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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Time in Chinese

Last night I read Jo-Wang Lin's very interesting piece "Time in a Language Without Tense: the Case of Chinese" (from Journal of Semantics 23, 2005). As Lin points out, Chinese is well-known for not having any tense morphology. Here are some examples (from Lin):

John zuotian qu ni jia
John yesterday go you house

John hen mang
John very busy

John dai wo qu D.C.
John take me go D.C.

But how significant are the tense morphological differences between English and Chinese? Well, English has tense morphology. For instance, it has past tense morphology, as in 'John once bought a bike' or 'it once was the case that John bought a bike' (the second past tense inflection is vacuous or stylistic). Does English have present tense morphology? Well, there is a lot of disagreement about that. Of course, English has a progressive form, as in 'I am writing a blog post'. But Murvet Enc--a linguist famous for her work on tense--has recently told me that she thinks (and is going to argue) that there is no such thing as present tense morphology or operator (incidentally, I am thrilled to hear that, since Authur Prior--one of my heros--argued for that thesis many years ago). And we know that there is no future tense morphology in English. 'Will' and 'would' do not count as a future tense morphology. So the main difference between English and Chinese is that unlike Chinese, English has past tense morphology.

So how do Chinese speakers manage to indicate PAST vs PRESENT? It has sometimes been suggested that Chinese has unpronounced semantic tense features. But Lin argues that this is not so. Rather, Chinese makes use of (among other things) temporal adverbs (e.g. 'yesterday' and 'the year of 1996'), aspectual particles/markers, modal verbs ('will' and 'should'), and pragmatic background assumptions.

Here is just one example.

Mary he-guo jiu
Mary drink-ASPECT wine
'Mary drank wine before'

The aspectual marker 'guo' translates roughly as 'before'. 'Guo' indicates that the whole event (that of drinking wine) must have taken place before the time of speech.

7 comments:

Manyul Im said...

Aspect markers in Chinese are important for clues (cues?) about tense, but so are "intention" words--coverbs like *yao*, "want/would like to." Also there is at least one morphologically variable indicator of aspect, if not tense: the negative coverb *mei you*--or *mei* in shortened use--for "have/has not" versus *bu* for "do/does not"; e.g.
*Wo mei qu Beijing* for "I have not been to Beijing" vs.
*Wo bu qu Beijing* for "I do not go to Beijing".
I haven't read Lin's piece; he probably discusses this. In any case, I hope this is useful.

Brit said...

Thank you, Manyul. This is very helpful. And yes, it should be "cues" not "clues". Thank you. I think Lin discusses "yao" (if I remember correctly). I don't remember whether he discusses "mei" vs. "bu". I will have to go back and look.

BTW, I found a link to Lin's paper on the web (however, I don't know whether it requires on-line subscription to the journal).

Brit said...
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Wang Dong said...

1. Although Pior's tense logic has some limitation, such as yesterday problem, you can use other logic to express the time and tense. Reichenbach's method and some method based on this are recommended. Some good methods with index toos are OK too.

2. About the time marker or operator in Mandarin, I suppose that we should not get bogged down on details, especially the influence from semantic computationality. Pragmatic aspect is worth to be considered more.

Hope to help a little.

Brit Brogaard said...

Thank you! This is helpful.