Missing you: Past tense and plural marking

Although the optionality of morphology on nouns and verbs is often described in the literature on Colloquial Singapore English (see Platt and Weber 1980; Lira 2004; Deterding 2007; Leimgruber 2013 among others), we still lack a comprehensive account of how morphological marking in Colloquial Singapore English varies according to social and linguistic variables. In this chapter we will be examining the variability of past tense marking and plural marking in the interview data collected from twenty-four Singaporeans (see Chapter 3 for social information of the interviewees). Examples (1) and (2) below show the absence of past tense morphology and plural morphology respectively.

  • (1) Last time, I work in factory ah. General Electric.
  • (Malay Female, 58 years old)
  • (2) A lot of student just left, they just left (the examination venue).
  • (Chinese Male, 24 years old)

In Example (1), the verb work is unmarked for past even though it is used in a past context as indicated by last time. In Example (2), the noun student is unmarked for plurality even though it is referring to more than one student as indicated by a lot. All in all, 51.44 % of past main verbs analyzed in the interview data are umnarked for past while 27.84 % of nouns that require a plural marker are unmarked in the interview data. On the surface, the variability of past tense and plural morphology in the interview data may seem random and chaotic, however, a substantial amount of the variation can be explained by taking into consideration influence from a combination of linguistic and social factors.

The rest of this chapter is organized as follows, first, the way in which ethnic languages in the language ecology express the concepts of past and plurality, either through morphological or lexical means, will be described. Second, an explanation of the method for selecting potential contexts of past tense and plural morphology for data analysis will be given, followed by a description of the various linguistic and social factors that are investigated. Third, a common sociolinguistic tool, Varbrul (variable rules analysis), will be used to determine the different strengths of linguistic and social factors in their ability to predict the presence or absence of past tense and plural morphology. The results of the multivariate analyses on the data will then be presented and a discussion of how they enhance our understanding of the linguistic and social processes involved in crosslinguistic influence and the variation of morphological marking will follow.

Expressing the concepts of past and plurality in the ethnic languages

In terms of expressing past and plurality, the languages of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil fall into two distinct groups based on whether past and plurality are morphologically expressed in the language. Tamil is by itself a group where grammatical categories exist for past and plurality, while Chinese and Malay are in another group where past and plurality are not expressed morphologically. In the following sub-sections, we will examine how past and plurality are expressed in each separate group. Malay and Tamil examples are provided by informants, unless otherwise stated.

Chinese and Malay

As there is no grammatical past tense in either the Chinese1 or the Malay languages, both languages indicate events as occurring in the past through the use of pragmatic or lexical means. Pragmatically, a speaker can make use of linguistic context, or the use of sequential ordering of events in speech to indicate a past event; lexically, a speaker can use temporal adverbs like yesterday or last week, ox- connectives like and then to indicate a past event. Examples (3a) and (3b) show the way in which a past event can be indicated by using a temporal adverb in Chinese and Malay respectively.

(3a) № ftH Ш 7 - Ш Ш

ta zuotian kan le yl bu dianylng

3SG yesterday see PFV one CL movie

‘He watched a movie yesterday.’

  • (3b) Dia menonton filem semalam
  • 3SG watch film yesterday

‘He watched a movie yesterday.’

In (3a) and (3b), the hearer understands the event of watching a movie as happening in the past because of the temporal adverbs zuotian 'yesterday' and semalam ‘yesterday’. If no temporal adverbs are used, the hearer would have to rely on linguistic context to interpret whether an event happened in the past, is happening in the present or will happen in the future. Since there is no grammatical tense in Chinese or Malay, the form of the verb in both languages remains the same regardless of whether an event had already occurred, is currently occurring, or will occur in the future. In other words, regardless of when event time is, the forms of kan ‘see’ and menonton 4vatch' in (3a) and (3b) will not change.

Although there is no grammatical tense in Chinese or Malay, both languages have markers that indicate aspect. Aspect is the “different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation” (Comrie 1976: 3), and it is closely related to tense as they are ways in which languages describe events. There are two broad categories of aspect, namely perfective and imperfective. Generally speaking, perfective events are events that are completed at speech time while imperfective events are events that are still ongoing at speech time. In Chinese the perfective marker is verbal le (see Example (3a)) and in Malay, an example of a perfective marker is sudah 'already'. As perfective events are completed, they are usually interpreted as occurring in the past, and the use of perfective markers is one of the lexical means in which the Chinese and Malay languages express the concept of past. The concept of aspect will be explored in greater detail when we examine Colloquial Singapore English already in Chapter 5.

With regard to plurality, nouns in both the Chinese and Malay languages are not inflected for the distinction between singular and plural as in English. As shown in (4a) and (4b), the same form of niao ‘bird/s’ or burling ‘bird/s’ can represent either a single bird or several birds.

(4a) (t!i ШУ 7

ta kandao le niao

3SG see PFV bird

‘He saw a bird/birds.’

  • (4b) Dia melihat burung itu
  • 3SG see bird DEM

‘He saw a bird/birds.’

Chinese and Malay speakers have several options for indicating plurality. They can make use of linguistic context, numerals (see Examples (4c) and (4d)) or quantifiers (see Examples (4e) and (4f)) like many and a few to express plurality.

(4c) (t!i 5Ц 7 H Ф ^5

ta mai le san ben shu

3SG buy PFV three CL book

‘He bought three books.’

  • (4d) Dia membeli tiga buku
  • 3SG buy three book

‘He bought three books.’

In (4c) and (4d), numerals san ‘three’ in Chinese and tiga ‘three’ in Malay indicate the number of books that were bought.

(4е) Ш *k J №& И

ta mai le henduo shu

3SG buy PFV many book

‘He bought many books.’

  • (4f) Dia membeli banyak buku
  • 3SG buy many book

‘He bought many books.’

In (4e) and (4f), quantifiers henduo ‘many’ in Chinese and banyak ‘many’ in Malay indicate that more than one book was bought.


Unlike Chinese and Malay, Tamil has both grammatical past tense and grammatical plural. This does not mean that pragmatic or lexical ways of indicating past and plurality are absent in Tamil, it simply means that past tense and plurality must be marked whenever the situation requires it to be so, which is the same for English.

(5) ^jsusinr 5T(Lga5KoSW«5r

avan katitam elut-in-en

3SG letter write-PST-PNG

‘He wrote a letter.'

Example (5) illustrates how past tense is marked in the form of a verbal suffix in Tamil. Even though Tamil is an SOV language, it is similar to English in that both languages have grammatical tense. To indicate that an event has happened in the past or prior to speech time, a past tense marker will be added to the verb stem. In Example (5), the verb stem is elut and the past tense marker is -in. One way in which it differs from English is that an additional suffix appears after the tense marker to indicate person, number, and gender agreement with the grammatical subject. In Example (5), the suffix that indicates person, number, and gender is -in, and it is attached after the past tense marker -in. Another way in which past tense marking in Tamil differs from English is that the form of the past tense morpheme changes depending on the verb type and the phonological environment. Three underlying forms - /in/, /nt/, and /XI, interact with seven verb classes and the phonological environment to produce nine phonetic variants (see Wiltshire 1999 for more details).

With respect to plural marking, nouns in the Tamil language are also inflected for the distinction between singular and plural, which is just like in English.

(6a) |6П(ЯПГ Ц<9;а5Ж1Ь 6ППГ1Щ<^1«5Г(Г5ЭТ

avan puttakam vank-in-an

3SG book buy-PST-PNG

‘He bought a book.’

(6b) ^6П<ЯПГ (ЧрЯТГГу Ц^а5<95Й<95бТГ 61ИГ1Щ<Й«5ГПГ5ЭТ

avan munru puttakan-kal vank-in-an

3SG three book-PL buy-PST-PNG

‘He bought three books.’

Examples (6a) and (6b) illustrate how nouns in Tamil are inflected to indicate plurality. The plural suffix, -kal, is attached to the singular noun,puttakam ‘book' in Example (6a), when the speaker wants to refer to three books as in Example (6b). Like English, uncountable nouns like ariciyai ‘rice’ have no distinction between singular or plural forms.

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