LSA 128: Semantics of tense cross-linguistically

Judith Tonhauser | session 1 | TuTh 3:30 – 5:15, 179 Stanley Hall

Natural languages differ in their morphological inventories and syntactic structures, yet all languages are assumed to be equally expressive, i.e. enable their speakers to express the same meanings. This picture presents exciting challenges for linguists: How can we account for the fact that a certain meaning can arise in morpho-syntactically distinct languages? How can we compare the semantics of such languages? This course takes up these questions in the temporal domain by exploring the meaning of tense cross-linguistically. The goal is to come to an understanding of the complexities that arise when comparing this key semantic notion across languages and constructions, and to discuss how tense can be adequately characterized.

The course centers around two topics. The first one is to examine how tense morphemes are interpreted across a diverse range of languages and constructions, and how the interpretation of such morphemes depends on the discourse context and interacts with aspectual and modal markers. We study how semanticists, typologists and grammar writers characterize tense and which concepts are used (and useful) for cross-linguistic comparison. The second topic is the temporal interpretation of languages and constructions that have been argued to not involve tense morphemes, namely tenseless languages (such as Yucatec Maya or Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic)) and noun phrases (for example, the noun phrase "the president" in "The president was born in 1934" is not interpreted at the time at which the verb is interpreted since the referent of the noun phrase was not a president when he was born). Two (broad) positions exist in the literature on such languages and constructions: one position maintains that their temporal interpretation relies on phonologically zero tense morphemes, the other argues that contextual factors contribute constraints similar to that of tense morphemes. We examine the assumptions of both positions and assess their implications for what "tense" is, and thereby try to forge better tools for enabling cross-linguistic comparison.

The course examines these topics through lectures, discussions, and analyses of data from a variety of under-represented languages. By the end of the course, students will be able to undertake original research in this area of semantics.

Reading: Selected materials available online.

Prerequisites: Background in formal semantics/pragmatics.

Areas of linguistics: Syntax, semantics, and morphology; Languages of the Americas

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