Subproject 2

Krzysztof Migdalski

Tense changes over time

The main research question
In the literature on language evolution it is usually assumed that Aspect (aspectual marking) emerges before Tense (tense marking). Time reference in Proto-Indoeuropean (PIE) was initially computed from aspectual distinctions (cf. Lehmann 1974, 1993; see also Watkins 1962). Therefore, one cannot investigate tense forms without considering aspectual interpretations. Slavic languages are particularly interesting to examine in this context because they have preserved the original PIE situation, namely they inherited the PIE aspectual tenses (the aorist and the imperfectum) and, in addition, they created a coherent system of aspectual pairs covering virtually all verbs (cf. Polish kupić – kupować (‘to buy.perf’ – ‘to buy.impf’) or czytać – przeczytać (‘to read.impf’ – ‘to read.perf’)). This resulted in an intricate system of realizing the category of Tense whose most conspicuous feature was the excessive marking of aspect on both independent tense forms (the aorist and the imperfectum) and on all verbal forms (usually through affixes, stem vowel alterations or suppletion).

This system was aspectually overloaded and different Slavic languages resorted to diverse means to simplify it. For example, East and West Slavic languages have lost most of the PIE tenses (the aorist, the imperfectum, the plusperfect) and currently depend on aspectual morphology to express temporal relations. In contrast, some South Slavic languages have preserved the aspectual tenses, but they enriched the periphrastic tenses with additional modal meanings. This complex state of affairs gives us an opportunity to investigate how tense forms developed over time, and, in particular, whether formal (i.e., morpho-phonological) changes coincided with semantic modifications.

Working hypothesis

The diachronic facts make us hypothesize that if a language has the category of Aspect, it does not need to have the category of Tense to express temporal relations, but the reverse is not true. The existence of the category of Tense in a given language implies the existence of category of Aspect. More specifically, the project will address the following issues:

Topic 1: Temporality without Tense

More specific research questions:
Q1: Is there any difference between Polish-like languages (expressing future by aspectual means) and Bulgarian-like languages (expressing future by means of originally modal verbs) as far as the range of possible meanings or readings is concerned?

Q2: Bearing in mind Zimmermann’s hypothesis, FUT = modal (mentioned in Subproject-1), the question arises as to whether it is possible to have future without any modal content? That is, is “future” in Polish-like languages as modal as in Bulgarian-like languages? Or should we rather understand “future” as a scalar category, in some contexts (or even in some languages) being more Tense-like and in others more Modal-like?

Topic 2: Phonological impoverishment and/or semantic bleaching (grammaticalization)

More specific research questions:
Q3: According to common grammaticalization theories, phonological impoverishment of a lexical element is always accompanied by its semantic bleaching (Meillet 1912/1926, cf. Lehmann 1985, 1993, Traugott and Heine 1991, Heine and Kuteva 2002, Hopper and Traugott 2003; also Croft 2003). However, Bulgarian has the richest tense system in Slavic in spite of the phonological weakening of many auxiliary forms. The question that arises is whether phonological reduction must necessarily lead to semantic reduction or whether it is possible that phonologically reduced auxiliaries acquire new semantic functions, cf. the emergence of the renarrated mood in Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Q4: As was mentioned above, the present perfect BE auxiliary has currently different morpho-phonological realizations in different Slavic languages. The question is what has motivated this variation. On the one hand, it is claimed that phonological impoverishment is triggered by increased usage (cf. Lüdtke 1980, Haspelmath 1999). This is how Kowalska (1976) and Rittel (1975) explain the phonological decline of the auxiliary BE in Polish across centuries. However, this cannot be entirely true because in Czech the corresponding auxiliary has not been reduced to such an extent. Perhaps the change was motivated by independent phonological changes in word stress (e.g., Czech has not shifted word stress onto the penultimate syllable, the way Polish did; cf. Topolińska 1961).


Since this project is mainly diachronically oriented the key method of investigation will involve corpus study.

Innovative character of SP-2

This project combines a diachronic and a synchronic (in a typological sense) perspective. The tense forms which existed at previous stages in Slavic and/or are still existent in identical or modified shapes in contemporary Slavic languages can be taken to reflect the individual stages of the developmental path of the category Tense. The complexity and diversity of tense systems among Slavic languages, which by far exceeds the patterns found in Romance and Germanic languages, give us thus a unique opportunity to study individual stages of language change.

Moreover, the project addresses issues regarding the phonology-syntax interface. We hope thus to be able to make an essential contribution to this still scarcely explored field of linguistic investigation.