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How time works in Mandarin and isiXhosa

Date Released: Wed, 4 May 2011 09:49 +0200

All natural languages have ways for expressing the time when things take place.  At a Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 3 May Xiujie Ma, a Master's student in the Rhodes Linguistics department, outlined how she plans to study the ways in which two very different languages, Mandarin and isiXhosa, handle time.

Mandarin has very short words, and each word represents only one unit of meaning, with no prefixes or suffixes. This makes it what linguists call an isolating language. By contrast, isiXhosa is an agglutinating language: many different prefixes and suffixes are added onto the same word, so that one word can fulfil the function of an entire sentence, e.g. Ndiyakuthanda, 'I love you.'

Because Mandarin has no prefixes and suffixes, it also cannot have any tense. Instead, it uses three ways to tell listeners what time an event happened. One of these is time adverbials (the equivalent of words like yesterday and today in English). Another is the use of aspect, elements that tell you whether an action is finished, or is still happening. In English, aspect is marked using suffixes like -ing or -en, but because Mandarin has no suffixes, it uses separate 'aspect words' to fulfil this function. Sometimes the verb in Mandarin a sentence is such that it is obvious what time the event happened, so no special time marking is needed.

On the other hand, isiXhosa denotes time using four tenses: remote past, near past, present and future tense. (Contrary to popular belief, English only has two: past and present tense.) These tenses are marked by suffixes which are added to the word. For instance, the -a at the end of Ndiyakuthanda is a suffix indicating that the sentence is in the present tense. For her Master's thesis, supervised by Prof Ron Simango, Xiujie plans to investigate how isiXhosa uses time adverbials and aspect markers to show time, and also if there are sentences in which it isn't necessary to make a reference to the time at all. She plans to do this by asking 10 isiXhosa first-language speakers to translate 120 English sentences into isiXhosa and analysing what these translations show about time reference in the language.