Differences in meaning between grammatical and lexical items

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Aug 26 05:59:51 UTC 2008

Dear Östen and all,

Malayic Languages (varieties of Malay/Indonesian and other closely 
related languages) provide some of the items that Östen is looking for:
> I am interested in possible systematic differences in the meanings connected
> with grammatical markers or categories on the one hand and lexical items on
> the other. I would therefore like to know the following:
> 1) Are there languages in which there are lexical items which can be used on
> their own (i.e. without the help of some grammatical item) to denote the
> following timespans, which show up as the interpretations of tenses in many
> languages:
> - from the beginning of the day of the speech act to the point of speech  
This function is performed by the word /tadi/ shared by Riau Indonesian, 
Jakarta Indonesian, Minangkabau and many others.
> - from the point of speech to the end of the same day
This function is performed by Riau Indonesian /nantik/, Jakarta 
Indonesian /ntar/, Minangkabau /beko/, Bengkulu/ kelak/ and many others.

With respect to the above forms, I think all scholars would agree that 
they constitute completely independent words. Whereas some assign them 
to a grammatical category of modal, auxiliary, or whatnot, I would argue 
that such analyses betray a Eurocentric perspective, and that within the 
languages in question, these words share the same grammatical properties 
as most other "content words", eg. 'chair', 'speak'.
> 2) Similarly, are there languages which have a lexical item whose primary
> meaning is ’yesterday’ but which can also be used for ’the day before
> yesterday’ and even ’three days ago’?
Riau Indonesian /semalam/ (literally 'one-night') has 'yesterday' as its 
primary meaning, but can also mean 'a specific day in the not too 
distant past', or, in more colloquial English 'the other day'. Other 
Malayic varieties use other forms with possibly the same meaning, eg. 
Jakarta Indonsian /kemarin/, Minangkabau /kapatang/ (lit. 'to 
afternoon'), though I sometimes find it hard to figure out exactly what 
the possible range of meanings actually is.

Östen doesn't ask, but there is also a mirror-image future word. In Riau 
Indonesian, Jakarta Indonesian, and many other varieties, /besok/ has 
'tomorrow' as its primary meaning, but can also be used to mean 'a 
specific day in the not too distant future'. In addition it can be used 
as a modifier with other time expressions, such as days of the week, eg. 
/rabu besok/ 'next Wednesday' (lit. 'Wednesday tomorrow'). 
(Interestingly, Riau Indonesian /semalam/ doesn't have the corresponding 
attributive usage.) My analysis of /besok/ is that it means something 
like 'the next day', with a deictic component which, in the absence of 
any more specific contextual clues, may default to the present, 
resulting in the reading 'tomorrow'. Or not, as the case may be: I can't 
count the number of times somebody said they would come /besok,/ and I 
waited for them in vain the day after ...


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at eva.mpg.de
Webpage:  http://www.eva.mpg.de/~gil/

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