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Time Schema in Chinese

by Brian Ziman, 4/29/2008

In "Verbs and Times", Zeno Vendler asserts that there are distinctions between verb phrases, relative to factors other than simple tense, and offers a time schema to categorize these factors. It is interesting to look at how this is handled in a language like Chinese, which treats verbs quite differently than English. In particular, Chinese has specific particles called "imperfectives" to mark the aspect of a sentence. These imperfectives are 着(zhe), which indicates a static state, and 正在(zhèngzài), which indicates a continuous dynamic event. By grammatical convention, "zhèngzài" precedes the verb, and "zhe" typically follows the verb.

For example, let us consider the two sentences "I am hanging up the painting." and "The painting is hanging on the wall." The first sentence indicates a continuous dynamic event and is expressed by 我正在挂一幅画, roughly "I (am in the process of) hang(ing) the painting." The second sentence is a static state, expressed by 墙上挂一幅画, roughly "The wall hangs (in a passive sort of way) the painting." The sentences are structurally similar, using a subject, the verb "hang", and the object "the painting". The only thing that tells us what is actually going on, is the aspect marker, which tells us whether the object is undergoing any change.

In English, we seem to be concerned with whether something is "happening" or not, and divide "activities" and "accomplishments" from "states" and "achievements" because the first two involve "doing something", while the second two do not. In Chinese, it seems that the distinction has more to do with whether or not the object of the verb is undergoing any change in status.

The phrase 我吃 ("I eat") can be used for "I am eating" or "I was eating" or "I do eat", without any distinction. The meaning in that case is totally dependent on context. In fact, it is possible to say 我吃着一个苹果, ("I am eating an apple"), which treats the verb "to eat" as a continuous state, because all throughout the action, there is no change to the apple. That is, the status of the apple is "it is being eaten". This is analogous to the painting hanging on the wall, while in English there would be no such analogy.

Considering these examples, it seems likely that Chinese would develop a different logical time schema than that described for English by Vendler, with an emphasis on the change of state of the object, rather than on the activity of the subject.


"Chinese Grammar" Accessed on 28 April, 2008.

Lu, Yanyan. Personal Interview. 25 April, 2008.

Vendler, Zeno. "Verbs and Times." The Philosophical Review, Vol. 66, No. 2. (Apr., 1957), pp. 143-160.

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