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Characterizations of tense in language generally focus on placement in time. This study demonstrates that tense forms in South Conchucos Quechua (SCQ) not only place past situations in time, they do much more. The research centers on discovering why one tense form, rather than another, is chosen at a given point in discourse.
The data studied consist of over five hours of naturally occurring spoken language. In-depth analysis is presented of four narrative segments, chosen for the richness of tense variation they display. While the data are primarily examined qualitatively, quantitative and prosodic analyses also contribute to understanding the uses of the tense forms.
The analysis of the data reveals a multi-faceted answer to the research question. Several SCQ tense forms place events relative to each other in past time. Choices between two of the past tense forms are further determined by evidentiality. That is, one form is used when the source of evidence is firsthand or when the situation is discussed from the speaker’s perspective, while another is used with secondhand information or when the speaker is giving a reported perspective.
Additionally, as happens in other languages with grammaticized degrees of temporal remoteness (Fleischman 1989), tense is used metaphorically to express distance along other axes. In SCQ, the temporal expression of distance has been co-extended to indicate narrative structure and to express affect. SCQ tense forms placing events in the more distant past are used with the parts of the narrative that are peripheral (the orientation, side remarks and resolution) and that convey little affect from the speaker. Tense forms placing events closer to the present are used with the parts of the narrative that are critical to the storyline (the abstract, complicating action and climax) and convey positive or very positive affect. A tense form that places events in the more distant past conveys negative affect in these central parts.
This work shows that inflectional tense, which might be expected to do no more than encode sentence-level temporal distinctions, can be used in spontaneous speech for functions well beyond the sentence.