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On nominal tense

Pier Marco Bertinetto
From the journal Linguistic Typology


Nordlinger & Sadler’s (2004. Nominal tense in crosslinguistic perspective. Language 80. 776–806) seminal work fostered an intense debate on the semantics of nominal tense systems, with the side effect of widening the typological coverage of this grammatical feature. This paper aims at contributing to the ongoing debate. In contrast with work by Tonhauser, who excluded ‘tense’ as a semantic component of the Paraguayan Guaraní nominal tense system, the paper claims that all TAM dimensions are involved – temporality, aspect, modality – with different proportions in the individual markers. Most importantly, it claims that nominal tense does not presuppose a semantics of its own, other than the one needed for verbal tenses. Moreover, the paper presents evidence that the semantic component of aspect, besides being necessarily activated in any nominal tense marker, is also directly conveyed by some of them, which can legitimately be called ‘nominal aspect’ markers. This integrates Nordlinger & Sadler’s (2004) survey, in which aspect was notably absent. In addition, the paper points out possible cases of nominal actionality (a.k.a. Aktionsart). Finally, the paper suggests that the pervasive presence of aspect (and also, but rarely, actionality) among nominal tense markers finds interesting parallels in some types of deverbal nominalizations, although these belong in another grammatical drawer.



= absolutive;


= accusative;


= allative-instrumental;


= auxiliary;


= basic person marking;


= comitative;


= complementizer;


= dative;


= definite;


= defocusing;


= demonstrative;


= dependent;


= distal;


= durative;


= Event-Time;


= ergative;


= evidential;


= expletive;


= feminine;


= future;


= habitual;


= genitive;


= generic;


= instrumental;


= interrogative;


= imperfective;


= Temporal Localization;


= linker;


= locative;


= masculine;


= negative;


= Nominal/Possessive-Time;


= nominative;


= nominalizer;


= Nominal Time;


= Noun Phrase Time;


= nominal tense;


= objective-locative;


= partitive;


= perfective;


= plural;


= possessive;


= Possessive Time;


= predestinative;


= present;


= prospective;


= present;


= dative-purposive;


= Reference Time;


= relativizer;


= retrospective;


= singular;


= same subject;


= subjunctive;


= tense-aspect-modality;


= Utterance-Time;


= Vantage-Point

Appendix: On the morphological status of NT-markers

Since the NT-markers of inflecting languages consist of affixes, the question of their status arises: inflection or derivation? Needless to say, the analysis would require detailed language-by-language inspection, but one can venture to formulate the following hypothesis: although the inflectional origin of NT-markers is unquestionable – for they do to nouns what TAM-inflection does to verbs – the instances of idiosyncratic lexicalization, typically found in conventionalized derivatives, might be viewed as intermediate cases.

Instances of non-prototypical inflection/derivation have been described, a.o. by Stephany (1982), Payne (1985), Dressler (1989), Rainer (1993), Plank (1994), Booij (2000), Bauer (2004), Spencer (2013), Dressler et al. (2014). Diminutive suffixes are an example. In some languages, they are potentially applicable to every concrete noun, as is typical of inflectional affixes, but they may also develop non-compositional meanings:

  1. regular meaning

It. treno/tren-ino ‘train/little train’; casa/cas-ina ‘house/little house’

  1. idiosyncratic meaning

    It. pane/pan-ino ‘bread/sandwich’; spaghi/spagh-etti ‘twines/spaghetti’.

Agent/instrument nominalizations are another case in point, for in some languages, like in Romance, they exhibit intermediate properties. Although produced via derivation, they inflect for gender (e. g. Fr. direc-teur/direc-trice ‘director-m/f’) and undergo gender agreement when converted into adjectives, thus exhibiting an inflectional behavior (Dressler & Doleschal 1990/91): e. g. It. martin pesca-tore (lit. ‘fisher Martin’) ‘kingfisher’, a bird (‘alcedo atthis’), rana pesca-trice (lit. ‘fisher frog’) ‘angler’, a fish (‘lophius piscatorius’).

Turning to NT, one finds a mild lexicalization example in Bolivian-Guaraní me-rã (husband-prosp) ‘fiancé’, or pa’i-rã (priest-prosp) ‘seminarist’. As idiosyncratic lexicalization, one might consider Wayana [way, Cariban] pikuku-tpë (lit. child-retr) ‘orphan’ (Camargo 2008, ex. 26). [19] In Trio (or Tiriyó) [tri, Cariban] the retrospective possessive, besides loss of possession, can indicate deceased possessor (Aikhenvald 2012: 162), while “ceased existence”, rather than mere retrospectivity, is conveyed by Ashéninka Perené [prq, Kampan] -ni (Mihas 2013b). [20]

Such instances of idiosyncratic lexicalization point to a situation intermediate between inflection and derivation. However, a fundamental (mirror-like) difference vis-à-vis the Romance-like agent/instrument nominalizations remains: while the derivational affixes that generate such deverbals possibly develop inflectional features, the originally inflectional NT-markers possibly develop idiosyncratic derivational properties.


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The author is sincerely indebted to three anonymous reviewers, who pointed out errors of the first version. Alexandra Aikhenvald provided useful suggestions. This paper is dedicated to Franco Fanciullo, retrospective and prospective colleague and friend.

Published Online: 2020-03-03
Published in Print: 2020-08-27

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