due to an almost-entirely-unrelated post
, I was dragged by my linguistics-brain into a contemplation of the aspectuality of the ex-
The following story, drawn from my own life, serves to illustrate:
I met AF in 1996, and we started dating almost immediately. Somewhere in there, she told me about a tradition of her family (the details aren't important); let's call it T. In 1997, we got engaged, and in 1998 we were married. We separated in 1999, and were divorced in 2000. I am now happily (unmarried) with someone else.
But this is where things are complicated. I want to explain that I heard about T from AF, to a friend who does not know AF's relationship to me. Consider these alternatives, with associated bad-ness annotated by stars.
The following is extremely nerdy.
- I heard about T from my ex-wife
- * I heard about T from my wife
- * I heard about T from my future wife
- *? I heard about T from my future ex-wife
you have been warned. Really, it only gets worse from here.
I think that most of these are bad because they seem to invoke wrong presuppositions about who I am currently with. But note that the first item (ex-wife) is -- at least under one interpretation -- strictly wrong, because she wasn't my ex-wife at the time. Using wife seems wrong due to the bad presupposition that she is still my wife; using future wife is just confusing. The future ex-wife line is so odd that it might almost be the way to say it, because it forces the listener to examine the presuppositions very carefully.
Amusingly, fiancee is even more startlingly bad:
- * I heard about T from my ex-fiancee [what does this presuppose about our current status?]
- * I heard about T from my fiancee [presupposes current affianced status]
- * I heard about T from my future fiancee [presuppositions suggest currently planning to propose?]
- **? I heard about T from my future ex-fiancee [presuppositions....?]
I think the problem here is that it's difficult to set a particular time of reference in the past. When I refer to ex-wife
in that first example, I am referring to her with a sort of current-state situated sense. In the time of reference (before our engagement) the expression "my ex-wife" has no referent
. But to a listener who did not have the same facts at her disposal, I might have been referring to acquiring T
at a time when that in fact did have a referent.
However, English does a lousy job at distinguishing tense from aspect. Most languages have culturally-determined lexical aspect (Aktionsart) on role-descriptors like "wife", as well. Although it is clear enough from the past tense "heard" that the time of the event hear of T is in the past, "wife" implies a marriage event M and the morpheme "ex-" indicates the occurrence of a particular divorce event D.
But it is completely ambiguous (in language-internal terms) what the relative order of those events is. Pragmatics and cultural knowledge suggests that M < D (which is why "fiancee" comes off so funny in some of those sentences), but it is completely open whether T < D or T < M.