query: complex tenses and tense/aspects

Sebastian Nordhoff sebastian_nordhoff at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Sep 27 16:38:34 UTC 2011

On Tue, 27 Sep 2011 01:06:35 +0200, David Gil <gil at eva.mpg.de> wrote:

> Dear all,
>  Consider the English sentences:
>  (1) Fred said John was reading a book
> (2) When Fred walked in, John was reading a book
>  In the above sentences, the verbal form "was reading" is commonly  
> characterized as being in the "past progressive", combining past tense  
> and progressive aspect in both form and meaning.  (Though under an  
> alternative analysis, by Halliday, it is analyzed as expressing a  
> complex "present-in-past" tense.)
>  In Hebrew there are no aspectual distinctions; verbs are marked for  
> past, present or future tense.  In the translations for (1) and (2), the  
> verb "read" would be marked in the present tense in (1) but the past  
> tense in (2).
> Is anybody familiar with a (description of a) language in which, in the  
> situation described in (2), the "read" verb would also be marked for (a  
> "relative") present tense, without any additional aspectual marking?

Dear David,
you find the above configuration in Sinhala and Sri Lanka Malay.

Siri horaa par-ee duw-anavaa dækka SINHALA
Siri thief road-LOC run-PRES see\PAST
‘Siri saw the thief running on the road.’ (Gair 2003:806)

Blaakang=jo incayang anà-kuthumung [moonyeth pada pohong atthas=ka
arà-maayeng] SLM
after=EMPH 3S.POLITE PAST-see monkey PL tree top=LOC PRES-play
‘Then only he saw that the monkeys were playing on the top of the trees.’
(Nordhoff 2009:289)

Note that in these examples, the 'present tense' verbs are in complement
clauses and 'inherit' the absolute tense interpretation of the matrix
clause, which might not be the syntactic context you are looking for.
In English, the '-ing'-form can be used in these contexts ('saw him
running, saw them playing'). The difference between English and the Sri
Lankan languages is that in the latter, the form does not show reduced
finiteness whereas in English, it is clearly less finite than other forms.

You can find a discussion of the Sri Lanka Malay facts in Nordhoff
2009:289. A comparison of the Sinhala and Sri Lanka Malay facts with
regard to this use of the present tense form can be found in an upcoming
paper of mine "Establishing and Dating Sinhala Influence in Sri Lanka
Malay" in the Journal of Language Contact. You can get a draft version
   from my website. I also touch upon the diachrony of this construction in


GAIR, J. W. (2003). “Sinhala”. In CARDONA, G. & D. JAIN (eds.) “The
Languages”, London: Routledge. pp. 766–818.

NORDHOFF, S. (2009). A Grammar of Upcountry Sri Lanka Malay. Ph.D. thesis,
University of Amsterdam.

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