Aspectual Grammar and Past-Time Reference

Aspectual Grammar and Past-Time Reference

Aspectual Grammar and Past-Time Reference

Aspectual Grammar and Past-Time Reference


This study presents a semantic framework for analysing all aspectual constructions in terms of the event state distinction, and describes the grammatical expression of aspectual meaning in terms of a theory of grammatical constructions. In this theory, grammatical constructions, like words, are conventionalized form-meaning pairs, which are best described not only with respect to their intrinsic semantic values, but also with respect to the functional oppositions in which they participate.




A fundamental ability that languages confer upon their speakers is that of characterizing situations, referring to events that occurred in the past, and describing the temporal ordering of those events. Talking about processes, states, and occurrences is such a mundane aspect of discourse that one can forget that the language does not give an unmediated picture of reality, but instead imposes a particular conceptual framework upon the domain of eventualities. “Languages differ in their verbalized orientation to experience” (Slobin and Bocaz 1989:17). This point is brought out by Slobin’s cross-linguistic studies of the development of narrative ability in children. Slobin (1987) and Slobin and Bocaz provide evidence for the “neo-Whorfian” position that a speaker’s native grammar will influence what aspects of situations that speaker attends to. In English, the progressive construction and a wide variety of verb—particle combinations lead speakers to specify processes and trajectories. In Spanish, “the use of participles in a variety of grammatical frames orients one to the description of resultant and enduring states” (Slobin and Bocaz 1989). Those who explore tense and aspect seek to relate presumably universal features of conceptual structure (e.g., the distinction between static and dynamic situations) to the language-particular resources which are available for talking about situations. It is only through careful examination of the latter area that we arrive at insights concerning the former.

Thus, in studying tense and aspect, we focus on the set of linguistic devices used by the speakers of a given language to specify the temporal features of a situation. One such feature is the location of that situation with respect to speech time: tense marking indicates whether the situation is prior to, contemporaneous with, or after the time of speaking. Another feature is the disposition of the situation through time: aspectual marking locates the situation denoted within a reference interval, which can but need not be identified with the time of speaking. Aspectual marking indicates whether the situation obtains throughout the reference interval, culminates within that time, or begins at that time.

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