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What do we mean by "present" tense

A quick glance at the Tlacochahuaya Zapotec habitual

Disclaimer: This is preliminary research

Hello! Like many things I post on this blog, this research is in very early stages. This means that I may have simplified some more complicated details. It also means I might just be wrong! So please take this information as an early hypothesis, not a solid fact. If you'd like to find out my up-to-date opinions on the topic, feel free to email me.

In Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, the “tense” of a verb (which I’m actually going to call the “TAM”) is indicated by a prefix, for example ‘Juan talks’ is rni Jwan with r- at the beginning, while ‘Juan is talking’ is kani Jwan with the prefix ka-. In a previous post, I looked at how verbs are divided into categories based on which TAM prefixes they use for “past” and “future”.

Recently in my research, I’ve been focusing on that r- prefix in rni Jwan ‘Juan talks’. I want to figure out what the r- means, which is a harder question that it might sound! TAM (“tense”) in the world’s languages is often very complex in meaning. For example, the English “present tense” (eats, sits, hugs) usually indicates that an action is a habit/custom. That is, Ellen eats meat means that Ellen is in the habit of eating meat (but she might not be eating meat right now). However, sports announcers also use the “present tense” form to talk about an event that is happening right this instant (She shoots, she scores!). Furthermore, you can use the same “present tense” to make a story seem more immediate and exciting, even if the events you’re talking about happened in the past (So I ask them to pass the salt, and they say…). So in English, we use this “present tense” to mean many different things! Likewise, I want to know all the ways that you can use the Tlacochahuaya Zapotec r- prefix.

When other researchers have described Zapotec languages, they usually call the r- prefix “habitual” because it’s prototypical use is to indicate a habitual/customary action. Like the English present! However, unlike the English present, the Zapotec habitual can also be used to talk about past habitual actions (like English used to). Depending on context, rni Jwan could just as easily mean ‘Juan talks [all the time]’ or ‘Juan used to talk [all the time, e.g. when he was a child]’. The Zapotec habitual r- contrasts with the prefix ka-, which indicates that an action is in progress (we call it “progressive”). Like with r-, ka- can talk about the present or the past, so kani Jwan can mean either ‘Juan is talking’ or ‘Juan was talking’.

So far, this seems pretty straight forward. Well, it is, until you ask someone how to say ‘the baby is sleeping’, and they say ra’asy bdo.

r-a'asy bdo
R-sleep baby
'The baby is sleeping.'

It turns out that with the verb ‘sleep’, you usually don’t use the prefix ka-. You just use r- instead. There are a couple of other verbs like this, including ‘snore’ and ‘be hungry’.

r-ubikia bëny
R-snore person
'The person is snoring.'
r-ndyeny be'ekw
R-be.hungry dog
'The dog is hungry.'

So a question I have right now is: which verbs exactly act like this? Is a fixed set of random verbs? Or is a category based on the type of action? I have a hypothesis I’m working with right now, but it’s too soon in the game to even post about it here!