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Analysis Of Time Deixis And Frequently Used Temporal Adverbs

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“Could you put it next to the lamp, over there…look at my finger”. Even though every single word in this sentence is clear and understandable, a listener wouldn’t be able to work out the entire meaning of it. In this case “my” refers to the speaker who asks for a favor, while “you” is directed towards the dialog partner. “It” refers to the subject under discussion, while “there” refers to a specific location. Several details for example the speaker, the person that is spoken to, the meaning behind the word “it” as well as the word “there” remain unanswered. A similar problem occurs in a common situation where somebody leaves a note pinned to their door which says something as: “Back in half an hour”. There are no personal pronouns and spatial adverbs that would clarify the exact meaning of the note. Therefore the note brings some major problems with it. People reading the note won’t have any idea at what point in time it was pinned to the door. It could be anything between a couple of seconds and almost thirty minutes.

Thus the propositions in both examples mentioned are undetermined. For an exact determination of meaning the dialog partner has to know the “unknown” words. Precisely this is the point where the concept of deixis (Greek etymology > to show) has its importance. Deictic expressions are those that have both a context-independent invariant meaning component as well as a context-dependent meaning component which depends on the respective utterance. Accordingly, deictic expressions have their full meaning only in the extralinguistic context of an utterance. An example would be the pronoun “I”. It might be associated with a particular person, but only if the context of the situation in which “I” is used is known. It seems simple, but “I” does not always have to refer to the person who uses this pronoun. An example would be: He told me: “I’ll take you out for dinner tomorrow night, I promise.” This clearly shows that the concept of deixis can be complex.

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In this paper I will address time deixis and especially analyze frequently used temporal adverbs. During all of my apprenticeships in primary second language classrooms I encountered many teachers who constantly used temporal adverbs such as now, then, yesterday, today, etc. Since time deixis is a rather complex field I find it important to analyze necessary temporal adverbs used in everyday situations in order to apply them correctly in a primary second language context.

Time deixis refers to the encoding of states and events as well as expression of time relative to the moment of utterance. The temporal orientation of an utterance serves as a reference point for the interpretation of deictic time expressions. Karl Bühler (1965: 102) describes this orientation for specific time deictic relations as the “origo”. In spoken language the origo is identified acoustically as the respective moment of a statement (Rauh 1978: 60). The deictic dimension of time is neither perceived acoustically nor visually with the only exception being the word now in face to face conversations. It is solely perceived by people through states and events, which are expressed through verbs and the tenses. Inflectional forms of verbs refer to events either before, within or after a moment of utterance (Klein 1994: 21). William Bull describes these three types of time-deictic event representation as remembering, experiencing and foreseeing (1960: 7).

However this distinction is only sufficient if a particular language actually has only three tenses. Most languages including English possess a much wider and more complex time system. It is not enough to state that a specific state or event simply happens before or after an utterance. A state or event can lie long before, shortly before, immediately before, simultaneously with, immediately after, shortly after or long after the time of utterance (Klein 1994: 19). Time deictic expressions include temporal adverbs such as now, then, yesterday, tomorrow as well as the different temporal verb forms, since these can only be interpreted when the time of utterance is known (Green 1995: 22).

In the following I will describe how temporal modifications of a verb are related to the time of utterance and I will introduce the most frequently used temporal adverbs. Beforehand, I will briefly discuss various problems with the term “time of utterance”, since the time of utterance is relevant for the interpretation of the tenses and the temporal adverbs. The assumption that the time of utterance forms the reference point for temporal relations brings at least three problems. First of all, there is the definition. What exactly is the time of utterance? Does the term utterance refer to the entire time frame in which an utterance is expressed or is the utterance itself an object of reference and therefore a part of the time frame? Or does the utterance time serve as a temporal orientation which goes beyond the time interval in which an utterance is expressed (Klein 1994: 66). There are definite cases in which the time of utterance as origo does not cover the entire time frame of a single statement: “It is now five o’clock sharp” (ibid.). In this example, “now” refers to the exact time of utterance. Therefore the origo is not the entire utterance but rather only a part of it.

On the other hand, it is assumable that the time of utterance in longer expressions or texts such as lectures or letters won’t vary with every single utterance. According to Klein, a coherent sequence of utterances, regardless written or spoken language, should be regarded as one unit with a single deictic relatum (1994: 67). Therefore the entire time of text production in case of a letter or a lecture, could be seen as temporal origo. However, the date of origin in texts for example from “holy books” such as the bible is covered in a period stretched over several centuries. Klein suggests viewing the time of the ‘experienced present’ as deictic relatum. He justifies his suggestion by stating that there is a time frame where individuals perceive their surroundings more superiorly, rather than remembering and imagine a certain time frame. This period is shifting constantly, even during speaking or writing (ibid.). Klein continues by proposing further deictic relata. He distinguishes between the “deictic relatum of tense” as well as the “deictic relatum of adverbials and other time deictic expressions”. In terms of time and tense, Klein suggests to assume that each utterance or sentence possess exactly one relatum, to which the temporal relation is referring to. He justifies this assumption by stating that during the production of an utterance the ever “shifting psychological nows are taken together as the deictic relatum of tense.”

However, this is different when it comes to temporal adverbials. They can relate to different times within the present experience during an utterance. The difference between coding time and receiving time is another issue which arises when considering the utterance time as the origo (Klein 1994: 68). Since coding and receiving time are usually identical in face-to-face conversations, a special distinction between speaker and listener doesn’t have to be made. In written and recorded language, coding and receiving time are not congruent. In this case the moment of utterance is the origo. Nevertheless, there is also the case where the reception time is the origo (ibid.). A sentence carrying the same meaning can be either speaker or receiver oriented in different language communities for example: “I am writing this today so you will receive it tomorrow or I have written this yesterday so that you receive it today” (Levinson 1994: 855).

The third circumstance arises from the assumption that the time of utterance forms the origo. It is concerning quotations, rendered thoughts and the historical present. The historical present is introduced by the speaker as if the events he/she describes are just happening, for example: In 2002 Brazil wins the world cup in football. In this example the time period 2002 is the relatum and not the time of experienced present (Klein 1994: 68). When thoughts or expressions get cited, the current speaker doesn’t form the origo. In this case the people whose thoughts or utterances are being quoted constitute the origo, for example “I thought it is over now” or Yesterday, he told me: “I want to fly tomorrow”

Temporal Adverbs: Now

The time-deictic expression now can be either refer to the exact moment of utterance or to an arbitrarily large period of time which includes the moment of utterance (Klein 1994: 67). The limits, i.e. the beginning and end of a time interval that “now” refers to vary along with the context in which “now” is used. The word now in isolation shows its significance when uttered (Karl Bühler 1965: 132).

“You can do the bungee jump, just pull yourself together now!” In this case “now” refers to to the exact moment of utterance. The temporal origo is therefore not the entire statement. Another example would be:

Speaker A: “Now, do it!”

Speaker B: “Now?”

Speaker A: “Yes, now. Just do it now”

In addition, utterances can occur with two origos, besides the difference being rather minimal (Klein 1994: 66f), for example: “From now, it is exactly five seconds until now.”

In contrast to the examples above, the following ones will not refer to a specific point in time. They will refer to a timeframe which limits aren’t quite consolidated, even though the moment of utterance is included by “now” (Klein 1994: 155).

“She has children now.”

“His financial situation is now better than last year.”

“The temperature now is about three degrees lower than the average on the Maldives”

In these examples, now refers to a period which includes the past the present moment as well as the future. Furthermore, the expression now can refer to a time interval which doesn’t include now itself.

Person A: “When should I go for it?”

Person B: “Well, do it now?”

In the example above the time interval described by now is clearly after the moment of utterance. The limits of the time interval remain unclear. According to Klein, examples where now refers to a timeframe before the moment of utterance, do not exist (Klein 1994: 155)

Temporal Adverbs: Recently & Soon

Recently and soon, similarly to now, don’t have clear limitation and refer to periods of time before and after the moment of utterance. In the following are a few examples:

“I heard about that recently.”

“She went to Munich recently.”

“I will see you soon.”

“Her caretaker will soon be here.”

As can be viewed in the examples above, the word recently suggests a period of time closely before the moment of utterance though with an indefinite temporal distance to it. It can be assumed that recently is used when the speaker is not sure about the exact occurrence of an event in the past. The timeframe described by using the term recently, suggests approximately three days up until a whole month before the moment of utterance. One or two days before the moment of utterance can be described by terms such as yesterday or the day before yesterday. Or if there are more days in between expressions such as a week ago or a couple weeks ago can be used.

The adverb soon refers to a time interval somewhere in the near future of indefinite length, which also does not include the time of utterance. While the temporal distance to the time of utterance in the example sentence above “Her caretaker will soon be here” is in all likelihood very small, the sentence “I will see you soon” suggests the temporal distance to the moment of utterance including several days.

Temporal Adverbs: Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday

In contrast to the adverbs analyzed above now, recently and soon, the adverbs today, yesterday and tomorrow do have clear limits. They refer to a whole day which starts and ends at midnight. Most standard dictionaries describe these adverbs in a similar way. Today includes the time of utterance. Yesterday precedes the day which includes the time of utterance and tomorrow follows the day which includes the time of utterance.

According to Klein the lexical description of these adverbs is not precise enough, since the periods of time described by today, yesterday and tomorrow do not have to cover a whole day. An example for each adverb will be provided below.

“The entire timetable got changed. The bus will be there at seven o’clock today.”

“Yesterday the game started at nine pm.”

“I will leave between three and four tomorrow.”

In these examples the temporal adverbs today, yesterday and tomorrow are accompanied by additional time indications that ensure a specific time limit. The next examples won’t have these indicators. Still, they will show that the temporal adverb today doesn’t have to refer to a whole day from midnight to midnight.

“She went to the cinema today.”

“I will break my high jump record today”

Here, the limits of today are set by the tense of the verb as well as the event in time. In the first of these two examples today refers to a period of time included in the day and before the moment of utterance. In the second, today refers to a period of time included in the day, which follows the moment of utterance.

Contrary to the previous examples, the timeframes including yesterday and tomorrow do not have limitations. However, thanks to our experience and knowledge of regular everyday dynamics, we can assume that cinema attendance does not last a whole day.

“She went to the cinema yesterday.”

Klein states (1994: 152f.) that

“today relates to some undetermined interval within the day which includes the time of utterance. Yesterday relates to some undetermined interval within the day which precedes the day which includes the time of utterance. Tomorrow relates to some undetermined interval within the day which follows the day which includes the time of utterance.”

Adverbs such as today, yesterday and tomorrow can be referred to as frame adverbials (Spejewski 1996: 269-272). They do provide a frame for a certain period of time; however, their limits and exact position are not expressed. Furthermore, according to Klein (1994: 152) these temporal adverbs can only be used deictic, given the timeframe which in all three cases is refers to the relatum (the maximum time interval, in these cases the whole day). The fact that by using the adverbs today, yesterday and tomorrow in a conversation one refers to certain days not only by their lexical content, but on a deictic consolidation as well, due to a gap in the lexical content: The moment of utterance. This gap can be closed by context (Klein 1994: 153).


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