Verbal Morphology – Tense, Mood, Aspect, and Voice
In many languages, a number of different features are marked on the verb and serve to situate and contextualize its usage. Tense, mood, aspect, and voice are some of the most common of these types of features. Tense locates an event in time, while aspect refers to the way in which the event unfolds within a time frame. Mood signals the speaker’s intent or attitude towards their utterance, and voice distinguishes thematic relationships between the verb and arguments of a sentence. Languages differ in how and the extent to which they realize these categories morphologically, giving rise to a great deal of cross-linguistic variation.
Tense provides a temporal reference point for an utterance. Tense is sometimes traditionally viewed as a tripartite division between present, past, and future. Such a three-way division of time is seen in languages such as Lithuanian and Irish. However, many languages make finer distinctions, while others make fewer or none at all. In fact, though it often thought of as having three tenses, English is actually a two-tense system, which is common among Germanic languages, and found in many other languages, such as Persian. English only marks a past and a non-past form inflectionally, by added the suffix /-d/ (or its allomorphs /-t/ and /-ed/) to verbal stems or by altering the vowel of the stem (i.e. sing/sang, grow/grew, find/found). English forms a reference to the future with the use of the modal auxiliary ‘will.’ Languages may also recognize and mark more than three time distinctions in their grammars. Several Bantu languages make use of more tense categories. For example, Kikuyu recognizes six divisions: far past, yesterday past, today past, present, near future, and far future. Yagua, a language of Peru, has five past tenses:
Yagua past tense affixes (Schmidtke 2006)
|proximate 1 (within a few hours)||-jásiy|
|proximate 2 (one day ago)||-jáy|
|within a few weeks||-siy|
|within a few months||-tíy|
|distant or legendary past||-jadá|
There are also languages such a Chinese that do not appear to make any reference to time through the use of verbal morphology. Thus some utterances may seem temporally ambiguous, however a timeframe can be made explicit through reference to pragmatic context or the use of other grammatical markers, such as temporal adverbs. In the following sentence in Mandarin, the adverbial zuotian ‘yesterday’ situates the event in the past even though the verb itself does not bear any tense marking:
Zhangsan zuotian qu ni jia
Zhangsan yesterday go you house
‘Zhangsan went to your house yesterday.’ (Lin 2006)
Other languages mark tense not through the use of inflections, but with separate tense morphemes, much in the same way that English indicates the future. This is common in languages with isolating morphology. For example, in Indonesian, an independent tense marker precedes the verb:
Kami akan makan nanti.
1pl FUT eat soon
‘We will eat soon.’ (cited in Dryer 2011)
As can be seen from these few examples, tense and its morphological realization takes on many forms cross-linguistically.
Aspect expresses temporal distinctions within a particular time; it indicates how time passes, or how an action unfolds within a timeframe. It can combine with different tense to give finer distinction. There are several different aspects used by the languages of the world. One of the more common is the distinction between the perfective and the imperfective. The perfective indicates a bounded point in time, often with a perceivable beginning and end, while the imperfective suggests a more unbounded period. Many European languages make this distinction, as in the Russian example below:
On čital pis’mo
He read. PAST.IMPER a letter
‘He was reading a letter’
On pročital pis’mo
He read.PAST.PERF a letter
‘He read a letter’
While Russian makes aspectusl distinction through the use of inflection, English can mark an utterance as bearing a perfective aspect through the use of the auxiliary verb ‘have.’
Kola has finished painting the barn.
The progressive (or continuous) aspect indicates an ongoing action or event. In English, this is expressed morphologically through the addition of the suffix ‘-ing’ to the verb stem, which is then used with the auxiliary ‘to be.’ Thus ‘She is reading a book’ denotes an event in progress in the present, while ‘She was reading a book’ depicts an action that was continuous at a point in the past. Spanish uses a similar construction, combining the verb estar ‘to be’ with a verb bearing the progressive ending –ando/-iendo. Thus Ella está leyendo el libro corresponds to’She was reading a book’.
The habitual aspect refers to an action or situation that is repeated frequently over a period of time. Swahili uses the verbal prefix hu- to indicate the habitual aspect, which can be translated into English using an adverb like ‘usually’ or ‘always.’
Basi hu- fika mapema
bus HAB- arrive early
‘The bus usually/always arrives early’
As seen with tense, not all languages mark aspect morphologically. On the other hand, there are languages that, while not marking tense, do make aspectual distinctions. Mandarin is such a language.
Lisi zai xi- zao
Lisi PROG take bath
‘Lisi is taking a bath.’ (Lin 2006)
These are only a few of the most common aspects found. Some additional examples include the durative, punctual, stative, dynamic, iterative, and inchoative aspects.
Mood differs from tense and aspect in that it makes no reference to time or the unfolding of events within a timeframe. Rather, mood indicates intent or attitude of the speaker. Some examples of different moods attested cross-linguistically are the indicative, the conditional, the imperative, the subjunctive, the optative, and the potential. The indicative mood is used to express declarative or questions. In English, this is unmarked; the basic verbal form serves as the indicative form.
The subjunctive mood is used to express doubt, hypothetical situations, desire, or obligation.
Though this mood was once widely used in Old English, it is less common in Modern English, though it still survives in a few constructions (If I were you… and not was). The subjunctive mood is common in a number of languages in the world, and is found in many of the Romance languages:
Espero que Juan llegue pronto.
hope.1sg that Juan arrive.3sgSUBJ soon
‘I hope that Juan arrives soon’
The imperative mood is used to command, prohibit, or advise. Such utterances are usually directed towards the grammatical second person. This can be seen in English (indicative: ‘you are careful,’ imperative: ‘be careful!’) and is present in many other languages as well.
tu regardes (tu) regarde
you look.2sg.IND (you) look.2sg.IMP
‘You look’ ‘Look!’
The conditional mood indicates a dependence of one event on another. The English conditional is marked through the use of the modal auxiliary ‘would’ and is often used in conjunction with the subjunctive ‘If I were you, I would not go’. Hungarian uses the affix ‘–n’ with a vowel to mark the conditional:
(10) Jó len-ne
good be- COND
‘It would be good’
Additional moods include the potential mood, which suggests the likelihood of an event’s occurrence and is found in languages such as Finnish, Persian, and Japanese; and the optative mood, which overlaps somewhat with the subjunctive, also expressing wishes, and is found in Albanian and Ancient Greek.
Another important concept to be considered here is voice. Voice refers to the relationship between the verb and the argument NPs in the sentence. In active voice, the agent of the action expressed is the subject of the verb. The verb then takes active morphology. In a passive construction, the patient or object of the verb is raised to the position of the subject of the sentence. The agent is then optionally expressed as a prepositional phrase, and the verb takes passive morphology. The following example from English shows both types of constructions:
Active: The scientist discovered a new cure for the disease.
Passive: A new cure for the disease was discovered (by the scientist).
The active/passive distinction is found in many languages across the world. Here is an example from Sre, a Mon Khmer language (Manley 1972, cited in Keenan and Dryer 2006):
Cal paʔ mpon
wind open door
‘The wind opened the door’
Mpon gə – paʔ mə cal
door PASS- open by wind
‘The door was opened by the wind’
Other grammatical voices include the middle voice. As the term suggests, this is somewhere between the active and the passive. For example, in the sentence ‘The wood cut easily’, the theme ‘the wood’ is in the subject position, but the verb does not take passive morphology. The middle voice is also used when the subject has elements of both agent and patient, such as when a subject acts reflexively. Middle voice is found in Icelandic and Ancient Greek among other languages. Some languages mark additional voices as well.
This short overview of tense, aspect, mood, and voice, provides only a peek at the wealth and diversity of these topics. Each new language studied provides an opportunity to explore them further.
- Dryer, Matthew S. (2011) Position of Tense-Aspect Affixes. In Dryer and Haspelmath (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 69. http://wals.info/chapter/69
- Keenan, Edward and Matthew S. Dryer (2007) Passive in the World’s Languages. In Shopen (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press: 325-361. Lin, Jo-wang (2006) Time in a language Without Tense: The case of Chinese, Journal of Semantics 23: 1-53.
- Schmidtke, Karsten (2006) A Look Beyond English: Tense and Aspect in the Languages of the World. Class Handout. Friedrich Schiller University, Jena.