This dissertation aims to characterize the relationship between the temporal and information-structuring functions of tense and aspect marking in Totela, an endangered Bantu language of Zambia and Namibia. To that end, I investigate and describe in detail the semantics and pragmatics of selected tense and aspect markers, showing for each that a purely temporal description is inadequate to explain its range of interpretations and uses.
Totela is a typical Bantu language in that it has a vast array of morphemes and constructions to express tense and aspect contrasts. A more explanatory and unified analysis of these forms emerges when not only their temporal semantics, but also their discourse-structuring functions are taken into account. Often, pragmatic functions appear to trump temporal specifications.
Privileged distinctions in Totela include (non-)completion of a situation’s nucleus (i.e. the termination of an action or state, or point of transition to a result state for inchoative eventualities) (cf. Kershner 2002), cognitive and temporal dissociation (cf. Botne and Kershner 2008), and relevance (cf. Portner 2003). I argue that these categories, rather than traditional notions such as past vs. present tense, or imperfective vs. perfective aspect, are basic in Totela’s tense and aspect system.
Investigations of the above-mentioned categories also reveal strong discourse-structuring functions for each. For example, markers of nuclear completion occur predictably at episode boundaries in narrative. Markers associated with non-completion, in contrast, occur when the narrative structure is interrupted (e.g. by a song) at a point that is not an episode boundary. Non-completive forms also serve to shift between narrative-internal and narrative-external perspectives. Findings regarding the use of tense and aspect markers to structure narrative are confirmed by quantitative analysis using logistic regression.
Of particular theoretical interest is the -ite suffix, which shows evidence of being primarily a marker indicating relevance to answering the question under discussion in the current discourse context (cf. Roberts 1998). Its temporal interpretations are determined pragmatically, based on which phase of a situation’s event structure is understood as most relevant to answering the question under discussion.
Results are situated both synchronically and diachronically, in order to develop hypotheses about the historical pathways of the markers within Bantu (cf. Bybee et al. 1994). Cross-linguistic comparison of Totela and related languages suggests that while morphological expression of tense and aspect categories may change rapidly, as may semantic and pragmatic particularities within categories, the basic categories of completion vs. non-completion of the situation’s nucleus, association vs. dissociation, and discourse relevance are prevalent. These categories are likely crucial in the analysis of many other Bantu languages, as well, but have been given relatively little attention in the literature.
This dissertation offers both basic descriptive facts about the Totela language and a detailed investigation of facets of its tense/aspect system. It is intended to be of interest for semanticist and pragmaticists, as well as for use in studies in Bantu and general typological linguistics.