Tense use in discourse and dialogue: a parallel corpus approach

Speaker Henriette de Swart
Affiliaton(s) Universiteit Utrecht
Date 08.12.2021
Time 16:00 o'clock
Venue Hybrid (Online and ZAS-Seminarraum)


Since Kamp & Rohrer (1983), the literature on tense and aspect focuses on story telling: sequences of events create narrative progress, and states provide background descriptions. In contrast to the anaphoric, definite nature of the Simple Past, Partee (1973) analyses the Present Perfect as quantificational and indefinite. However, the semantic literature is divided on the proper analysis of the PERFECT as a tense-aspect category (compare Portner 2003, Nishyama & Koenig 2010, Kamp et al. 2015 for different proposals and Ritz 2012 for an overview of the literature). Note further that there is little systematic research on the dynamic features of the PERFECT, although examples are frequently placed in conversational settings. Substantial cross-linguistic variation complicates the picture: according to Schaden (2009), German and French make a more liberal use of the PERFECT than English and Spanish, especially in narration. Rather than focusing on constructed examples, we investigate actual tense use in a parallel corpus. Under the assumption that translators aim to render the meaning in context in the target language, form variation between original and translation can inform us of the semantics and pragmatics of the various verb forms. A first corpus study of L’Étranger by Albert Camus and its translations nicely showed the cross-linguistic patterns, and enabled us to formulate the grammatical constraints underlying these patterns (van der Klis, Le Bruyn & de Swart 2021).
In this talk, we report results of parallel corpus research on tense use in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone and its Dutch, German, Spanish, French and Italian translations. We chose Harry Potter as our corpus, because it has both narrative parts and dialogue. We find that the discourse has a ‘classic’ narrative style which fits the analysis proposed by Kamp & Rohrer (1983) and Partee (1984). The dialogues are short, but they feel like ‘natural’ spoken language, so we use them to generate a multilingual conversational corpus. There is no literature on tense use in dialogue that we are aware of, but we find that the PERFECT is exclusively found in the dialogue parts of Harry Potter, and does not appear in narrative discourse. This generalization holds for all the languages under investigation. Even in dialogue, the Present Perfect is infrequent, compared to other verb forms such as the Simple Present. The cross-linguistic variation replicates the patterns found in the Camus corpus for a different source language, and thereby supports the robustness of the methodology.

As usual, the talk will be broadcast from the Seminarraum.
Meeting ID: 618 8914 3221