Describing future eventualities in Tlingit

The storyboards Hawaii Trip and Imagining the Future

  • Seth Cable


This paper details two storyboards —"Hawaii Trip" and "Imagining the Future"—which are designed to help investigate the way a given language does (or does not) mark predicates describing eventualities that take place in the future. I describe two studies employing these storyboards with a speaker of the Tlingit language (Na-Dene; Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon). In prior literature, it has been claimed that a verb in Tlingit does not require special future tense marking in order to describe a future eventuality (Leer 1991). However, it has proven difficult to confirm such uses of non-future-marked verbs in regular elicitation sessions with native speakers.  Through use of these two storyboards with a gifted Tlingit story-teller, it was found that some narrators do indeed use non-future-marked verbs to describe eventualities that are understood to take place in the future. However, various contextual clues—including metalinguistic comments made by the narrator himself—-suggest that such usage may reflect a special narrative or rhetorical device, akin to 'narrative present' in English. Consequently, it appears that the regular grammar of the language does require future tense marking when describing future eventualities, but artful narrators can in the course of the narrative 'shift' the temporal perspective of the narration to the future time in question, presenting those future events as on-going. While much more work must be done to rigorously test this hypothesis, these case studies nicely illustrate the use and utility of these fieldwork instruments.