Temporal semantics in a superficially tenseless language

Linguistics and Philosophy 29 (6):673 - 713 (2006)
Abstract
This paper contributes to the debate about ‘tenseless languages’ by defending a tensed analysis of a superficially tenseless language. The language investigated is St’át’imcets (Lillooet Salish). I argue that although St’át’imcets lacks overt tense morphology, every finite clause in the language possesses a phonologically covert tense morpheme; this tense morpheme restricts the reference time to being non-future. Future interpretations, as well as ‘past future’ would-readings, are obtained by the combination of covert tense with an operator analogous to Abusch’s (1985) WOLL. I offer St’át’imcets-internal evidence (of a kind not previously adduced) that the WOLL-like operator is modal in nature. It follows from the analysis presented here that there are only two (probably related) differences between St’át’imcets and English in the area of tense. The first is that St’át’imcets lacks tense morphemes which are pronounced. The second is that the St’át’imcets tense morpheme is semantically underspecified compared to English ones. In each of these respects, the St’át’imcets tense morpheme displays similar properties to pronouns, which may be covert and which may fail to distinguish person, number or gender. Along the way, I point out several striking and subtle similarities in the interpretive possibilities of St’át’imcets and English. I suggest that these similarities may reveal non-accidental properties of tense systems in natural language. I conclude with discussion of the implications of the analysis for cross-linguistic variation, learnability and the possible existence of tenseless languages.
Keywords Aspect  Future  Modality  Salish  Tense  Tenseless languages
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