Sunday, 13 August 2006

Natural Temporal Quantifiers

In a discussion with a fellow grad student here at Arizona I learned something very interesting about the Indonesian language (as well as its cousin tongues, like Malay): it has not tenses or tense-specific verb conjugation. This immediately struck me as a natural language that resembles the kind of formalization suggested by Arthur Prior's tense logic.

Prior, as I understand things, really provided the idea of a temporal quantifier, which functions analogously to the modal quantifier in modal logic. Thus, the sentence "Nixon was president" can be formalized as "[It was the case that] Nixon is president." Likewise, from the way it was explained to me, Indonesian makes statements about the past by adverbially quantifying present-tense sentences. Thus the same sentence about Nixon (if translated literally) would look something like "1970-ly, Nixon is president." I found this resemblence terribly interesting.

I'm not sure, however, if we can extrapolate any assumptions about the metaphysical commitments of the typical Indonesian. That is, it's hard to say, based soley on the grammar of the language, whether time-sensitive propositions are taken to be factual declarations (i.e., given an eternalist reading) or treated similarly to the idiomatic and/or literary devices often utilized in English (e.g., "Jason is giving a talk next week"). This might be an empirical question that can be answered by interviewing Indonesian/Malaysian speakers.

Even if we can determine what sorts of metaphysical commitments are engendered by this grammar, I'm skeptical as to what sort of weight it might lend to any philosophical position. Could this actually be used as evidence in support of Eternalism or Temporalism? I don't think so, but it's nonetheless interesting to see a real-life and natural example of a theoretical, formalized logic.

No comments:

Post a Comment