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Regarding tense
2013-01-24 12:09:35

Regarding tense

(This article was originally written about a week ago. A mindless Baidu crawler deleted it, much to my horror. Hopefully that won't happen again.)

Lilitika intentionally takes strongly after ancient Greek in several respects, most obviously in the personality of its consonants and some of its endings. A week or two ago I was investigating classical sources in search of new mechanisms through which it might be possible to give the language a greater expressive power, and I stumbled upon the aorist.

As a novice who had only heard the aorist described vaguely in passing by classicists annoyed with its translational peculiarities, I was initially mystified by its characterization as atemporal, but after reading it, the utility is rather apparent, and it is not as hard to render into English as most assume. The aorist is used to describe simple actions when the tense can be taken for granted based on context. These actions may even constitute the entirety of a story, and in normal speech, the aorist is often used to describe the steps in a procedure or a set of actions occurring simultaneously or in no particular order (e.g. at the party they spoke, ate, and drank.)

Incidental use of the aorist isn't directly translatable into English, as we never use a general case in the same sense, but we do use the simple present tense to recount lengthy procedures in two anomalous cases: the historical present, e.g. recounting the events of a crime scene, and to describe habitual or repeated events ("I brush my teeth daily"). The historical present need not be used with the actual past, either—it may appear just as well in describing instructions or rehearsing a play.

These examples would use the aorist in Greek (the repeated events using the imperfective aspect with the aorist), and they share a common feature with the aorist: they're simpler to say. I would thus contend that it would be more accurate to translate all Greek narrative in the present tense rather than the past tense as is commonly done... but, well, that might take a while. :)

Anyway, all of this research made me feel quite compelled to add an aorist to Lilitika. Examining the dialectical history of Lilitic, it would have first appeared as -é in the Prototype and Constructed dialects, and disappeared by 9 lilpo once the other tenses were no longer cumbersome to use. Around 390 lilpo a new aorist ending, -íhí, was introduced primarily for the convenience of poets; the true infinitive -é stem could not be used due to a conflict with the neuter singular object declension, which had become -é in the interim.

The modern Lilitika aorist is primarily used for instructions and listing co-incident events, with repeated actions being usually expressed through the hypothetical present. It is also used when the time of occurrence is obvious from the sentence's temporal argument, or to save time if the proper hypothetical-aspect construction is intricate and a series of events is lengthy.

At the same time, I found myself compelled to do some housekeeping regarding other Lilitika tenses. The astute reader may recognize that -iris, -ilis, and -iril were originally the past, present, and future tenses in the first draft of the Lilitika grammar (a terrible design). Originally, I reduced them to -ir, -is, and -il through a more-or-less random selection process, but after developing the aorist I happened upon them in my old notes and wondered if there was anything I could do to make them more useful.

The first obvious matter was -iris. Long ago, I decided -ir was ugly (it's a very rare cluster outside of this suffix) and so resurrected the full form for the Stabilized (aka 'compact', or 'informal') dialect. One of the few roots that follows an i-like vowel with an r, íré, later provided a natural explanation that "-iris" was actually a remnant of "íris", a helper form of "to have" in the present tense, which then led to the Lilitic notion of dualism (i.e., to experience something is to have it in your being.) Helper verbs were new to Lilitika at this point, and I quickly decided they were a feature that the Lilitasa would have scrapped in favour of their rich system of prefixes and mood particles.

This led to parallels. ílé was synthesized as a future tense helper, which fell naturally out of ossilé ("to require by nature"). It became a generic verb meaning 'to want/need'; one particularly avoided by the Lilitai in everyday use as too bland, and this all coalesced into a good extension of the dualist model; i.e. one's being needs the events of its future added to it in order to be complete.

However, -ilis was not described as the future tense in the original notes, but actually as the present, which meant it had been watered down. This is where the notion of the liquid present comes from; a need to explain why a very obviously future verb ending is used for actions being carried out immediately. Perhaps it is presumed that people are being led forward by the impulses of their nature, toward their destiny, and through overuse this has come to signify immediate actions that the speaker feels less than responsible for.

But why would this occur in a synthetic prototype language only used for two years? Most likely, since this kind of helpless determinism is typical of the Ksreskézai, it is a hold-over from older languages. The pure -is suffix may well have existed in the prototype dialect, but went unused due to the influence of Oksirapho.

-iril was a bit trickier to explain as a stacking of tenses, but it makes sense as a stacking of the verbs without considering their helper connotations consistently: "sifa rikha ekahé íris ílis" might be literally 'I have need to change you.'

This last part is particularly important, because of how it gives rise to the later oracular case. It says that somewhere in the speaker's being, fate has implanted an inevitability that she will change the person to whom she is speaking. As the Lilitai became less fatalistic (replacing the absolute tyranny of Ksreskézaian mood-spirits with the locally deterministic system of Reséa's writers and winds) this inevitability became more negotiable; it was written into one's soul that this would happen, but the winds of fate could still change direction and force the writers to rework their plans.

As a result of this, and as a result of many forecasts of variable quality written in older texts that used the -iril tense, the Lilitai came to see it as a "this is what we thought would happen" tense, spoken by an oracle with imperfect knowledge of the future. Curiously, it no longer makes presumptions that the event is actually in the future, but is used to relate previous expectations and to paraphrase others who made more definite statements about the future.

So how did -iris become the "deep" past?

Simple—it's longer. :) Presumably, the phases of the language's history in which -iris completely displaced -ir are an example of hyperbole gone wild; in Lilitika the usual trend for an adjective formed from <dimension name> + <adjective ending> (e.g. evru, "height" + í = evrí, "short") is for these words to mean a 'modest' or 'appropriate' amount of that dimension, in contrast with most languages where the word for having an attention-drawing amount is more directly related to the dimension (e.g. length/long). Over the course of a few years, -iris could have started out being understood to mean "yesterday or earlier," and then gradually pushed back -ir until the stem no longer meant anything useful. A balance could eventually be restored by standardization, if the Lilitai didn't already consider -ir to be an inconsistent sound, and hence something to be avoided.
Thet comment   8452.667 tgc / 2013.065 ce