Processing Tenses for the Living and the Dead: A Psycholinguistic Investigation of Lifetime Effects in Tensed and “Tenseless” Languages

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Description: Lifetime effects refer to the inferences about the life/death of the individual in sentences like ‘Mary is/was blue-eyed’. In English, contradictory lifetime inferences arise when the subject denotes one living and one dead individual, as neither tense is appropriate for the English copular, whereas no such intuition arises in Mandarin Chinese, a language that has been considered “tenseless” due to the lack of grammaticalised tense morphemes. In this thesis, I argue, with psycholinguistic evidence from online processing of contradictory lifetime inferences as well as empirical observations about "forward lifetime effects", that both covert past tense and tenseless accounts of Chinese are inadequate for capturing the temporal interpretations in this language: (1) Chinese speakers encountered reading time disruption for sentences with contradictory lifetime inferences, even though such sentences are judged as acceptable in an offline task; (2) Chinese bare predicates cannot be used when the subject involves one living and one yet-to-be-born individual. Taken together, these pieces of evidence suggest that the Chinese bare predicates are likely to possess a tense node with a Future/Non-Future distinction. I further suggest that Tense is a universal functional category that possesses a binary feature distinction, with a split between either Past/Non-Past or Future/Non-Future: all languages have a Tense Phrase in their hierarchical structure, although some languages lack overt marking of tense on nominals or verbs (or both). A new theory of tense is needed to account for the cross-linguistic variation on the surface form and the underlying homogeneity of temporal reference in language. (This is a revised version of my thesis.)

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International

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