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Tenseless languages and the concept of time: the case of Taiwanese

The aim of my research is to investigate the ways Chinese Min Nan (Taiwanese) conveys the concept of time. Taiwanese belongs to the group of “tenseless” languages, i.e. languages that do not have a grammatical category of tense (Comrie, 1985). This means that verbs in Taiwanese do not conjugate for tense. Consequently, there is no grammatical distinction between past and non- past time reference. Instead, Taiwanese relies on context, lexical expressions such as temporal adverbs, and aspects. The key debate about tenseless languages is whether they have a syntactic representation of tense nevertheless. The Uniformity Hypothesis argues that even though languages vary, they share the same set of grammatical features (Chomsky, 2001). Answering this question then has theoretically significant consequences as it tells us about the extent of language variability and universality. Taiwanese has the potential to shed some light on this issue, because, as I will show, it represents future tense, even though it is otherwise identical to a tenseless language. My research also examines if the future marker e should be treated as an instance of the future or modality, the issue which is debatable in the case of English will (Sarkar, 1998). Based on the fact that e can combine with may, my hypothesis is that the future marker acts differently from modals. This hypothesis, however, will be further tested with conditionals and passivisation. In terms of methodology, I elicited the data directly from a native speaker consultant. My informant is a 25- year old female bilingual speaker of Taiwanese and Chinese Mandarin from Tainan. The data was transcribed into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), analysed morpheme-by- morpheme, and translated word-to-word into English.