Relative tense and aspectual values in Tibetan languages

Relative tense and aspectual values in Tibetan languages. By Bettina Zeisler. (Trends in linguistics: Studies and monographs 150.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. Pp. xxv, 986. ISBN 9783110178685. $217 (Hb).

Reviewed by Ellen Bartee, University of California, Santa Barbara

Bettina Zeisler’s work presents ‘a comparative approach to a universal theory of TENSE, ASPECT, and MOOD’ (1). To Classical Tibetan philologists, she promises ‘a detailed functional description of the Classical Tibetan verb forms in their discourse context’ (1). To Tibetan dialectologists, she offers an extensive diachronic and synchronic comparison of West, Central (including Exile Koiné), and Amdo and Kham varieties of Tibetan. To comparative linguists, she addresses the basic concepts of absolute tense and aspect, and challenges the notion that absolute tense is more basic than relative tense.

The book is arranged into four parts. Part 1 (21–214) is a theoretical account of tense and aspect (TAM) distinctions, defining and illustrating the concepts basic to the functions and meanings of verbal structures crosslinguistically. In the first section, Z examines the theory of markedness, one of the underlying principles of her study. After a few introductory remarks on the relationship of verb forms to the conceptualization of events in the second section, Z presents the concepts that she will use to analyze Tibetan verbs in the third section. These include type of event, phase, quantification, absolute and relative tense, aspect, and framing. Section 4 examines case studies of languages, or language groups, that exemplify functional encoding of the concepts discussed in Section 3. Section 5 summarizes some pragmatic functions of TAM concepts, particularly as they are found in narrative discourse. Section 6 attempts to unify the TAM concepts under discussion, highlighting their distinctiveness and interrelatedness as well as their multifunctionality.

Drawing on data from a variety of Tibetan dialects, Part 2 (215–594) delves into the Tibetan verbal system, using concepts delineated in Part 1 as tools for semantic analysis. After an overview of the classification of Tibetan languages, transcription and transliteration schemes, and phonological comments on a few modern Tibetan varieties, the general features of the Tibetan verb are introduced. These include the four verb stems of Old and Classical Tibetan and concepts of control, valency and case relations, as well as evidentiality and negation. Attempting to tease out discourse functional oppositions among the four traditional verb stem categories, the author finds that a functional analysis ‘cannot establish a basically aspectual opposition of the verb stems’ and suggests that relative tense and mood provide the best conceptual bases for delineating the discourse functions of the verb stems (463). Sections 4 and 5 examine verb forms in Lhasa, Amdo and Kham varieties. Various attempts to analyze certain elements in terms of aspect are critiqued, and the relationships of non-finite verb functions with relative tense and of split ergativity with aspect and tense are discussed.

Part 3 (595–846) represents the author’s original fieldwork on Ladakhi, supplemented by data from other linguists and written Ladakhi. Sections 1 and 2 describe features of Ladakhi such as the phonology, morphology, dative subject, split ergativity, negation, evidentiality, distance, probability, and estimation. Section 3 deals with some temporal aspects of West Tibetan. Of particular interest are innovations in past tense constructions, including the development of remoteness markers and passive perfect constructions. Section 4 describes the unmarked narrational imperfect and the marked narrative present and perfect in Ladakhi narrative texts. The last section summarizes the functional oppositions among West Tibetan verb constructions.

Part 4 (847–954) attempts to tie together the information presented in the book from a mostly diachronic comparativist perspective. Section 1 suggests some developments of verb stems from Archaic Tibetan to Old and Classical Tibetan, reconstructions compatible with the control/non-control distinctions found in all Tibetan varieties. Section 2 traces the development of some complex verb forms found in modern Tibetan languages. One of the main themes is restated in the conclusion: the most relevant functional concepts for the comparative analysis of verb forms in Tibetan languages are relative tense and mood.

This is a comprehensive work with extensive data from many varieties of written and spoken Tibetan. In spite of the complicated tables and lack of a general index, this book will prove valuable to researchers interested in Tibetan languages and/or issues surrounding TAM.