An alternative interpretation of tense and aspect in Black South African English

02 September 2009

Terminology for identifying and describing what counts as a linguistic feature is identified as a problem that prevents an understanding of tense and aspect features in Black South African English (BSAE). In this paper, an alternative set of assumptions is proposed for linguistic analysis of new varieites. Grammar should not be regarded as aprioristic, but rather as emergent. The syntagmatic structure of language in context is highlighted as a more useful starting point for the identification of regularities in the description of a variety such as BSAE. After indicating a number of quantitative trends, a detailed qualitative analysis of three texts is undertaken. The analysis leads to the identification of a number of previously unidentified patterns. The timeless use of the present tense creates idealised and generalised verbal processes, rather than historically and/or contextually situated presentations of events. Aspectual meanings are more salient than temporal sequencing of events relative to one another or to the reference point established by the time of writing, speaking or reading. Spatial grounding in the nominal groups seems more important to the writers/speakers than temporal grounding in the verbal group. The observed patterns show that the use of tense and aspect forms, supported by various lexical selections in the texts, is highly consistent and shows regularity, despite the fact that the data may differ from a Standard English rendition of the same content. The paper concludes that it is misleading to judge the data in terms of other varieties of English, rather than in their own terms.