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On tense and consciousness: Tense and the centre of orientation in Estonian complement clauses

Keywords: complement clauses, sequence of tenses, indirect speech, indirect perception, discourse vs. narrative, deictic points of orientation, absolute and relative tense, translation theory

Testing Adrian Barentsen’s insights regarding tense in Russian complement sentences on Estonian material, the article examines the use of the present and preterite tenses in Estonian complement clauses if the main clause verb is in the preterite. The starting point is the well-known observation that some languages show a shift in verb tense (sequence of tenses) in indirect speech, while some others do not. Estonian, while not having tense shift in indirect speech, has it in sentences embedded under “existential” verbs like juhtus or sündis ’happened, occurred’. Verbs of perception allow for both the shift (i.e. absolute tense) and non-shift (i.e. relative tense). Similarly with Russian, in Estonian the most relevant factor accounting for the difference is the accessibility of the points of orientation of the embedding clause and the embedded clause, depending on whether the event described in the complement clause is presented as an objective fact or as an interpretation by the main clause person. In the former case, absolute tense, i.e. the preterite, prevails, while in the latter case, relative tense, the present, is more common. The conjunction et ’that’ tends to favour the relative tense, while kuidas ’how’ brings about more often the absolute tense. Some conjectures regarding the distinction between the narrative and retrospective modes of utterance are entertained as a possible further explanation for the differences in the distribution of tenses and temporal deictics such as eile ’yesterday’, täna ’today’, homme ’tomorrow’ on the one hand, and eelmisel päeval ’the day before’, samal päeval ’that day’, järgmisel päeval ’the next day’ on the other. Awareness of the factors inf luencing tense selection for complement clauses in languages without tense shift could have a practical relevance for translating from languages with a sequence of tenses (Finnish, Swedish, English, French, etc).

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