Time and Tense

  • David Burnley


It is probable that all languages have some means of time reference; but the range and precision of that reference differ considerably, as do the linguistic devices used to achieve it.1 Similarly, distinctions between positive and negative statements, and between questions and commands, may be expected in any language; but the speaker of the language who is unfamiliar with the niceties of its means of expressing these distinctions is likely to fail to understand the exact force of a denial or a prohibition. Now, although Chaucer’s language is, in outline, similar to modern English, it is to be expected that in such areas there will be discrepancies which coarsen our appreciation of his meaning. In part, this is unavoidable, since meaning in these areas is often closely related to context of situation, and, even more, to patterns of intonation. Indeed, in modern English, a rising tone at the end of a clause is sufficient to turn a statement into a question. Obviously, subtleties of meaning dependent upon variation of sentence stress or intonation will be lost to us, since we must deal only with a written language, but variation in written forms is sufficient in terms of time reference and negation to make a study of Chaucer’s usage in these respects valuable from a stylistic point of view.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See the remarks of Uriel Weinreich and Joseph B. Casagrande in their papers in Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of Language, 2nd edn (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1966) pp. 154–6 and 287–8. Whorf’s contrast between modern Western European quantifying concepts of time and the durative concept in the Indian language, Hopi, have become famous.Google Scholar
  2. B. L. Whorf ‘Science and Linguistics’ in John B. Carroll, (ed.), Language, Thought and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1957).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    A good brief account of aspect is that in John Lyons, Semantics, 2 vols (Cambridge U.P., 1977) vol. II, pp. 703–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. More detailed accounts, with specific application to English, may be found in F. R. Palmer, A Linguistic Study of the English Verb, 2nd edn (London: Longman, 1974)Google Scholar
  5. and G. N. Leech, Meaning and the English Verb (London: Longman, 1971).Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Johannes Scheffer, The Progressive in English, North Holland Linguistics Series, XV (Amsterdam and Oxford: North Holland Publishing Co., 1975) pp. 77–86.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Cf. Phyllis Hodgson (ed.), Chaucer: The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (London: Athlone Press, 1969) p. 71.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Cf. D. R. Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 139–58.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    G. G. Sedgewick, ‘The structure of the Merchant’s Tale’, UTQ, XVII (1948) 337–45.Google Scholar
  10. Alternatively, the passage may be considered to be the prejudices of Januarie ironically reflected by the Merchant: E. T. Donaldson, ‘The Effect of the Merchant’s Tale’, in Speaking of Chaucer (London: Athlone Press, 1970) pp. 30–45Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    That the use of the ‘historical present’ is to lend vividness to narrative is argued by L. D. Benson, ‘Chaucer’s Historical Present: Its Meaning and Uses’, ES, XLII (1961) 65–77. The opposite view, that it is simply a metricalGoogle Scholar
  12. 14.
    Smyser’s article is critical of the arguments for a semantic interpretation of the use of ginnen put forward by E. R. Homann, ‘Chaucer’s use of “gan”’, JEGP, LIII (1954) 389–98. He argues convincingly for the metrical use of the gan and do periphrases. Nevertheless, to prove that they are a metrical convenience typical of popular poetry is not to deny the possibility of semantic implications in their use in suitable contexts.Google Scholar
  13. See also T. F. Mustanoja, ‘Verbal Rhyming in Chaucer’, in Beryl Rowland (ed.), Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974) pp. 104–10.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Burnley 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Burnley

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations