Part One: Narrative and Tense

1.1. Narrative

In its narrow sense narrative is a literary form, a novel or short story, spoken or written; in its wider sense narrative may include less ordered structures: conversations, cartoon strips, dream sequences. Thoughts on the nature of narrative can be traced back to Aristotle’s directives regarding the primacy of plot, although modern theorising did not begin until the 1920s when Russian formalists first established the distinction between story (fabula) and plot (syuzhet). During the mid-twentieth century, narrative theory became dominated by structuralists concerned to distinguish narrative from non-narrative texts and, in 1969, Todorov coined the term narratologie to describe these studies. More recently, French structuralist Gérard Genette (Genette, 1980), recognising the ambiguity of the word récit, distinguished three separate concepts:

1. le discours (récit proper) – the narrative discourse or text;
2. l’histoire – the story that the narrative holds;
3. la narration – the act of presentation.

Within this scheme Genette concentrated on narrative discourse, emphasising that such narrative ‘lives by its relationship to the story that it recounts’. He futher distinguished three components of discourse:

1. point of view – concerned with the speaker/writer;
2. mood – concerned with the reader/listener;
3. tense – concerning temporality, which itself demonstrates order, duration and frequency, revealing how essential time is to discourse function.

Therefore, according to Genette, narrative is a discursive presentation of a series of events within a chosen temporal framework, as distinct from the story that underlies this discourse.

1.2. Tense
In many languages, including English, the verb is the main syntactical unit used as a temporal indicator. Verbs demonstrate voice, person, mood, aspect and tense. Tense and aspect, locate actions within a timeframe which is essentially linear, and a complex of tense-aspect combinations have evolved, some using verbal auxiliaries, some demanding additional syntactical units, such as temporal prepositions and adverbials, to enable the accurate location of actions along this linear sequence. As mentioned above, it has been argued that the only ‘real’ time is the moment NOW when actions are described using the PRESENT tense. Reference to actions occurring other than NOW requires tenses that place these actions within a linear sequence occurring AFTER NOW or BEFORE NOW.

1.2.1. Evolution of Tenses
The way in which a language encodes time has much to do with those aspects of time that native speakers regard as significant – what David Crystal (Crystal, 2002) calls ‘the mindset of a culture’. Where the passing of time is important, as it is to most English speakers, then tenses have evolved, with their associated inflections, to distinguish actions occurring at relative points in linear time. Many, including Crystal, hold that our earliest experiences of actions informed us that there are ‘three logical times along the time-line’: present, past and future. However, compound tenses evolved to distinguish further positions along this line. For instance, the FUTURE PERFECT became the means of referring to actions completed before a specific time in the future, while the PAST PERFECT denoted actions more remote than a specific time in the past. These additional tenses required the deployment of integral auxiliary verbs (Murray, 1795). There followed, into the early nineteenth century a proliferation of tenses which drew upon aspect and conditional phenomena, however, by 1823 William Cobbett had called for a halt to this confusing trend and a return to three basic tenses. This simplicity was not to prevail: Crystal and many of his contemporaries support a more complex system of verb forms, with aspect as well as tense indicating time of action. Comrie (1985) describes aspect as defining the internal temporality of an action rather than its position along a timeline; it may be perfect or progressive, referring to past, present or future actions that are limited or continuous.

This complex of tense-aspect constructs (outlined in Appendix 1) facilitates narration of events retrospectively, currently or predictably. However, according to Currie (2009) verb forms alone cannot ‘account for the full complexities of temporal reference’. Indeed, temporal nouns, prepositional phrases, adverbial expressions and deixis are often necessary to declare time. Linguistic complications have also arisen regarding verb form usage: the PRESENT tense may describe actions taking place before or after time of utterance; PAST tenses may refer to present and future events; and, since English has no FUTURE tense per se, statements about future events must resort to PRESENT and PAST tense constructs. Paradoxically, FUTURE constructs may be used to refer to current events. It is clear, therefore, that there is no absolute relation between tense and time referenced.


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