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