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Finding semantic building blocks : temporal and modal interpretation in Atayal Chen, Sihwei


This dissertation investigates temporal and modal interpretation in Atayal, an endangered and understudied Austronesian language of northern Taiwan. The central questions concern the semantics of tense/aspect markers, the existence of a tense category, and the extent to which the temporality of modal sentences reduces to an independent temporal and modal system. The investigation of Atayal temporal interpretation presents strong support for decomposing temporal categories into a small set of basic semantic building blocks (von Fintel and Matthewson 2008). I propose that aspectually-unmarked sentences in Atayal encode a neutral aspect (Smith 1997), formulated as encoding an initial event stage within a reference time, following Altshuler (2014). The consequence of this proposal is separation of the mechanism of culmination of telic events from (im)perfectivity. Culminations in Atayal are instead bundled in a single morpheme that also has core ingredients for perfect aspect. These results are fully expected given the decomposition idea but would be puzzling under the assumption of uniformity of temporal categories. In the area of tense, I show that an anteriority marker with dominant experiential readings has associated properties that all point to analyzing it as a tense, instead of an aspect, and as a genuine existential past tense. Moreover, the temporal reference of sentences without this overt tense is not reducible to any tenseless analyses (Smith and Erbaugh 2005, Tonhauser 2011a, Mucha 2013, a.o.); such sentences are best analyzed as possessing a semantic tense (cf. Matthewson 2006). This result not only demonstrates variation in the semantics of tense but also the co-occurrence of both quantificational and pronominal tense. In support of the proposed tense/aspect system, I further show that the same set of patterns recurs in the context of modality: Temporality in modal sentences only varies with relative scope of the modal and temporal operators (Chen et al. 2017a, Rullmann and Matthewson 2018). A detailed description of the Atayal modal system is provided before this discussion. Overall, this work provides a reassessment of the semantics/syntax of temporal categories in Atayal grammar, and presents a case study of exploring semantic building blocks in tense, aspect, and modality cross-linguistically.

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