Tense, mood, and centering

Natural languages exhibit a great variety of grammatical paradigms. For instance, in English verbs are grammatically marked for tense, whereas in the tenseless Eskimo-Aleut language Kalaallisut they are marked for illocutionary mood. Although time is a universal dimension of the human experience and speaking is part of that experience, some languages encode reference to time without any grammatical tense morphology, or reference to speech acts without any illocutionary mood morphology. Nevertheless, different grammatical systems are semantically parallel in certain respects. Specifically, I propose that English tenses form a temporal centering system, which monitors and updates topic times, whereas Kalaallisut moods form a modal centering system, which monitors and updates modal discourse referents. To formalize these centering parallels I define a dynamic logic that represents not only changing information but also changing focus of attention in discourse (Update with Centering, formalizing Grosz et al 1995). Different languages can be translated into this typed logic by directly compositional universal rules of Combinatory Categorial Grammar (CCG) The resulting centering theory of tense and illocutionary mood draws semantic parallels across different grammatical systems. The centering generalizations span the extremes of the typological spectrum, so they are likely to be universal. In addition, the theory accounts for the translation equivalence of tense and illocutionary mood in a given utterance context. Following Stalnaker (1978) I assume that the very act of speaking up has a ‘commonplace effect’ on the context. It focuses attention on the speech act and thereby introduces default modal and temporal topics. These universal defaults complement language-specific grammars, e.g. English tenses and Kalaallisut moods. In a given utterance context the universal discourse-initial defaults plus language-specific grammatical marking may add up to the same truth conditions..
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