zero-marked verbs

Ă–sten Dahl oesten at LING.SU.SE
Wed Jan 22 08:38:26 UTC 2003

It is actually not so easy to say exactly when a language has
"obligatory overt TAM marking". Consider English. The present tense is
in fact used quite extensively both with future time reference (for
instance "The train leaves at eight") and past time reference (e.g. in
narratives). To find examples where the present is absolutely excluded,
you have to choose specific contexts, such as when there is also a
deictic past time adverbial in the sentence, e.g. "I was ill yesterday"
where "I am ill yesterday" is rather deviant. Looking at descriptions of
"exotic" languages, it is often hard to know to what extent the forms
and constructions listed are really obligatory. Having said this, I
think it can still be claimed with some confidence that the
obligatoriness of TAM/TMA marking is not contingent on literacy.
Available evidence shows that there are plenty of languages from all
parts of the world where tense, mood and aspect work quite analogously
to what we find in "li! terate" languages. Most of these do not have
written forms or only very recently got them. Remember that until one or
two centuries ago the majority of the speakers of European languages
were illiterate, and in fact, many still speak non-standard vernaculars
that are not written. There is indeed nothing to suggest that Sicilian
in Italy or Dalecarlian in Sweden differ in any essential respect to the
standard languages of those countries as far as TMA marking goes.

This does not mean that there are no languages that are like Kuche.
Mikael Parkvall mentioned Maybrat in Irian Jaya -- there are actually
quite a few languages in that area that have no or minimal TMA systems,
and optionality is probably quite widespread. Notice that there is
really nothing strange in tense, mood, and aspect not being universal as
obligatory categories -- none of the categories that are typically
expressed inflectionally is universal, not even in the sense that there
must be a periphrastic counterpart (negation is a possible exception,
but it is quite different from the others in many respects).

Janet Wilson says "Overt tense/aspect markers are used at the beginning
of a discourse, and those tense/aspect interpretations hold over long
stretches of discourse." -- This is something that tends to hold for
narratives in many languages, but I wonder if it can be extended to
other modes of discourse. Why would you use overt tense/aspect markers
in the beginning of a conversation rather than in the middle?

I do not think there is a good answer to the question "Why does TMA
become obligatory in a language?", at least not one that would make it
possible to predict in what languages it happens. Maybe linguists will
find such an answer some time in the future, but at that point they will
probably also be able to explain why French has nasal vowels and English

(I wrote this last night when I did not have access to my usual mail
account, and other people may have had time to say similar things in the

- Vsten Dahl

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