Imperfective marking in present tense

Claire Bowern bowern at RICE.EDU
Mon Jan 21 02:54:04 UTC 2008

Hi again,
apologies for my somewhat abbreviated and cryptic note yesterday (I was
at the airport and my flight was boarding). Apologies in advance too for
the length of this explanation.

Bardi (Nyulnyulan) has both tense prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes
are purely tense/mood markers (that is, they aren't aspectual) and only
one can occur per verb. The marking possibilities are present (null),
past (nga-), future (ngga-) and irrealis (la-). They interact with the
transitivity and the verb stem a bit but that's not relevant here.

The temporal suffixes, however, are quite different. Here are the forms:

present (null) (listed for completeness, not to get into an argument
about zero versus nothing)
future -a
continuous -n
remote past -na
"middle perfect" -ij
"recent past" -gal
simultaneous action -j

There are various co-occurrence restrictions between the prefixes and
suffixes. So for example it ungrammatical to have a past prefix and
future suffix, as one might expect. The terms in scare quotes come from
previous descriptions of Bardi. They seem to me to be primarily aspect
markers. it is also possible to get more than one of these markers. For
instance, the continuous marker and remote past marker often co-occur in
narratives on actions such as i-na-marra-na-na 'she cooked [stuff]'
(3-trans-cook-continuous-remote past). The simultaneous action marker is
really a clause chainer, but it patterns with the temporal marking
rather than with the other clause markers morphologically so I list it
here too.

That is all by way of background (an apologies that this e-mail is
getting rather long). To return to Östen's question about the
distinction. The unmarked forms are quite rare in my data. They are much
more common in closely related languages. They seem to occur
particularly in clause chaining, although they do not have to, and
clause chaining verbs are often marked with a tense suffix. I stress
this because they are not atemporal forms (and they always have the
prefix). There are also instances of forms where this form describes a
general state of affairs (i-n-marra 'he cooks' 3-trans-cook). They are
also very common in song language.

-n occurs on states (niiwandi ini*n* 'she's tall'), in progressives
(inmarra*n* 'she's cooking'),
-gal occurs where the event endpoint isn't specified, and it contrasts 
with -ij where the end point is specific.

-gal and -n can occur with present or past tense prefixes. -ij and -na 
only occur with past prefixes. -n and -gal can occur with each other, in 
either present or past (e.g. in the greeting nyirroogoordoo mi-n-kal 
'how are you doing?'

In effect, the distinction seems to be a focus on whether the event has 
an endpoint, or whether it continues for any length of time, or both (or 


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