Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Tenses" (as in past, present and future). Part 1


I’ll soon be writing some morsels on the GPA Facebook page on the cognitive dimension of the GPA. Suffice it to say, for the GPA, “grammar” is not “instructions for how to form sentences” but part of a “cue system” which is used by the “comprehension system” in the process of converting sound into understanding.

“Past-present-future tense” is a powerful theme in our Anglo-world folk-theory of language and language learning. When people want to do a “modified GPA,” one of the common concerns will be, “The GPA doesn’t teach past, present and future in Phase 1, and that’s really basic”. If you ask, you’ll find we have something to say about every area in which there are common complaints/misunderstanding! So this message explains some of the reasoning behind the way “tense” is dealt with in the GPA.

First a bit of terminology: Tense, Aspect, Mood (TAM)

1)   I am writing this blog entry
2)   I was writing this blog entry
3)   I wrote this blog entry

Sentences 2) and 3) are said to be past tense. They differ in aspect. Sentences 1) and 2) are progressive aspect (which is a type of imperfective aspect). I hope that gives you a bit of an idea of the basic distinction between tense and aspect. When it comes to mood or major concern is with imperative and interrogative, but we won’t dwell on mood now.

A problem in talking about TAM is that all our examples are in English, which uses such categories in particular combinations, for particular purposes. As we are really talking about many languacultures, we need to be more general, and so we talk of “tense,” meaning tense and aspect. Sentence 1) is here-and-now “tense” (or we might say, here-and-now tense-aspect). Sentence 3) has what we will call story-event “tense” and sentence 2) has what we will call story-background “tense”.

Note that we put "tense" in quotation marks. The realities of languages will differ greatly. For example, in the imperative there might be a contrast, which we don’t have in English, between imperfective (“Be writing a blog!”) and perfective (“Write a blog!”). Some language may not have tense, that is, using a particular aspect for the story-event form. Some languages have hodiernal tense (past, but still today), pre-hesternal (past, and prior to yesterday), etc. Lots of different aspects, too, in the languages of the world. Huge variety, and all sorts of complexities.  The “quotation marks” around "tense" are there to remind you that I’m using the term in a vague, everyday way that reflects our Anglophone-world folk-theory of language and language learning.

It seems that in the SLA (second language acquisition) field, few researchers get beyond thinking of “tense” as a way of referring to a “location in time”. A common idea is that initially “language learners” express time by adverbs, such as “yesterday,” before they learn to refer to “locations” in time by tense marking.

In my dissertation, I observed the oddity of practice, by lingusits (influenced by a certain logician),  of viewing tense/aspect marking as a way of expressing the fact that the “Event Time” preceeds vs. coincides vs. follows the “Speech Act Time”. If someone is telling a typical story, then all the events in the story precede the speech act times. So why mark that fact on every single verb. Yet historically, a language without past tense marking will develop it, perhaps over several centuries (this is called grammaticisation). It seems to be doing something more important than (totally redundantly) reminding us that each event in the story happened before the time when the story is being told.

Some linguists, such as Paul Hopper and Sandra Thompson have proposed that “past tense” (etc.) marking has a different function. It marks the “foreground” events—that is the events that move the story forward. Some psychologists have understood this concept of moving the story forward in terms of “mental models”. As we hear a story, we have a mental model that keeps changing, developing in line with the events of the story. Daniel Morrow had people listen to two versions of a story. One had the words, “John walked through the kitchen into the bedroom.” The other had the words, “John was walking through the kitchen into the bedroom.” These differ in terms of aspect, perfective (walked) versus progressive (was walking). The effect of the “simple past” (the perfective) in the first case is a mental model in which John is in the bedroom now. The effect of the progressive is a mental model in which John is now in the living room. The effect of tense/aspect then is to move us to a particular place in the story line.

Now whereas it makes no sense that languages would have a great tendency to mark the time of every event in a story (prior to the Speech Act Time, etc.) when that is so obvious, it makes excellent sense that the tense/aspect morphology would help people understand where we are in the story.

I would argue that in general the “time reference” of tense marking is incidental. For example, “future tense” is in fact marking speech act types such as making a commitment to do something. Of course, whatever you commit to do, you will do it in the future.

To be continued…