Verb: Basic and secondary meanings of tenses

Червень 18th, 20125:44 am


Verb: Basic and secondary meanings of tenses

It is acknowledged that a given grammatical category may have more than one meaning (for example, it is believed that the auxiliary will might have both temporal and modal meanings). In other words, a grammatical category may have a basic meaning and a number of peripheral meanings or uses.

An analysis of tense often encounters difficulties, since this grammati­cal category has certain uses which are not subsumed by, and may even be contradictory to, the definition in terms of location in time. The English past may serve as an example. Although most uses of the past tense do serve to locate situations prior to the present moment, there are several uses that do not. One is in conditional clauses, e.g. if you did this I would be grateful, where did clearly does not have past time reference, but refers rather to a potential action in the present or future. Some English speakers feel a dis­tinction between the form of the verb to be used in such constructions and the form of the verb used with past time reference – cf. John was in London (past time reference), but if John were in London (conditional present) – so that one might argue that here we are simply dealing with two distinct but homonymous (for most verbs, or, for some speakers, for all verbs) forms. However, this cannot be applied to the use of the past tense in polite requests, as in I just wanted to ask you if you could replace me at work tomorrow, which in most circumstances is unlikely to be intended or to be interpreted as a report on the speaker’s desires in the past, but rather as an expression of a present request of a favour. The function of the past in this example is to indicate politeness: the version given is more polite than I just want to ask you if you could replace me at work tomorrow.

The existence of such counterexamples to the general characterization of the English past as indicating past time reference does not invalidate this general characterization, given the distinction between basic and secondary meanings: past time reference is the basic meaning of the past tense, while politeness is a secondary meaning (or, perhaps more accurately, use) of the same form. (Compare the use of past tense in Ukrainian to express imminent future events: Я пішов (meant as a statement of the intended future action, cf. I’m leaving), сів та зробив домашнє завдання (meant as an imperative sentence, cf. You go and confess)). This phenomenon is called grammatical polysemy, i.e. the ability of grammatical forms to have several meanings.

The examples above are instances where it is reasonably clear which of the various uses of the given grammatical form-should be taken as the basic meaning. There are other cases, however, where this distinction is much less clear-cut. One of the cases is the characterization of the so-called future tense in English, which can certainly be used to make predictions about other times, e.g. the present, as in it will be raining already (said by somebody who had noticed the storm-clouds gathering, but has not yet actually ascertained that it is already raining), in addition to various other modal uses, as in he will so swimming in dangerous waters, i.e. “he insists on going swimming”, will you do me a favour?, i.e. “are you willing to do this for me?”. Great controversy has surrounded the question whether the future (i.e. the form with the auxiliary will) should be given a single char­acterization that captures both its temporal and its modal uses; or whether it should be considered basically a tense with secondary modal uses, or basi­cally a mood with secondary temporal uses; or whether it should simply be said to have two sets of meanings, temporal and modal, with neither being dominant.

Tense forms may also acquire an emotional colouring, which results from certain contexts. Cf:

You will work here the Simple Future expresses prediction or a spon­taneously made decision;

You will be working here the Future Continuous is a means to inform politely about a future arrangement

You work/are working here the Present Indefinite or the Present Con­tinuous are used to express a categorical order).

Thus, tenses have meanings definable in particular contexts; it is possible for a given tense to have more than one meaning, in which case some of the meanings may be more basic than others. It is possible that a tense will receive particular interpretations in particular contexts, but these are always explain­able in terms of the interaction of context and context-independent meaning.

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