Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

TAMPA: on Time & Language

This begins a new series here at the CALLE site.  TAMPA is meant to provide a basic overview of the relationship of Time and Language — how languages express time and how time expression manifests itself in the various structures and forms of language.  It is a precursor to an upcoming textbook covering the same information with particular focus on applying this understanding to the language education experience.  Information on that project will appear soon at when it becomes available.

TAMPA is an acronym referring to the five attributes of language used for expression of time and the relationship of time to linguistic structures in all languages.  These terms tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart are used throughout linguistic and language education texts, yet there exists still quite a bit of confusion regarding their meanings. Tense, Aspect, and Aktionsart are the three primary temporal attributes of language. That is, they are the concepts in linguistics that deal specifically with time. The fourth term, perfection is more secondary to the expression of time as it is purely the method of presenting the verb as completed (finished) or not.  The fifth, mood, is again not specifically a temporal element, but is a key element in time expressions in most languages including English.  What’s interesting about these five is that they are among the most simple, easy to understand concepts in the study of languages, yet they are also among the most misunderstood of all linguistic concepts.


There’s a reason so much confusion exists regarding these topics. More than anything, that reason is terminology. The temporal nature of language has not been the most actively studied area of languages and this is probably because it’s been only in the last hundred years or so that linguists have truly come to understand how such information is expressed in most languages and how different languages relate to time and its expression within their forms. The study of the relation of time and languages began in earnest only around the turn of the 20th century. It was at this time that linguists in Russia and Germany first realized that what works in analyzing one language does not necessarily work in analyzing another. Prior to this time, grammars and analysis of languages had been based on the model established by Greek and Roman philosophers studying Greek and Latin. Greek (ancient Greek) was the model used for most study. The Greek language is, compared to most modern tongues, quite simple and straightforward, especially in regard to temporal expression. People were discussing and writing about the interworkings of the Greek language thousands of years before the idea of linguistics as a field of study even came about. They figured out much of the science of communication and basics of what we still study today (semantics, syntax, morphology, etc) at a time when much of the world hadn’t even thought of the wheel. Human beings being easily proud of our accomplishments unfortunately didn’t continue our passion for linguistic research with that ancient fervor of old. Having figured out the basics of Greek linguistics, students of language basically stopped and for the next two thousand years attempted to describe every language they encountered in terms of their comparison to Greek.

It’s Greek to Me.

Every language is of course not Greek, nor are that many of them structurally similar to that common tongue of Sparta and Troy. Today it is understood that there are many languages, that those languages can be grouped into families of related tongues, and that various types of languages have various characteristics that may not be common in other types of language. As commonsensical as this seems though, this view is a fairly new innovation. Prior to the 20th Century, most grammars, regardless of language used the Greek model. English is by far the best example of this because most of the grammars of English, both past and present, have been written with relatively little attention paid to the actual linguistics of English. Instead, they have attempted (and always failed) to shape the structures of English into a form that can mesh with seemingly equivalent forms in Latin and Greek.

To understand the fallacy of such an approach it’s best to perhaps first consider what the study of linguistics is and to compare that to the study of a language or of the study of languages as a whole. The study of a language is basically the academic pursuit of fluency in that tongue. It’s basically just learning the language for the purpose of being able to communicate with speakers of that language. The study of languages as a social science is more one of anthropological curiosity – of comparing the ways in which various peoples and cultures communicate and how they blend the aspects of their culture and character with that communication. The field of linguistics takes this study of languages to a new level, that of the study of language as a whole – the human ability to create systems of communication with various patterns and forms and of the underlying math of such systems. It’s these systems that are truly the focus of linguistics.

Every language conveys the same information. They all have subjects and objects and verbs and ways of communicating the who, what, when, where, how, and why of daily life. This is the primary similarity of all human communication. The differences are in how this information is conveyed. Some languages use extremely long words in which complex systems of prefixes and suffixes express things like tense, number, mood, person, aspect, and any other combination of information or character. Other languages use individual words for each of these attributes. Most, like English, are somewhere in the middle with a system of inflected words and structures providing the full inventory needed for expressing any combination of meaning.

It is important to understand that all languages, while appearing sometimes very different on the surface, are at their core quite similar, especially in their being tools for conveying common information and key attributes of human existence. Time is of course one of those key attributes of our lives and languages all have a means of expressing time through their grammars, syntax, and usage. The mistaken historical approach of trying to make everything fit the mold of Greek or Latin is not in the idea that the information expressed is different, but rather that all languages express that information in similar ways. They of course do not, so while time is a standard and ever present component of language, the relation of time to each language is specific and merits specific treatment and research.

TAMPA: Tense, Aspect, Mood, Perfection, & Aktionsart

In understanding languages, improving language learning efficiency, and especially in honing an approach in secondary language instruction, understanding the primary ways in which languages express time and their interaction is of the utmost importance. Regardless of any differences languages may have in the manner in which such information is expressed, the types of time information are the same – combinations of tense and aspect as regulated by aktionsart. Some languages also blend supporting moods into their systems of temporal expression. English is a prime example of such a language in that all but two future forms in the language require additional modal support. Basically, there are five linguistic components at play regarding the relationship of time and language: Tense – the contrast between temporal references on the timeline of an utterance; Aspect – the temporal nature of that utterance, usually as durational or not, as determined by structure; Mood – any additional qualification of the utterance, particularly as applied to its verb; Perfection – the quality of the temporal nature of that utterance as completed or not, as determined by structure;  and Aktionsart – the temporal nature of the inclusive verbs used in that utterance, most often defined as a combination of duration and completion.

Continue reading TAMPA: The Basics

March 12, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

TAMPA: The Basics

This is page 2 of the introductory section for the TAMPA series on Time and Language.  The first page can be found here.


The primary point of the TAMPA series is to do away with longstanding confusion over language and time and to provide linguists, language enthusiasts, and educators with a solid yet simplified overview of these five concepts and how all languages use them to express the relationship of time and communication within  those languages.  As pointed out in the introduction, much of this confusion stems from the fact that terminology did not often keep up with developments in research and understanding in this field.  Also, as new concepts were discovered and explored, rarely were languages reanalyzed within the context of this new understanding.  This has led to a system where these concepts to be discussed (especially aspect and tense) are often conflated.  It’s also led to quite disparate terminology being used to explain the same concepts within different languages or language families.  Notice, that I said same concepts rather than similar ones.  This is because these five attributes (tense, aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart) are universals of linguistics.  That is, they are the same concepts, with the same definitions, and the same relationships with each other regardless of the language to which the terminology is applied.  This is not to say that all languages express the relationships between time and language in the same way.  They certainly do not, however it is these same universal concepts that are at work in all of these languages in much the same way that all languages use subjects and verbs and objects.  The ways in which these attributes are utilized may be quite different from one tongue to the next, but the basic building blocks and rules of these relationships remain the same across the linguistic spectrum.

Every utterance in every language expresses within its meaning and structure information relative to time.  This temporal information includes a time reference (when), the nature of that time reference (how long), the status in relation to that time reference (finished or not finished), whether the nature, status, and reference to time is certain or dependent on something else, and it even provides information regarding the type of utterance and information conveyed and how that effects its relation to time[tense, aspect, perfection, mood, aktionsart].  The manner in which these five attributes are exhibited varies greatly from one language to the next and often can seem visually quite different even within various utterances within the same language.  Some languages have a very strongly marked system for expressing these attributes, using various declined verbs, phrases, and structures in conveying such temporal insights (English and most other Indo-European Languages are of this type) while other languages use very few special forms and are in fact often mistakenly thought to ‘have no tense’ (Chinese) or to be missing certain of these five attributes.  Often it’s simply difficult to actively identify time elements within a language because they work together in a way that leaves very little clue as to the independent temporal workings of an utterance.  Consider these two sentences in English:  “You will have been working on this for 3 days by the end of the week.” and “Stop!”

In the first utterance the tense = future (will); which is a modal future of high certainty by the subjects volition (by his own will or doing) — so mood = volitive; ‘be + -ing’ is a form in English which uses structure to express duration — this is called aspect, so aspect = durational; ‘have + past participle’ is a structural form marking completeness which is often referred to as ‘the perfect’, so in this utterance perfection = perfected;  finally the verb ‘work’ when used with this meaning is an activity and has an inherent time quality of occurring over a length of time (because it’s rather difficult to ‘work on’ something for only a single moment in time) — the time quality that is inherent in the meaning of a verb itself is called aktionsart, so for this utterance aktionsart = durational activity.

For the second example much less information seems visually available, yet all 5 time attributes are in fact present and being conveyed:  “Stop!” is a command.  It’s said now, and intended that the person who hears it stops ‘now’, so tense = present; there is no special structure used to convey duration, so the aspect = non-durational; commands use a special set of modal forms called imperatives, so mood = imperative; no information is given as to whether the activity ordered in this command is completed or not, so perfection = nonperfected; yet, the verb ‘stop’ obviously has an endpoint to it (because once someone has stopped, well, they have stopped and are not going to continue stopping beyond that).  At the same time though while there may be effort and time needed to slow down or prepare in some other way to stop, the actual act of stopping really doesn’t take any time.  You’re either stopped or you’re not, but the actual change from doing something to not doing it does not take place over a period of time so that means that stopping has no duration itself.  So together this means that for the verb ‘stop’, aktionsart = perfected, non-durational change of state.

These two examples show two seemingly very different utterances conveying the same sets of information in very different ways.  However the time information in both are conveyed using the same five temporal attributes.  These same attributes are present in every sentence in every language regardless of how different they may seem on the surface.  It is the goal of this series to provide an understanding of these concepts in simple clear terms and to equip the reader with the ability to analyze any utterance in any language in terms of these five universals of time and finally to understand how these concepts interrelate and how language combine these elements to express time — that key component of human existence and communication.


Below is a basic glossary of terminology used throughout this text.  A brief description of each of the five TAMPA concepts follows.  An extensive treatment of each concept and a discussion of how they relate to one another and other elements of syntax and morphology begins in the next section.  Some terminology listed below may be used in a manner that is not the same as other texts.  It is recommended that each definition and detail section be read and considered with an open mind toward defining existing concepts within the context of the usage detailed in this work.  It is the author’s belief that completion of these texts that the logic behind these usages and the usefulness of this system shall be clear upon the reader’s successful completion of the full Time & Language project:

Activity – an idea expressing an action that is performed by or on a person or thing.

Assertion – in a purely informative utterance, that point which is established by the predicate.

Attestation – in habituals, generalizations, and modal constructions, the argument proposed by the predicate which may be evaluated as true or not.

Duration – the quality of a verb or the predicate in which it is used occurring over a period of time (specified or not).

Generalization – an utterance in which it is attested that some point is generally true.

Habitual – an utterance in which it is attested that something occurs repeatedly under a given set of circumstances.

Punctular – occurring at a specific point in time versus over a range, not having duration.

Temporal – an adjective meaning of or related to time.

Timeline – an abstract or visual representation of the utterance in relation to time with the present being at the center, the past left of center, and the future right of center, onto which the temporal references used to determine tense are plotted.

Utterance – any structure expressing a complete thought and including at minimum a subject and predicate.  Utterance may refer to sentences, clauses, or certain phrases; or to sentences which contain one or more of these.

TAMPA Defined

Tense – tense is the name given to a way of describing the contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance.  In describing tense, the relative location of these two references (to the left or right of each other) and the relative distance between them along that timeline determines tense.  Tense has nothing to do with the type of time information given or the nature of the information conveyed by the utterance, it is merely a manner of describing the above explained contrast.  Tense is an attribute of an utterance, not of any element within that utterance (meaning that verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions cannot be said to ‘have tense’).

Aspect – Like tense, aspect is an attribute of the utterance (and not of any component within that utterance).  Aspect, refers to the use of  structural elements to express the temporal nature of the utterance.  Aspects can be divided into durational and non-durational varieties.  Within this division, further forms may be used to determine the type of information conveyed.  These types of information can show whether something is meant to be purely informative, whether it is habitual (occurring over and over again), an activity, a change of state, an accomplishment, an activity, or simply to show that any of these others occur with a prolonged measurable duration.  Multiple systems of classifying and naming aspect within various languages exist and while little agreement has been achieved toward a universal system, the common points of all are that all aspects (regardless of what they are called) are either durational or non-durational, and that they are a method of using the specific structure of the utterance (word order, auxiliary verbs, special forms, etc) to override any lexical attribute of verbs used within that utterance.  It should be noted that aspect cannot be considered without awareness of the aktionsart of the inclusive verbs.

Mood – in linguistics mood and modality are mostly interchangeable terms, although to be specific, mood is an attribute of an utterance determined by the modality expressed by its form.  Modality refers to the quality within a language of adding a further qualification to the assertion of an utterance.  That is, beyond what is purely expressed by the combined meanings of the individual words used, the addition of specific modality creates an added layer of meaning to the utterance as a whole.  Modality is used to express things like certainty, probability, willingness, coercion, confidence, certainty, or a lack of any of these things as well as a vast variety of other concepts.  Like aspect and tense, mood is an attribute of an utterance itself and not of any specific component therein.  Specific words and structures within an utterance however are often used to express mood.  These forms are called modals and can be single words such as shall/will/can/could, phrases such as be going/be willing/had better, special forms such as let’s, and even slang such as gotta or gotsta.  Mood is an attribute that is present in all utterances in all languages — just as with the other four TAMPA concepts.  In some utterances that mood may be seen as missing, but would better be described as neutral, or the usual mood signifying no additional qualification (usually referred to as the indicative mood).  This should not be misconstrued as a lack of mood, as mood is present, it is just simply the mood that is most prevalent and thus least noticeable.  In most languages, expression of certain tenses and aspect require the use of specific moods.  In English, eight of the ten possible forms for expressing the future require the use of specific (non-indicative) moods.

Perfection – perfection refers to the linguistic quality of completeness.  The term (often just ‘perfect’ in common parlance) derives from the Latin perfectus and further further from the verb perficio meaning ‘finish’ or ‘bring to an end’.  Perfection is actually a universal concept of many fields and comes originally from philosophy.  Greek philosophers first coined the idea to describe a uniform circle as being whole and without beginning or end.  Because a true circle had no corners or starting or stopping points, they referred to it as ‘perfect’ (the ‘perfect circle’).  This idea spread first through the sciences, and later entered everyday speech with the meaning of flawless.  The idea was first proposed by Aristotle who defined perfect as ‘that which is complete or which has attained its purpose.’  Thus in linguistics, perfect refers to the quality of a verb or predicate as completed.  Like tense, aspect, and mood, perfection is an attribute of the utterance as a whole (structural), unlike aktionsart which is an attribute of the verb itself (lexical).  At the lexical level, perfection is also expressed as an attribute of the verb’s aktionsart as complete or not (called telicity rather than perfection at the lexical level).

Aktionsart – as with aspect, aktionsart refers to the nature of information provided in an utterance.  Unlike aspect though which is an attribute of an entire utterance, aktionsart is an attribute of the individual verb used within the utterance.  In fact, aktionsart is also sometimes referred to as ‘lexical aspect’ (lexical meaning ‘of the word’ from the linguistic term lexeme which is the smallest independent unit which can express an idea — this smallest unit normally being simply put, a word).  The term aktionsart is German and comes from the original idea of ‘kind (art) of action’ — the plural form is aktionsarten (-en is how most German words become plural) and the adjective is aktionsartig (pronounced ‘aktionsartish’).  As with aspect, several systems have been proposed for classifying aktionsarten of verbs with no single system ever having gained prominence.  But also as with aspect, aktionsarten can be basically classified as either durational or non-durational, and perfected or non-perfected.  It is important to remember that aktionsart is an attribute of the verb as used in an utterance.  It is therefor inherent in the actual meaning of the word.  If however, a verb has more than one possible meaning, it may likely also have more than one possible aktionsarten depending on how it is used.  Regardless of classification scheme used (if any is used at all), all verbs within an utterance can be defined in terms of a combination of durative (having duration or not) and telic (perfected or not) qualities.  For example, Live has a naturally durative aktionsart in all forms, yet is not naturally telic, but lived (past tense) is (ie ‘John lives in Texas’ — the ‘living’ is done over an undetermined duration of time, yet no information is given regarding whether it is finished or not — but, in ‘John lived in Louisiana’ the ‘living’ is completed while the duration is still unknown.  Yet, we know that there was a duration purely from the fact that a person can’t live somewhere for merely a moment in time).  Sneeze and cough are naturally telic and have a non-durational aktionsart (because sneezes happen, then they are done (perfected) and if need be to talk about multiple sneezes over a period of time, the form of the durational aspect ‘John is sneezing’ must be used).  It is the connection between aktionsart and aspect that tend to determine the structural and temporal nature of an utterance.  The aktionsart of the verb (as a combination of duration and perfection) determine the temporal nature of the utterance (which will match that of the inclusive verb) unless, the aspect of the utterance (which remember uses the structure of the utterance to determine temporal nature) or the perfection of the utterance overrides that aktionsart of the verb.  For this reason, when determining the nature of information conveyed in an utterance, the aktionsart of the verb must first be analyzed, and then the aspect and perfection of the utterance analyzed on top of that.

Continue reading Tense

February 10, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Social Networking: a Game Changer for Language Learning?

I recently took a break from research to do a few days of substitute teaching at a local university’s ESL department. One of my duties was to supervise a group of students in their computer writing lab. I personally thought it was a waste of time for both me as a teacher, and for the students who where given a daily scenario about which they were to write a paragraph-long response. I could have understood the merit of such an activity about ten years ago, but obviously the curriculum developers for this program have yet recognize the widespread use of computers among modern university students and their ability to access the internet from their classrooms, dorm rooms, or even mobile phones.

During this exciting hour of supervising the students in the lab, I found one student fidgeting away on Facebook instead of writing his assignment. Now, in dealing with ESL students I have always taken the approach of American higher education — that is, they are students, but they are adults, and thus do not need me to babysit them, give them permission to go to the restroom, or any other such form of coddling (academic or otherwise) afforded school children. Upon noticing my coming around the corner this student quickly shrank down his web browser and attempted to look gainfully employed in his work before my smile yielded a guilty smirk from him. He seemed amazingly surprised when I told him to go ahead, and that I use Facebook all the time.

While talking to him, I observed that he was playing a zoo animal game of some sort (he’s probably 20), and chatting with a few friends. One chatbox was filled with his native Kazakhstani, another was an obvious flirt with some girl somewhere in the world but in English, and the third was a chat with another student across the room (who had managed their chat more covertly apparently) also in English. After a few minutes he finally stumbled out an “and you don’t mind the Facebook?” to which I replied of course not. My response seemed to confuse him even more until I explained that he was using an English-language version of Facebook, playing an interactive game in English, and having two live conversations (again, in English), all at the same time.  He was learning…he just hadn’t realized it!

As the map above shows, Facebook (light green) has become far more than the college connection it once was.  It’s now a worldwide phenomenon and is growing everyday.  And, websites like Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of what a few years ago would have been a slew of webpages and applications.  Even only 5 years ago just about every country had their own unique online chat program.  They were usually available in only one language, and these different systems rarely allowed users to communicate with those using another service.  Yahoo Messenger and to a lesser extent AIM and Microsoft Messenger seem to have weathered the first decades of the internet, most other smaller services have not been so lucky.  Google and their slew of “killer apps” have taken much of the information realm off the desktop and onto the web, bringing with it handheld data access.  Gmail, Google Maps, and the soon to be release Wave are the game changers of information management that neither users nor Microsoft could have ever imagined a decade ago.

Social Networking

Sites like Myspace, industry leader Facebook, and explosively growing newcomer Twitter are a game changer themselves.  More than merely moving email from Outlook to any internet access point (gmail), these Social Networking sites connect people — people who would have perhaps never bothered with such technology, instantly, continuously, easily and in a dynamic manner that makes staying in touch an integral part of the day.  Just this past week, I realized upon being ‘friended’ by a fellow soldier from my army days that I had lost touch with these 500 or so people I spent so much time with.  So, I started a group for my old unit on Facebook.  Within a day there were 13 other veterans in it.  Within two days that number had reached a hundred, and by the end of this week we were numbering somewhere around 250.  When you think about it, that’s amazing!  Of 500 people I have not seen in years, half have managed to find each other again in a matter of days on Facebook.

Facebook you see, is amazing.  There really is no reason not to promote this product here, because like google, it’s moved beyond the scope of being the property of one company and is now yet another piece of online real estate owned by the world (its upcoming IPO aside).  Like Coca-Cola and Disney, Facebook couldn’t close its doors and drop out of existence today even if it wanted to.  Somebody, somewhere, would keep it going.

The internet changed the world 20 years ago when it connected universities and countries and businesses together.  Suddenly free information exchange became an integral ideal of our modern global psyche.  But the internet, while overall free from control, was not free.  In fact, the cost of access in the early days of the internet precluded many from accessing it.  Then, as webpages became more complex and the quantity of data increased, broadband and other high speed (and high cost) connections became to required conduit for connection.  This meant that if you couldn’t afford DSL, if you didn’t have your own connection, computer, etc that you could not connect and that no matter how much information was out there, it wasn’t for you.

Then, along comes Facebook.  It has a simple interface, requires very little bandwidth, can operate on a slow connection, or even on a mobile phone, and allows anyone with an email address (which thanks to gmail, everyone in the world can now have for free), access to everyone else.  Students now have Facebook pages.  Parents have them, companies, organizations, schools, bands, even favourite foods have facebook pages.  The fact is, anyone and everyone can be on Facebook, and they can all connect, communicate, and converse with everyone else.

That, is a game changer for the Language Learning Industry.  Students, all students, anywhere, can now chat with, send messages to, and share information in English (or any other language).  Finally, the biggest challenge to teachers and students has a solution.  That challenge — an overall lack of language exposure, of contact time, or access to content, is no more.  If your students have a computer, access to an internet cafe, or even a smartphone, they have access to the language they are learning.


The game has changed.  Now, the question is how we, as an industry, will change with it.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Industry Tends, Teacher Resources | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments