Tense in Crosslinguistic Perspective

Instructor: Ryan Bochnak (ryan.bochnak@gmail.com)

This course explores the semantics of tense and temporal reference, broadly construed, from both formal and typological perspectives. We examine how tense morphemes are interpreted across a range of constructions and languages. After building a basic framework to capture salient features of temporal reference in English, we turn to languages that make more temporal distinctions than English, so-called “graded tense” languages. We then explore languages that have been described as “tenseless.” Two major themes weave a common thread throughout the course: (a) the division of labour between the conventional meanings of morphemes and contextual factors in determining temporal reference; (b) the utility of cross-linguistic categories such as “tense” in the face of wide-ranging morphological and semantic variation.

Note: This course will assume some familiarity with an LF-based formal semantic framework. However, all the important analytical concepts and tools will be introduced in class.

Preliminary programme:


  1. Temporal interpretation: preliminaries
  2. Developing a framework; quantificational and pronominal approaches
  3. Graded tense languages
  4. Tenseless languages
  5. Optional tense languages

Suggested preliminary readings:


Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. New York: Cambridge University Press.

von Fintel, Kai & Irene Heim. 2011. Intensional semantics. Ms. MIT

Tonhauser, Judith. 2015. Cross-linguistic temporal reference. Annual Review of Linguistics, 1, 129–154. doi:10.1146/annurev-linguist-030514-124923