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  • Defining crosslinguistic categories: The case of nominal tense (Reply to Nordlinger and Sadler)*
  • Judith Tonhauser

1. Taking Stock

Nordlinger & Sadler 2004 (NS04) brought nominal tense/aspect/mood (TAM) markers across languages to the attention of the linguistic community and raised many important questions about noun-phrase temporality, lexical categories, and other research areas. In the theoretical literature on noun-phrase temporality, the idea that tense might be a category of noun phrases was considered as early as Enç 1981. In her analysis of the temporal interpretation of noun phrases, Enç (1981:41–45) briefly entertains the possibility of noun phrases being interpreted by nominal tense operators that locate the time relative to which a noun phrase is interpreted (i.e. Tonhauser 2007’s (T07) noun-phrase time tnp ) relative to the utterance time. Enç ultimately rejects the proposal since nominal tense operators ‘do not correspond to tense morphemes’ (1981:44), that is, do not have overt morphological counterparts, but also because an analysis according to which the noun-phrase time is contextually determined is more adequate.1 The primary focus of subsequent literature on noun-phrase temporality was to identify structural, semantic, and pragmatic constraints on the location of the noun-phrase time (e.g. EnçEnç 1986, Musan 1995, 1999, Demirdache 1997, Tonhauser 2002). In the context of this research, the empirical domain of which is English, German, and St’át’imcets, that is, languages that do not have nominal temporal markers, N & S’s claim that there are languages with nominal tenses is exciting because these languages would provide overt evidence for Enç’s nominal tense operators and promise insight into the way that the noun-phrase time is located.2

My research on Guaraní was directly motivated by N&S's work. One central goal of T07 was to explore the meaning of the Guaraní nominal temporal markers; together with Tonhauser 2006 (T06), this constitutes the first detailed, truth-conditional semantic study of such markers in any language. The semantic analysis I provide makes it possible to compare the meaning of the nominal markers to that of verbal tense and verbal aspect markers. Table 1 summarizes the semantic criteria I used in T06 and T07 to establish whether a marker is tense-like. In this table, it is assumed (following e.g. Reichenbach 1947, Smith 1991, Kamp & Reyle 1993, Klein 1994) that verbal tense encodes (or presupposes) a relation between the utterance time and the reference time, and verbal aspect encodes a relation between the reference time and the event time; [End Page 332] the Guaraní nominal temporal markers (Guaraní NTMs) encode a relation between the noun-phrase time tnp, the time relative to which a noun phrase is interpreted, and the nominal (or possessive) time tnom (or tposs ) relative to which the nominal property (or possessive relation) is interpreted (T06, T07).3

Table 1

Properties of verbal tense, verbal aspect, and Guaraní nominal temporal markers.

property verbal tense verbal aspect guaraní NTMs
1. exhibit lexical restrictions no possible yes (-kue)/no (-rã )
2. meaning encodes a state change no possible yes
3. anaphoricity yes no no
4. form grammatical paradigm (e.g. cannot cooccur) yes possible no
5. temporal modifier can constrain relation yes yes no

This comparison shows that the temporal relation encoded by the Guaraní markers differs from that encoded by verbal tenses with respect to several properties. For example, verbal tenses do not encode a state change but the Guaraní nominal markers do.4 As a result, the continuation in 1a is felicitous, while that of 1b is not (data from T07: 839).5

  • 1.

    1. a. Matt was sick last week. He is still sick.

    2. b. Kuehe a-hecha peteĩ abogádo- -me. #A-hecha-ramo-gua-re

      yesterday A1sg-see one lawyer-ra-pe A1sg-see-cond-of-re

      • ha’e abogádo-ma.

      • 3. pron lawyer-already

    3. ‘Yesterday I saw a future lawyer. When I saw him he was a lawyer already.’

The reference time, which is located relative to the utterance time by tense, can be anaphorically determined in narrative discourse, as illustrated by Partee’s example in 2a. In contrast, the nominal...


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