Encoding present situations in Mandarin Chinese and isiXhosa: A comparative study

  • Xiujie Ma Department of English Language and Linguistics, Rhodes University
  • Silvester Ron Simango Department of English Language and Linguistics, Rhodes University
Keywords: tense, aspect, Bantu, Mandarin, comparative linguistics


This study sought to investigate how two typologically distinct languages, Mandarin and isiXhosa, deal with the encoding of temporal relations by focusing on a specific time frame – the present. The study revealed that both Mandarin and isiXhosa do not have overt grammatical features for locating situations in the present, suggesting that the present is the unmarked or default temporal location in both languages. However, the study also revealed that the two languages differ in at least two significant respects. First, the two languages differ with respect to the extent to which they distinguish ongoing situations from habitual ones when their temporal location overlaps with the present moment: it was found that whilst Mandarin makes this distinction unequivocal through the use of distinct particles, isiXhosa forms are generally (though not always) equivocal and the distinctions have to be made lexically (through the use of temporal adverbials) or through context. Second, the study revealed that the two languages differ in terms of how they encode the present state and its relation to a previous state. In Mandarin, a current state is invariably described in terms of its relation with a previous state, i.e. whether it is contrastive to some previous state or if the state has some duration which includes the present moment. In isiXhosa a current state is sometimes described in terms of the result of a previous event; in other cases, a current state is described without any indication of whether or not it is related to a previous state. The study concludes that Mandarin places more emphasis on situation-internal properties of states/events in conveying temporal relations, whereas isiXhosa places more emphasis on the temporal locations themselves.


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