Tense and Conceptual Reality

I have said before on a number of other occasions that the fact that a mismatch between a particular location in time and a particular grammatical form does not, in itself, constitute sufficient evidence that the language does not have tense. Thus, though not all Greek aorists refer exclusively to past time situations or not all Greek presents refer to present time situation, this is not adequate for arguing that Greek is a tenseless language or that the Greek verbal system does not grammaticalize temporal deixis (again, not time). In other posts, (for example, this one about Huddleston’s analysis of the English past tense) I have suggested that polysemy is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with such mismatches.

The polysemic approach accepts the mismatch as real, but denies its relevancy for the existence of tense on the grounds the polysemy is the far normal phenomenon in language. That is to say, because multiple meanings should be expected from the outset (Goldberg 1995), the mismatch itself does not prove that the language is tenseless, it proves that the language has polysemic forms.

The alternative, which we will call the cognitive approach, denies the reality of the mismatch itself. The cognitive approach points out that grammatical forms, as linguistic signs, do not refer to anything within the external world. Rather, they refer to mental representations or conceptual structures within the mind of the language user, which in turn involve the language user’s perception, interpretation, and chosen presentation of a given event, process, or state and its temporal deixis. There has been much talk about the subjective nature of aspect in the contemporary literature on the Koine Greek verb, but little has been said about the subjective nature of tense. Though, in a rather limited sense, tense is simpler in its structure than aspect, it is, nevertheless, still subjective simply because it is constrained by physiological and cognitive limits of the language user. And for this reason, it can also be manipulated by the language user.

I should emphasize that such ideas are not unique to me. They represent a major stream in the literature on tense, aspect, and—in fact—all grammatical categories. Carl Bache (1996) makes this extremely clear, in the following long quote (I’ve started it a bit early for a little extra context):

We have just noted evidence that the rule sets central to semantics all operate on linguistic entities which are subject to recognition and hence to conceptual computation. Once plausible implication of this is that all components and elements in semantics are not only present at conceptual structure but the effects of all major rule applications are immediately accessible at this level and available to mental processes, such as recognition. By itself this is of course not proof that semantic and conceptual structure are in fact the same (cf. Jackendoff’s attractive hypothesis of the structural identity between semantics and cognition in e.g. his 1983 book on semantics and cognition; see also Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Lakoff 1987, Taylor 1989, Langacker 1991) but t is strong evidence that they are similar enough to be treated as if they are the same for all practical purposes. So this is in fact what I will do in this book: meanings assigned to grammatical categories and to the forms serving as members of these categories are to be understood as conceptual units or elements. Moreover, the rules involving these units and their interaction will be claimed to have a conceptual rationale.

One important consequence of this approach to semantics is that it is the ‘conceptual reality’ rather than the ‘real’ reality’ which matters in our definitions of categories and members categories …. Form-meaning relationships are not to be understood as relationship between language and the world but rather as relationship between language and the world as conceived by human beings, i.e. the ‘projected world’ in Jackendoff’s terminology (cf. Jackendoff 1983:23ff). Reference is accordingly redefined to be a relation between language expression and projected entities (projected things, events etc.), i.e. entities in the world as conceived by us.
(Bache 1995:53ff).

Now, the cognitive approach to dealing with form-meaning mismatch does not stand opposed to the polysemic approach. They may very well go hand in hand, in different parts of the grammatical system. And, considering that language is an organic and emergent entity, we would precisely expect this to be the case. Personally, I view both polysemy and cognitive reality to be at work in many of the so-call mismatches that we find within the Greek verbal system. For example, I would view what we see with the historical present as choices of conceptualization by a the language user rather than polysemy, but much of variation in usage in the perfect and the future as more likely involving polysemy. With both polysemy and conceptual reality, I reject the idea of Koine Greek as a tenseless language because I reject the methodological assumptions upon with the claim is based.

Incidentally, if anyone comes across a copy of Carl Bache’s book The study of aspect, tense and action for sale. Please, please let me know. I’ve been looking for a copy for months now. It’s out of print and there are no copies anywhere on the online used market. I’ve had it out from the library all summer long and I think the library is getting a little weary…

Works cited:

Bache, Carl. 1995. The study of aspect, tense and action. New York: Peter Lang.

Goldberg, Adele E. 1995. Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1983. Semantics and cognition. Cambridge: Mass.: MIT Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, Ronald. 1991. Foundations of cognitive grammar: Descriptive application. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, John. 1989. Linguistic categorization. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (

4 thoughts on “Tense and Conceptual Reality

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  1. In this vein, L. Michelle Cutrer has a pretty interesting dissertation, “Time and Tense in Narrative and in Everyday Language” (Ph.D. diss, UCSD). Fauconnier, Kemmer, and Langacker were on the committee. Her “mental space” approach tries to account also for some of the modal meanings of tense.

  2. Thanks for the reference.

    Fauconnier’s Mental Space Theory is an important component of the work in metaphor by the cognitivists.

    On a (relatively) related note, have you read Ellen van Wolde’s Reframing Biblical Studies?

      1. It’s very good. They had a panel discussion of it at SBL in 2010. I’m sure it isn’t surprising to you that it came out of the Netherlands.

        The caveat is that the theoretical/methodological discussions are better than their application. Some of her interpretations of specific texts are a little…unexpected.

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