I've been meaning to post this here for a while now but maybe it's time I finally did it (originally written and posted on CWS, with parts of the section on tenses written by hashi)
. Since these terms can be quite confusing, especially for those new to linguistics (and many other online resources can become full of linguistic jargon very quickly). The main problem with these terms is that it's very difficult to completely separate them because they overlap and influence each other, but it's worth a try. And just a note to those more linguistically savvy - this is more of an 101 article rather than an in-depth analysis of these terms, so certain things are simplified or glossed over. But feel free to post links to more in-depth pages below.
Let's start with brief definitions of the terms:Tense
: a morphological feature used to express time reference, aka it answers the question "When?" (disregarding all other circumstances).Grammatical aspect
: a morphological feature used to express the relation of an action to the flow of time; it could answer the question "How long does it last?" among others.Lexical aspect (aktionsart)
: an inherent or intrinsic property of a verb expressing its semantic duration (presence or absence of endpoints).Telicity
: similar to lexical aspect (or more strictly, it's about completion), but it can extend beyond the verb itself and telicity can be marked by other means or structures as well. However, some consider telicity and lexical aspect to be synonymous.Grammatical mood
: a morphological feature used to express the speaker's attitude toward what they are saying - it's a way to encode modality.Modality
: a semantic category that expresses the speaker's attitude towards what they are saying.
is a form of a verb that indicates when in time the action occurs. Tenses can be expressed either synthetically (one word) or periphrastically (multiple words, often using various auxiliary verbs).
This can be nicely seen in
- I walk.
- I walked.
- I have walked.
- Ho camminato.
There are three basic time areas that you can use to form tenses, these are: past (before now), present (now), and future (after now).
An example from
- Past: Io parlavo con te.
- I talked
- Present: Io parlo con te.
- I [am]
- Future: Io parlerò con te.
- I will
talk with you.
Here's a simplified table showing various tenses:
There can be many more and exactly what tense system your conlang will have depends on you. Ican have a simple past vs. non-past system (eg. Japanese, Finnish, etc.), a three-way system (two past tenses and one present tense; or a past, present, and future tense; etc.), or simply no morphological tense at all (eg. Vietnamese).
However, there are two things that should not be confused here, and that's tense
and time reference
. The two often but not always, and definitely not necessarily, conflate. Time references exist independently of tenses (or languages), which can be morphological (synthetic or periphrastic) or syntactical, and more than one tense can refer to the same time reference. You can use the future tense to refer to a future time reference, but you can also use the present tense to refer to the same time reference. The present tense can also be used to refer to a past time reference, a present one, or a future one, for example.
Based on the time references, tenses can also be absolute
. Absolute tenses use the time reference of "now" while relative tenses use a different reference point (either a past time reference or a future time reference). For example, if the past tense is an absolute tense (using "now" as its preference), the pluperfect tense is a relative tense because it uses a past time reference (expressed by the absolute past tense).
The term grammatical aspect
can be a bit more confusing. The base distinction here is between perfective
aspects. The perfective aspect is used when an event is seen as unitary, whole, without internal composition (typically used for finished and completed events). The opposite of this is the imperfective aspect, which is used to express an event with internal composition, or when the duration is the focus and not the beginning or the start of the event/action (typically used for ongoing or habitual events). Grammatical aspect is independent of tenses.
Slavic languages are notorious for having perfective and imperfective aspects:
- imperfective: To knjigo sem bral
. - I read this book. (past)
/ I was reading this book.
- perfective: To knjigo sem prebral
. - I read this book. (past)
In the first example with the imperfective aspect, the event is seen ongoing (duration) with internal structure, without any indication of its completion or end points. The second example, with the perfective verb, the event seen as whole and completed, aka I read the book from cover to cover.
In most Slavic languages, perfective and imperfective aspects can be used in any tense - the tense and aspect do not conflate. In other languages, on the other hand, they do. There are two very common combinations: perfect
, a combination of the perfective aspect and past tense, and imperfect
, a combination of the imperfective aspect and past tense; although the exact definition may depend on the language in question.
There are many aspects possible - Wikipedia has a nice list of various aspects
, so I'm not going to discuss them further.
At this point, we can factor in the lexical aspect
). This is the inherent or intrinsic semantic aspect of a verb. Compare the following two verbs: jump
. Their intrinsic aspects are different: jump
in inherently complete, a one-time event with an endpoint - it is a telic
verb; while sleep
is inherently incomplete, it does not have an endpoint - it is an atelic
Since the lexical aspect is an inherent property of a verb, it can be used in combination with grammatical aspects (and tenses). Compare the following examples:
- I jumped yesterday.
- I slept yesterday.
Using the past tense, the verbs' lexical aspect is the only aspect expressed in the two sentences - I jumped once yesterday (it's a one-time event inherently, it has a beginning and an end), and I slept for a while yesterday, without any indication of its completion.
Let's put them into the progressive aspect:
- I was jumping yesterday.
- I was sleeping yesterday.
Now the two aspects, the lexical and the grammatical ones, overlap. In the first sentence, the action is still underlyingly telic, so in combination with a progressive aspect it results in an ongoing event that is full of small, one-time events, ie. several jumps, and not one long jump. On the other hand, since sleep is inherently an atelic verb, the progressive aspect merely adds emphasis to the duration (it's still an ongoing event without any specific indication of its completion).
We can move on to telicity
. It is similar to lexical aspect but it refers to presenting a verb or verbal phrase as complete in some way - a verb or a verbal phrase can be telic or atelic.
How to determine whether a phrase is telic or atelic? Compare the following sentences:
- I wrote a letter in an hour.
- *I wrote a letter for an hour.
- *I wrote letters in an hour.
- I wrote letters for an hour.
In the first two sentences, the underlined phrase is telic while in the second phrase the underlined phrase is atelic. Note that "in an hour" is used in the sense of "in the span of an hour". The unacceptable two sentences can be used is certain contexts just fine but these are disregarded here.
Telicity can be marked in other ways too, for example:
- Kirjoitin kirjan.
- I read a book (and finished it).
- Kirjoitin kirjaa.
- I was reading a book (but didn't finish it).
The first sentence is telic - indicated by the use of accusative, while the second sentence is atelic, which is indicated by the use of the partitive case.
And finally we can move on to modality
. These two terms are similar, but there should be a clear distinction made - modality is semantic
while mood is morphological
(this is similar to the difference between time reference and tense).
As mentioned, modality expresses the speaker's attitude towards what they are saying. Modality can be firstly classified into realis
modality. The first one refers to things that exist and the second refers to things that do not exist. Languages usually have just one mood to expresses realis modality (aka "what is"): indicative
(sometimes also called declarative). There are other moods possible to express modality, such as gnomic or generic, and evidential, etc.
Irrealis modality, on the other hand, expresses things that do not exist. It is generally divided into:
- deontic modality
("what should be"): indicating the degree of evidence or certainty the speaker has for what they are saying - typical moods are imperative, hortative, jussive, desiderative, precative, necessitative, etc.
- epistemic modality
("what may be"): indicating the speaker's the degree of requirement (necessity), desire for or commitment to the realisation of what they are saying - typical moods are subjunctive, dubitative, deductive, hypothetical, inferential, potential (probability), etc.
- dependent circumstances
("what would be"): usually including conditional.
At this point I'm not going to discuss what each mood denotes exactly, since there are too many (and you can look that up on Wikipedia).
Languages can express all types of modality. However, typically only a few types are expressed as moods (ie. morphologically) and others are expressed by other structures and are usually not referred to as moods. English is typically considered to have indicative, subjunctive, conditional, and imperative. The same goes for many other European languages (Slavic languages typically have indicative, conditional, and imperative). Other languages have more or less. One of the languages with the highest number of moods is Tundra Nenets with 16 moods.
Apart from morphological moods, a very common way of expressing modality are modal auxiliaries
. Certain auxiliaries are sometimes referred to as a mood while others are not. For example, the English conditional is formed with an auxiliary (would
) and it's called a mood, while other modal auxiliaries (eg. need
) do not have a specific mood. Romance languages, on the other hand, have a morphological conditional mood.
- indicative: I sing.
- conditional: I would sing.
- indicative: (Io) canto.
- conditional: (Io) canterei.
- indicative: (Jaz) pojem.
- conditional: (Jaz) bi pel.
In English, an example of epistemic modality is the following sentence:The light is on - she must be in the room.
(This could be called deductive mood, for example.)
Another very common way of expressing modality are lexical expressions
, usually verbs, such as want
, or adverbs
Slovene is a language that uses an adverb to express modality: Lahko odpreš okno?
you open the window? (lit. Easily open-you window?
It is sometimes difficult to separate these features of verbs because they are usually very interconnected and depend on each other a lot, as well as on other external circumstances and what the speaker wants to express exactly. Many times, the terminology is very language-specific - the same thing can be called by different terms in various languages, or different things can be called by the same term.
But I hope I covered the main and basic points. Many sections of each topic were left unanswered, but I tried to explain the main points without going into too many details, for which quite some linguistic knowledge is needed.
Feel free to ask questions or to clarify something additionally, and you can discuss the way your conlangs handle these things.