Learning Chinese in China for a long time, you will find that there are many different time words in Chinese. If you want to learn to speak Chinese well, you have to learn something about the denotation function and location function of time words. Some students who have been learning Chinese in China last year did a research on this.
The typical pragmatic function of noun is denotation. Students who are learning to speak Chinese found that Chinese people use different nouns to denote different things. Things that typical nouns refer to are specific and three-dimensioned as well as occupy a certain space. The sense organs of human beings can feel the difference of things clearly. While the time that time words represent doesn’t occupy space and can’t be seen or touched. But the history of human is developing forward in time and the individual life is growing and fading in time as well. Time has quite important meaning for human and individual person. Human beings are feeling the pass of time at any time. When you are learning to speak Chinese, you will notice that Chinese people usually compare the pass of time to that of water, for time has the same unboundedness with water as a whole. But time is quite important to human, so people use different time words to denote different time segments. And the students who want to learn to speak Chinese well made a conclusion on this.
According to the materials of learning to speak Chinese, the difference between time words and nouns is that time which most time words represent has an axial vector——a point of “quantity” on real time axis, which has placement. When speaker is spreading the information about a certain thing as a topic, only by marking time can it become the proposition which connects reality and the listener can orientate on the real time axis so that information can be got. During the process of learning to speak Chinese, the students concluded that in communication, when listener hears something, such as “小王去北京了” or “小李要去北京”, he will often ask the opposite to provide the time when the thing occurs, “什么时候？” That is to say, unless the time when one thing happens can be got from context, the time location will be one of the necessary conditions that we receive information. Here the time refers to the moment when the thing happens and it is one of the important factors that structure this thing. For this reason, time words are usually considered as the structure part of new information in sentences. This point is quite important for people who are learning to speak Chinese.
The same pragmatic function of time words and nouns concluded by students who are learning to speak Chinese——denotation and to make time words strongly controversial; while the different part of time words and nouns found in the process of learning to speak Chinese——the placement on time axis and make time words become the structural part of new information as well. We think that this is the foundation that time words of subject and adverbial modifier are different. We can compare:
(1) a. 问：明天做什么？ b. 问：我们做什么？
(2) a. 问：明天去北京吗？ b. 问：我们去北京吗？
“明天” in a certain context is the accordant comprehensive background knowledge of both sides. The example (1a) is a schedule, among which “明天” is topic, so is “我们” in (1b); question and answer are partly new information. In example 2, “明天” as topic is not in the negative range like “我们”. “明天” in both example 1 and 2 is topic. Seeing from sentence structure, it is the subject of topic.