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Reviewed by:
  • The Past Tenses of the Mongolian Verb: Meaning and Use by Robert L. Binnick
  • György Kara
The Past Tenses of the Mongolian Verb: Meaning and Use. Robert L. Binnick. Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory 1. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xxii + 236. $129.00 (hardcover).

This is the first volume of a new Brill series, “Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory,” edited by Brian D. Joseph of Ohio State University and his international team. The editors “expect that each volume will advance our knowledge of how human language works through solid theoretically sophisticated description and through empirical testing of theoretical constructs and claims” (p. ix).

The Mongolic languages of the past and present show a considerable variety of devices to indicate the relation of an event or state to time, and the speaker’s or writer’s judgment on the nature of this relation. The system of Modern Khalkha Mongolian was first described and analyzed by G. J. Ramstedt in his classic Über die Konjugation des Khalkha-Mongolischen (1903). For him, aspect (perfect, or imperfect) was the primary; tense (present, past, future) was the secondary organizing principle of the indicative finite forms, but, aware of the fact that these forms do not represent objective Zeitstufen ‘strata of time’ (time imagined as a vertical dimension), he also recognized the importance of a “certain freedom of the speaker to choose amongst the available means” (Binnick’s translation, p. 20).

After a thorough introduction to the Mongolian devices for marking past events (part 1), there follows a description of their use and interpretation in the spoken and written languages (parts 2 and 3); on the basis of this description, a pragmatic theory is developed, elucidating the discourse function of the “tenses” (part 4). The author surveyed grammars, textbooks and phrasebooks, various original Mongolian texts, Mongolian translations of English, Russian and Chinese works, and printed and electronic sources; he also consulted native speakers. His monograph offers a critique and synthesis of earlier views, and examines and clarifies a wide range of details, among them the opposition of evidentiality (–lAA) vs. inferentiality (–ǰee) and the hitherto less investigated mirativity. He achieves a new vision of the system in which evidentiality is combined with proximality, as opposed to distality of the other, inferential, forms, and where anaphoric and definite forms are opposed to deictic and indefinite ones (“Deictic tenses are indefinite, since they neither require nor point to a certain time”[p. 216].) He finds that the “inferential ending ... is also mirative” and that the anaphoric tenses are typical in diegetic genres (fiction and autobiography) and that the deictic tenses are typical in nondiegetic genres (journalism, reference works, and other nonfiction). It is certain that “the present work has raised many more questions than it has answered” and “has pointed the way towards future research” (p. 220).

Here I offer some suggestions and corrections.

To the works consulted, I would add a number of old and new books, for instance, Alimaa (2003); Bittigau (2003); Bobrovnikov (1849); Enhebatu (1988); Mönx-Amgalan (1998); Sechenbaatar (2003) (who discusses Chahar durative –n(aa), terminative –w(aa), resultative –ǰ/č(ää), and confirmative –laa, etc. [p. 137]); Sanžeev (1934, especially pp. 31–43), even though many of the examples written in the Latin orthography of the time reek of Stalinism; Todaeva (1951); as well as some Buriat grammars. (See also Skribnik and Seesing 2012.)

In note 1, the author writes that “in the vertical-script language, case (and some other) affixes are generally (though not in all contexts) written as separate words from their stems, so that nom.un, for example, is actually written as nom un. A hyphen is conventionally used (as in nom–un) to indicate the connection between the two” (p. xvii). In fact, the hyphen is used to indicate that there is no initial aleph at the beginning of the [End Page 101] separately written genitive suffix in the Aramaic-based writing system of Uyghur-Mongolian, i.e., nom–un is written as nwm wn, thus not in two words, but in two sequences. Compare also the vocative particle a written as a compound of initial and final allographs of aleph, while the dative-locative...


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