“Tense” is a very Western thing…

French spelling is notoriously conservative, but it had at one stage moved from Latin tempus ‘time’ to the spelling tens. This was subsequently re-Latinized to the modern spelling temps (although words such as tentation remain), but not before English had borrowed the word ‘tense’.

Any language learner will be familiar with ‘tense’. Indeed, we are very familiar with the notion that there is a ‘past’, a ‘present’, and a ‘future’. These assumptions are widespread, and even make their way into artificial languages such as Esperanto.

In fact, they are profoundly wrong, in two main ways.

Firstly, Germanic languages such as, well, English, do not in fact have three tenses. English has a present (‘like’, ‘break’) and a past (‘liked’, ‘broke’) – and that’s it. The modal verb ‘will’ (or, archaically, ‘shall’) can be used to mark that something is due to occur in the future, but it is far from necessary – ‘Tomorrow I am going to Germany’ is present grammatically, marking future; but ‘He will go on and on about it’ is marked as if future while in fact present. The notion that English has three tenses derives from Latin, but English is not a Latin language.

Secondly, the very concept of tense itself is rare. It has become widespread in Indo-European languages, spoken by half the world’s population natively, so we assume ‘tense’ and ‘language’ go together like ‘fish’ and ‘chips’. In fact, very few languages beyond the Indo-European family routinely mark for ‘tense’.

Indeed, Indo-European languages themselves marked originally for ‘aspect’ – not when something happened in relation to the present, but rather whether it was relevant to the present (the difference fundamentally between ‘I liked’ and ‘I have liked’). This notion of relevance and indeed general evidence as to whether something has occurred is much more common in languages such as Chinese and Indonesian; these routinely mark for closeness to the action in various ways, but not for tense unless for some reason time is very relevant. Indo-European languages hint at this too in their use of ‘mood’ – German for example distinguishes between whether something is definitely the case marked by the usual indicative form (sie hat es getan ‘she has done it’) or allegedly the case marked by the rarer conjunctive (sie habe es getan ‘she is said to have done it’).

It is beyond my expertise to explain how relevant this is socially and culturally, but inevitably it means that non-Indo-European-speaking societies are (and were) generally less focused on time than Indo-European-speaking ones. The very concept that time has a beginning and an end and is a single spectrum from past to future is an Indo-European one, not backed by other linguistic frameworks (and not, actually, by science – though Einstein’s theory of relativity is beyond the scope of this blog). Other societies globally see time as much less relevant, and may view it as circular or simply marginal.

The fundamental here of how language shapes society and vice-versa is subject to much debate. However, we can at once see why that debate is so keenly participated in!

One thought on ““Tense” is a very Western thing…

  1. Not sure about Manderin, but I think Japanese and Korean do mark for tense.
    You could correct me on this.

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