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1.5.Tense, epistemic modality and aspect

This section discusses the notions of tense, modality and aspect as encoded in the Dutch verbal system by means of inflection and non-main verbs, and will show how these means may interact and thus give rise to a wide range of interpretational effects. Section 1.5.1 will begin with a discussion of the traditional view on the Dutch tense system, which basically follows a proposal by Te Winkel (1866) that distinguishes eight different tenses on the basis of three binary oppositions in (228); see also Haeseryn et al. (1997:111-3).

Example 228
a. Present versus past
b. Future versus non-future
c. Imperfect versus perfect

By means of the three oppositions in (228) we define the eight tenses given in Table 8. The labels in the cells are the ones that we will use in this study; the abbreviations between parentheses refer to the traditional Dutch terminology and are added for the convenience of the Dutch reader.

Table 8: The Dutch tense system according to Te Winkel (1866)
  present past
non-future imperfect simple present (o.t.t.) simple past (o.v.t.)
  perfect present perfect (v.t.t.) past perfect (v.v.t.)
future imperfect future (o.t.t.t.) future in the past (o.v.t.t.)
  perfect future perfect (v.t.t.t.) future perfect in the past (v.v.t.t.)

Section 1.5.2 discusses epistemic modal verbs like moeten'must' and kunnen'may' and argues that the distinction between the future and non-future tenses in Table 8, which is traditionally attributed to presence or absence of the verb zullen'will', is in fact not overtly expressed by the Dutch verbal tense system but arises from pragmatic considerations as a side effect of the system of epistemic modality. From this, we will conclude that the Dutch verbal tense system encodes just two of the three binary oppositions by morphological and syntactic means, namely present—past and perfect—imperfect; the opposition future—non-future is expressed by other means. In short. the Dutch verbal system expresses overtly no more than four of the eight tenses in Table 8. Section 1.5.3 continues with a brief discussion of aspectual verbs like the inchoative verb beginnen'to begin'. Section 1.5.4 concludes by showing how the future interpretation as well as a wide range of non-temporal interpretations of the four tenses can be made to follow from the interaction between the temporal and modal information encoded in the sentence and the pragmatic principle known as the maxim of quantity (cf. the cooperative principle in Grice 1975), which prohibits the speaker from making his utterances more, or less, informative than is required in the given context.

  • Grice, H.P1975Logic and conversationCole, P. & Morgan, J. (eds.)Speech acts: Syntax and Semantics 3New YorkAcademic Press41-58
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Winkel, L.A. te1866Over de wijzen en tijden der werkwoordenDe Taalgids866-75
  • Winkel, L.A. te1866Over de wijzen en tijden der werkwoordenDe Taalgids866-75