Time, tense and aspect in Early Vedic grammar

Time, tense and aspect in Early Vedic grammar: Exploring the inflectional semantics in the Rigveda. By Eystein Dahl. (Brill’s studies in Indo-European languages and linguistics 5.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xviii, 475. ISBN 9789004178144. $185 (Hb).

Reviewed by Ilya Yakubovich, Moscow State University

The main challenge in studying the inflectional semantics of Early Vedic verb is the ‘timeless’ nature of the available corpus. The hymns of the Rigveda, unlike, say, the Homeric epic, do not refer to a sequence of mythical events with an established relative chronology, but fluctuate between the past, present, and unspecified events. An additional challenge is the rapid transformation of verbal inflectional features in the history of Indic. While the basic semantic opposition between present, aorist, and perfect stems remains essentially the same in Homeric, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek, the same contrast is blurred in later Sanskrit and eliminated in Middle Indic. This explains why a number of past scholars hypothesized that Early Vedic reinterpreted the inherited Late Indo-European contrast between  the aorist (simple past), imperfect (progressive, habitual, or ingressive past) and perfect (past extending itself into or relevant for the present) in discourse-functional terms.

The main accomplishment of Eystein Dahl’s book, a revised version of his University of Oslo Ph.D. thesis, is to demonstrate the continuity in the use of tense in late Indo-European and the language of the Rigveda. Using the conceptual apparatus of formal semantics, the author specifies various temporal and aspectual functions of Early Vedic tenses. He argues that some of these functions represent a domain of overlap between the imperfect and the aorist, the aorist and the perfect, or the perfect and the present, but others are compatible with only one member of these pairs. For example, both the aorist and the imperfect can have the ingressive and durative readings, but the progressive reading is available only for the imperfect. Similarly, the aorist and the perfect are compatible with expressing immediate past, but only the perfect can have the universal reading, in which function it competes with the present. While the degree of functional overlap between different stems appears to set the situation in Vedic apart from that in Homeric Greek, the two systems are in fact more similar than is assumed in recent scholarship.

After an introduction devoted to research history, the extensive Ch. 1 introduces the reader to the formal semantics of tense/aspect/mood features. Familiarity with the lambda-calculus is not a prerequisite to understanding the author’s argument, since D normally combines formal definitions with explanations in prose. Ch. 2 moves the discussion to the domain of Vedic morphosyntax. Its general purpose appears to be constraining the interpretation of tense/aspect/mood features based on clause-internal cues. Chs. 3–5, forming the core of the monograph, are devoted to the inflectional semantics of the present, aorist, and perfect systems, respectively.

Specific sections are devoted to the compositional interpretation of modal forms within each system, even though the limitations of the Early Vedic corpus frequently preclude definite conclusions.