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Events and their shadows: an exploration of isiXhosa tense and aspect

Date Released: Wed, 31 August 2016 16:43 +0200

Events cast ‘shadows’ over the period in which their effects can be noticed, and these ‘shadows’ seem to be built into the tense and aspect system of isiXhosa.  That is what Prof. Ron Simango, the head of the Department of English Language and Linguistics at Rhodes University, argued in a Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 23 August.

Any event results in some sort of ‘change’ happening at a particular time or place. Languages typically encode this change in the tense/aspectual system. We can see this if we look at the following two examples from isiXhosa, both meaning “Ayanda combed her hair”:

(1)    UAyanda uzikamile iinwele zakhe

(2)    UAyanda ebezikamile iinwele zakhe

The most obvious difference between the two sentences is that (1) uses what is called a simple tense form, -ile, whereas (2) uses a compound tense form in which both ebe- and -ile convey the past tense. A more important difference lies in meanings associated with each sentence: (1) implies that when the sentence was spoken, Ayanda’s hair still looked like it had been combed, whereas (2) implies that it no longer looks combed.

Prof. Simango argues that this shows the existence of an event’s ‘shadow’: a sentence like (1) would be used at a time that falls in the event’s ‘shadow’, while sentences like (2) can only be used outside the ‘shadow’.  He demonstrated that in isiXhosa and related languages, different markings appear on the verb depending on whether or not a sentence is uttered in the ‘shadow’ of the event it describes.  He also showed that the meaning of the verb determines whether or not a verb can take both of these sets of markings.  For instance, it is extremely rare to find the verb ‘die’ with the past tense marker ebe- in isiXhosa, because dying is usually an irreversible process.

Source:Ian Siebörger