Tense category of verbs: Tense and Deixis

June 16th, 20125:05 am


Tense category of verbs: Tense and Deixis

Time itself does not provide any landmarks in terms of which one can lo­cate situations. Even if time had had a beginning, we do not know where that beginning was, so we cannot locate anything else relative to that beginning. In principle a number of logical possibilities for reference points are available, and for lexically composite expressions many of these are used in language. Thus our own calendar system chooses as its arbitrary reference point the (tra­ditional) date for Christ’s birth, and counts years backwards and forwards from this time point. Another example may be ancient Rome where the reference point was the (traditional) date for the founding of the city of Rome (753 BC).

What one rather finds most typically is the choice of the speech situation as the reference point, i.e. the present moment (for time), the present loca­tion (for space), and the speaker and the hearer (for person). As far as tense is concerned, then, the reference point is typically the present moment. As a result, the tenses locate situations either at the same time as the present moment, or prior to the present moment, or subsequent to the present moment, with further potential categories. A system which relates entities to a refer­ence point is termed a deictic system, and we can therefore say that tense is deictic. (By contrast, aspect is non-deictic, since discussion of the internal temporal constituency of a situation is quite independent of its relation to any other time point.)

The most straightforward instance of a deictic system is one where the “here and now”, i.e. the speech situation, is taken as deictic center. In terms of person, this defines first person as the speaker and second person as the hearer, with everything else being third person. In terms of place, the place where the speech situation develops is defined as here, everywhere else as there. In fact, the situation is somewhat more complex for place, since the physical location of speaker and hearer can never be absolutely identical, and it is possible that there may be considerable physical separation between them. English here refers more specifically to the location of the speaker, so that if the hearer is physically separated from the speaker the hearer’s physi­cal location will be referred to as there. Also, English deictic verb come in­dicating motion towards the deictic centre, treats both the speaker’s and the hearer’s location as deictic centre, even when they are physically separated, so that one can say both, you will come to me and I will come to you.

It is necessary to mention substitution that occurs due to deixis in re­ported speech, where the original “here now” turns into “there then” together with deictic verbs to come and to bring replaced by to go and to take. However, along with cases of reported speech, there may be situa­tions that are clarified by the context as having deictic centres other than the “here now”. Thus, with regard to spatial deixis, the verb to come, usually referring to the location of either the speaker or the hearer, may be used in relation to a location of some third party in the past: and at last they came to Paris. The existence of deictic centres other than the present moment plays a crucial role in relative tense.

In the meantime, it may be noted that non-finite verb forms in English often have relative time reference, i.e. time reference relative to a deictic centre other than the present moment. Thus, in those making notes could follow the narration, one possible interpretation of the time reference of making is as simultaneous with (or overlapping) that of could follow, i.e. the present participle indicates present time reference, but with respect to a reference point which is in the past. What is crucial to all tense specifications, however, is the need for a deictic centre or reference point.

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