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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

UJ linguist disentangles tense and time in African languages

Date Released: Tue, 11 October 2016 13:58 +0200

Professor Lionel Posthumus from the Department of African Languages at the University of Johannesburg visited RU’s Department of English Language and Linguistics on 27-28 September, and gave an excellent Departmental Research Seminar on deixis, tense and time reference in African languages, using examples from isiZulu.

Prof. Posthumus argued that deixis, the capacity of language to point to things in our context, is essential to our idea of ‘tense’.  He thinks that there are two subsystems of tense in the Bantu languages (the family of African languages that includes nine of South Africa’s 11 official languages): absolute and relative tenses.  He classifies what are commonly called “continuous past tenses” as part of the large group of relative tenses. 

Prof. Posthumus argues that the main reference point we use in language, known as the “deictic centre”, cannot be shifted, and so, talking about shifting the deictic centre or establishing a second deictic centre is an inappropriate explanation for how relative tenses work.  Instead, the so-called “continuous past tenses” and other similar forms of verbs contain inbuilt signals that tell hearers and readers that the eventualities referred to should not be interpreted from the time of utterance, but rather from a reference point in time which is indexed as either before or after the time of utterance.  This reference point does not become a deictic centre, but is referred to in relation to the deictic centre.  He also argues against other explanations of relative tenses which involve aspect (the state of completion of a particular action) or modality (the degree to which meanings of verbs are toned up or down using words like “can”, “could”, “should” or “would”).

He says that we furthermore need to distinguish between tense and time reference in language.  Tense is marked in the verb by morphological and phonological oppositions. Generally (but not inevitably) these verb forms mark eventualities that occur in the past, present or future. Time reference, on the other hand, is established by a number of different factors, including the meaning of the verb; the speaker and hearer’s world knowledge; different morphemes that mark aspect; auxiliary verbs such as “had” or “are”; the context; and the interaction between tense forms and temporal adverbials, such as “yesterday”, “the day thereafter” or “last year”. Diurnal adverbs, like tense, may be absolute or relative.

There was a lively discussion at the end of Prof. Posthumus’ talk, showing that our RU linguists were eager to engage with him about his ideas on tense and time reference.

Source:Ian Siebörger