in Movima) as well as structures previously dealt with in the
literature but for which fresh approaches were sorely needed (double perfect
constructions in German). The editors bring together valuable innovative
treatments of crucial semantic and typological issues in the study of tense,
pointing out how this research helps understand cross-linguistic variation and
throw light on aspects of human cognition.

The papers in this collection offer expert review of the relevant literature,
critical assessment of previous work and original ways to tackle the various
relevant issues. However, the organization of the volume partially obscures the
general strength of the work. For example, as noted by the majority of the
authors themselves, modality is generally irreversibly linked to tense (cf. the
future and epistemic readings of English WILL mentioned above). While only Part
A is named such that it explicitly deals with the relationship between “Tense,
Mood and Modality”, other chapters in the book also relate to this general topic
(e.g., Bittner’s treatment of time and modality in Part C).Closer attention
could also have been paid to formatting, both typographical (e.g., missing
closing parenthesis in the last paragraph of page 59, after ‘resist embedding’)
and regarding consistency in referencing style (e.g., Heine and Kuteva 2002
appears as Heine and Kuteva 2000 on page 22).

On a (final) methodological note and despite the inclusion of a wide array of
structural phenomena common in spontaneous, everyday language -- with some
exceptions -- the research reported on here makes little use of naturalistic,
interactional data (e.g., Landgraf’s data are created by the author and
‘approved’ by native Gaelic speakers; Demirdache and Lungu rely on experimental
data with children). When corpora are exploited (cf. Tonhauser’s chapter),
little information is provided on the nature of the data (i.e., what kinds of
‘texts’ were used to create the corpus?; how many speakers were recorded?; how
many words does the corpus consist of?). As a result, claims about ‘what is
(im)possible’ in language (page 229) should be treated with care. An alternative
way to view this, however, is to acknowledge that variety in the use of
different types of data allows us to understand diverse tense phenomena in
diverse contexts across languages, turning potential criticism into a major asset.

All in all, despite the issues raised above, scholars and students interested in
the semantics and typology of tense should find the volume of great interest.
The original work compiled here offers an exciting addition to previous semantic
and typological treatments of tense (and modality) cross linguistically. Both
empirically and theoretically, “Tense across languages” opens up many avenues
for further research. Indeed, much remains to be charted and the present volume
is a valuable contribution in the right direction.

Bybee, Joan & Östen Dahl. 1989. The creation of tense and aspect systems in the
languages of the world. Studies in Language 13(1): 51-103.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar:
The grammaticalization of tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the
world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Heine, Bernd & Tania Kuteva. 2002. World lexicon of grammaticalization.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Klein, Wolfgang. 1994. Time in language. London and New York: Routledge.

Nordlinger, Rachel & Louisa Sadler. 2004. Nominal tense marking in
cross-linguistic perspective. Language 80: 776-806.

Ogihara, Toshiyuki. 1996. Tense, attitudes and scope. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Reichenbach, Hans. 1947. Elements of symbolic logic. New York: Macmillan.

Schwager, Magdalena. 2006. Interpreting imperatives. University of
Frankfurt/Main: Ph.D. Dissertation.

Wolfson, Nessa. 1982. The conversational historical present in American English
narrative. Dordrecht: Foris.

Celeste Rodríguez Louro is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Western Australia. Her interests include synchronic and diachronic morphosyntactic and discourse-pragmatic variation and change in Romance and English, grammaticalisation, and language attitudes.