Aspectuality, temporality and modality: a relevance-theoretic analysis of some pragmatic markers in Mandarin Chinese

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Aspecuality, temporality and modality: a relevance-theoretic analysis of some pragmatic markers in Mandarin Chinese It is generally agreed that in Mandarin Chinese, tense (at least absolute tense) is not expressed morphologically but there is a number of verbal and sentence-final particles that express aspect and mood. These (in particular the aspectual ones) have been studied rather extensively throughout the last 50 years. The studies are generally based upon the assumption that there is a one-to-one relationship between form and semantic category aspect, tense or mood, i.e. that each grammatical form can only be either an aspect marker, a modal marker or a tense marker. The verbal particle le is thus assumed to encode perfectivity, its homophonous sentence-final counterpart le perfect aspect/tense, the verbal particle guo experiential perfect aspect/tense and the verbal particle zhe imperfective aspect. However, this characterization cannot satisfactorily account for the fact that one marker can give more than one reading depending on the context in which it occurs. For example: • Verbal perfective marker le (LE) can be used to indicate ”excessiveness” in certain contexts, rather like a modal particle: (1) Ta gao le liang cun he tall LE two inch He has become two inches taller / He is too tall by two inches Moreover, verbal le often occurs in typical perfect sentences in which the event time is prior to the reference time: (2) Nimen xianzai zhaodao le fangzi zai nali? you now find-arrive LE house at where Have you found the house now? • Sentence-final perfect marker le (LE2) can be used to express a "peak" in a discourse segment consisting of several events in a row. This function is not compatible with the characteristics of the perfect tense, which is normally used for backgrounding. (3) Ta xiayishi de zhengli le yixia fuzhuang you naqi she subconscious DE arrange LE a little clothes then take-up shuzi, ba man tou lingluan de toufa shu le shu, ta kandao comb BA full head messy DE hair brush LE brush she look-arrive e shang de shangchu le, shi de, you qing you zi you forehead on DE injury LE2 be DE again green again lilac again hong you zhong, shi hao da de yi kuai. red again swollen be good large DE one CL Without thinking, she arranged her clothes and then picked up a comb and brushed through her messy hair. She caught sight of tha bump on her forehead. Yes. It was green, lilac, red and swollen. A real big one. • Experiential perfect marker guo (GUO) is often found in sentences with perfective readings: (4) Wo zai chadui de shihou wei guo I ZAI work in production team DE time feed GUO liang nian niu two year cow When I worked in the production team I fed cows for two years • In existential sentences with verbs of placement and posture or verbs that have both an active and a stative meaning, either perfective marker le or imperfective marker zhe (ZHE) can be used with no difference in reading: (5) Hongzhi shang xie zhe/le ge zhong zhuhe de hua red paper on write ZHE/LE each sort congratulatory DE word On the red paper all sorts of congratulatory messages were written I propose that these grammatical markers in Mandarin Chinese be redefined within a relevance-theoretic framework as pragmatic markers, each with a semantic core meaning that interacts with contextual information and produces different aspectual, temporal and modal distinctions. Most prior accounts rely on conventional metaphorical descriptions of the aspects as opposed to the widely used time-relational definitions of the tenses. I will show that, by using a Reichenbachian time-relational definition of aspect, the relationship between aspect and tense (and between the aspects and the tenses) is made clearer and the problems concerning the non-default functions of the Mandarin markers le, zhe and guo can be solved. Abbreviations: BA Disposal marker CL Classifier DE Nominalizing/genitive/associative marker ZAI Durative aspect marker Selected references: COMRIE, BERNARD. 1976. Aspect. An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. KLEIN, WOLFGANG. 1994. Time in language. London and New York: Routledge. KLEIN, WOLFGANG, LI PING AND HENRIETTE HENDRIKS. 2000. Aspect and assertion in Mandarin Chinese. Natural language & Linguistic Theory 18, 723-770. LI, CHARLES AND SANDRA A. THOMPSON. 1981. Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press. LJUNGQVIST ARIN, MARITA. 2003. Aspect, tense and mood: Context dependency and the marker le in Mandarin Chinese. Thesis (Ph.D.) Lund University. LUSCHER, JEAN-MARC. 1998. Chapitre 8. Procedure d’intérpretation du Passé Composé. In MOESCHLER, JACQUES (ed.). Pragmatique de la référence temporelle. Paris: Éditions Kimé, 181-196. MENG, YEH. 1993. The stative situation and the imperfective zhe in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Chinese Language Teachers’ Association, 28:1, 69-98. MOESCHLER, JACQUES. 1998. Introduction: temps, référence et pragmatique. In MOESCHLER, JACQUES (ed.). Pragmatique de la référence temporelle. Paris: Éditions Kimé, 4-15. REICHENBACH, HANS. 1947. Elements of symbolic logic. London: Macmillan. SPERBER, DAN AND DEIDRE WILSON. 1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd (Original edition 1986). WU, GUO. 1999. On Chinese discourse Le. IIAS Newsletter [online], No 18. Available from: ZHANG. ZHENGSHENG. 1996. The grammar of aspect in Mandarin Chinese. In TSAI-FA CHENG,YAFEI LI AND HONGMING ZHANG (eds.).Proceedings of the tenth North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics. Los Angeles:GSIL (Graduate Students In Linguistics), 402-411.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Specific Languages
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2004
Publication categoryResearch
Event6th International colloquium on syntax, semantics and pragmatics of tense, mood and aspect - University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
Duration: 2004 Sep 222004 Sep 24


Conference6th International colloquium on syntax, semantics and pragmatics of tense, mood and aspect
Abbreviated titleCHRONOS VI