Re: Tense, mostly

Don Wilkins (
Fri, 13 Dec 1996 21:44:55 -0500 (EST)

At 11:50 AM 12/12/96, Mari Broman Olsen wrote:
. . .
>The only temporal limitation on the indicative verb forms that I do
>away with is with respect to the aorist and the present. This does
>not have the force of a computational 'quick and dirty fix'. On the
>contrary, my goal was to provide a monotonically increasing model such
>that information that was provided could NOT be eliminated (the other
>forms DO carry temporal tense significance which may not be removed),
>but information could be added (i.e. temporal significance of the
>aorist can be 'added' by pragmatic implicature associated with a
>perfective unmarked for tense, but nothing can make the future refer
>to something past with respect to the deictic center of the discourse
>(generally speech time)).
>On Andrew K's observations about the present, NONE of the 60+ langauges in
>O"sten Dahl's survey of tense/aspect systems marked present tense on a
>verb alone. THat is, all the morphemes associated with present tense
>are doing other work (in English, marking person: He work(s), in
>Greek marking imperfective aspect), and the association of present
>time with these forms comes as a matter of pragmatic implicature:
>since the writer/speaker didn't use a form marked for past or future,
>(s)he must have meant to refer to the present. THis implicature can
>be cancelled in the appropriate context, cf. the historical presents
>in Mark, as well as the English (relative) counterpart, as in the
>following true statement, where yesterday marks it clearly as past.
>Note that a similar implicature is available even without 'yesterday'.
>I get home yesterday and find out my daughter has thrown up.
> ^^^ ^^^^
>Daughter #1 also threw up, at 3 a.m.....

This is most interesting, Mari, and I am enjoying our discussions more and
more (at this rate I should be ecstatic when I get to read your papers. To
the crows with snail mail!!) while steadily increasing in my admiration for
your work. I won't repeat the issue of the augment again here. My
impression of what you say about Dahl's survey strikes me as being too
general to establish your case for the present and aorist, though (you knew
I would find something to gripe about), so I thought I would ask you about
a few particulars. When you note the absence of a marked present tense in
the survey, have you considered the relationship between presents and 2nd
aorists in Greek? This is another sore spot in grammatical jargon, but it
appears to me that the major differences in stem that we often find are
actually different words associated respectively with the past and present.
Probably most of these words occur in Homer before the augment appears
historically. We also see less radical but still significant stem changes,
where one can see an morphemic similarity between the two stems. I assume
that when you say none of the 60+ languages marked the present tense verb
alone, you are referring to suffixes. Aren't stem changes just as
significant (or perhaps more so)? You can still argue that aspect is the
question rather than tense, but can you really say that the present is
always unmarked?

Also, as to the so-called historical present, the great majority of
presents in this category have no term within the structure of a given
sentence that marks the statement as past time, e.g. no "yesterday" as in
the example above. Instead, the inference that the event was past usually
comes from an earlier statement using ordinary past-time verbs (in both
Greek and English), and the conventional argument (which makes sense to me)
is that a kind of suspension of reality occurs in which the speaker
suddenly transports her/himself and the listener back into the past by a
mental time machine, due to excitement over the event. Therefore, while we
know that historically the event is past, the temporal statements made have
the same meanings that they normally would have. I could also offer
indirect statement as an illustration of the mental conversion we make. We
may begin with "S/he said that" and use the tenses of the original
statement or convert them one step into the past (Greek is fussy about
keeping the original "tenses", English about converting to past, but
nowadays one can keep the original tenses in Eng. without even being
charged with a misdemeanor). I like to make a very strong distinction
between what the syntactical and lexical elements of a statement actually
mean by the "rules", and how they are interpreted by the listener/reader.
What do you think?

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside