Languages are powerful things. So powerful, in fact, that when used correctly they give us the power to manipulate time…
Okay, so I’m not talking of time travel in the sci-fi sense. What I do mean is that many languages have the ability to identify not only what is happening now, but what happened a few seconds ago… or a few thousand years ago… or what will happen in the coming weeks, to the point of hypothesising about the possible endings of the known universe.
Steering away from astrophysics and armageddon theories, this post takes a look at the far less explosive world of tenses.
Tenses tend to apply to verbs in a language, and they cause sentences and perceptions to move about in time. Think about it: as abstract as it sounds, if I said “I played a game,” you’d know that this is an action that has already happened and that this sentence is (at its simplest) in the past tense. On a slightly more technical level, the verb play has the suffix -ed added to it, which is the most common way of making something move into the past in English*.
Easy, right? So in typical Colourless Green Linguistics style, let’s start making this a little trickier…
Looking at the question, “How many tenses are there?”, I’d be willing to guess that most native English speakers would say three: past, present and future. This is what we are taught in English lessons and what we would generally refer to in everyday language; when talking about an event, it has either happened, is happening or will happen.
If we wanted to be technical, there are subdivisions of these tenses. For example, if we take the past tense, we can say “I played,” “I had played” and “I was playing.” All of these are in the past, but they are at different times and carry different nuances:
- I played –> simple past/preterite – an action that is completed at some point in the past
- I had played –> past perfect/pluperfect – an action that is completed but that occurred earlier than the main timeframe being referred to
- I was playing –> past continuous – an action that was ongoing in the past, sometimes accompanied with a verb in the preterite to form a description (e.g. “I was playing football when I heard a knock at the door)
There are more past tense forms, and the same goes for present and future. There’s also a distinction between tense and mood, but that’s for another post.
So let’s take this even further with this assertion: in English, the future tense doesn’t exist.
Given the fact that I’ve just talked about there being methods of referring to the future, you have every right to question this sentence, but if we look at it from the level of how the word is made up (sometimes referred to as the morphological level) then you’ll hopefully see what I mean.
Each verb has an infinitive. This is when a verb is not referring to any particular grammatical person (I, you, he/she, they…) and, in English, has the word “to” before it, so we get pairings such as “to create,” “to play,” “to confuse,” etc. In most cases, when we want the present tense**, we drop the “to” and are left with the main verb (create, play, confuse). When we want to past tense*, we drop the “to” and add either -ed or -d to the end of the verb (created, played, confused), known as an inflection.
Now think about the future tense. What inflection, if any, is added to the verb to indicate that it is referring to a future event?
In several romance languages, these inflections occur for a practically all tenses. Looking at “to finish”*** in English, French and Spanish in the first person singular (e.g. the “I” version), we get this:
Instead of adding an inflection, English uses another word (in this case, the modal verb “will”) to indicate that this event is something future-bound. It is because of this requirement to use a supporting verb that many believe that, grammatically, English has no future tense (click each of those 5 words to see an argument supporting or challenging this!)
It’s not just English that has this peculiarity. German can use the modal verb “werden” and the infinitive to form the future (very similar to the “will” seen above for English) or by using a marker of time in a present tense sentence:
“Wir sehen uns morgen” –> “We are meeting tomorrow“
The same goes for Japanese: there is no inflection used to identify the future tense in their verbs, so similar strategies can be employed:
“パーティは８時に始まる” –> “The party starts at 8 o’clock“
Mandarin Chinese takes this even further as all verbs only have one form, so in the current definition, tenses don’t really exist in the way that they do for the above languages. In a similar vein, British Sign Language verb signs cannot have a past, present or future form. In both of these languages, extra information can be added to indicate timeframe, manner, aspect, frequency, etc. that helps to get the full meaning across.
What about in your language? How is tense shown? Do you agree with this point of view, or are these linguists being too picky? Add your comments below!
*Exceptions include eat becoming ate. This is viewed as an irregular verb as it does not follow the typical pattern
**This works for all persons except 3rd person singular, where we append the -s suffix to the infinitive after dropping the “to”
***I chose this verb as it explicitly changes inflections/suffixes when in a conjugation table. Remember: not all verbs inflect in the same way as seen on this table!