Considering the past

Dec 25, 2011 by

In yesterday’s post, I have shown that languages are not equally grammatically complex by considering the renditions of ‘I love you’ in several languages. It is evident that languages differ widely as to which grammatical categories (e.g. number, person, gender, formality) they express and how these categories are expressed (e.g. via bound morphology or via separate words). Tense is another grammatical category that varies widely from language to language. In an earlier post, we have considered the expression of future tense across languages; here, we shall turn to the consideration of the past.

English, like many other European languages, makes a two way distinction between past and non-past/present tense, illustrated by He went to school vs. He goes to school. Roughly, the past tense went indicates that the event time precedes the time of the utterance (i.e. speech time), whereas the present tense goes indicates that the event time is contemporaneous with the speech time (or more precisely, that the speech time is included in the event temporal interval). The actual semantic analysis of the tense system is much more complicated than that (for example, think about the difference between I ate dinner and I have eaten dinner), but we will leave those complications aside for the moment.

While from the point of view of English drawing a grammatical distinction between past and non-past seems natural, not all languages do so. For example, Hawaiian (Austronesian), Yoruba (Niger-Congo), Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan), Seneca (Iroquoian) and many other languages around the world do not draw this grammatical distinction. In fact, about 40% of the languages in the WALS sample have no grammatical marking of past/non-past distinction. Indonesian is another such language, as can be seen from the following example, where the same sentence may be translated into English as either ‘The water is cold’ or ‘The water was cold.’

(1) Indonesian (from

Air itu dingin.
water that cold
‘The water is/was cold.’

On the other hand, drawing a two way distinction between the past and non-past is not the only way to go either. Some languages, including many Indo-European ones, make a three-way distinction between the present, the imperfect and the aorist. The following example from Eastern Armenian illustrates this sort of system:

(2) Eastern Armenian (from

a. Present:
Na namak e gər-um.
he letter is write-conv
‘He is writing/writes a letter.’
b. Imperfect:
Na namak er gər-um. 
he letter was write-conv
‘He was writing/wrote (habitually) a letter.’
c. Aorist:
Na  namak  gr-ecə. 
he letter write-aor.3sg
‘He wrote a letter (a single event).’


In formal terms, the imperfect is more akin the present in that a periphrastic/analytical construction (that is, a copula and a non-tensed (converb) form of the verb is used. But semantically, both the imperfect and the aorist refer to events that happened in the past. The difference between the two may be seen as aspectual — whether the event happened repeatedly/habitually or just once — yet many scholars prefer to treat those as different tenses.

A very different way of achieving a rich system of past tenses is by drawing remoteness distinctions, that is, tense choices dependent on the temporal distance between the time of speech and the event time. Remoteness may be more subjectively or more objectively determined; in the latter case, a combination of a “remote” time adverbial with a “non-remote” tense will result in ungrammaticality. According to the WALS,

“almost universally, if there is one well-defined cut-off point in the past between different forms, the division lies between ‘today’ and ‘before today’. The ‘before today’ range is often divided further. The term hodiernal is commonly used for ‘today’s past’, and tenses that are restricted to the day before the point of speech may be called hesternal.”

Languages that have a past/non-past tense system with a two- or three-way remoteness distinction include Bantu languages of Africa, such as Zulu, Sesotho, Kikuyu and Luganda; Eurasian languages like Udmurt (Finno-Ugric), Balochi (Indo-Iranian), Uyghur (Turkic) and Buriat (Mongolic); Papuan languages like Kewa and Alamblak; as well as many native American languages including Inuktitut, Cheyenne and Hixkaryana.

But even richer systems are known to exist. One of the most vertiginous systems of remoteness distinctions is found in Yagua, a  Peba-Yaguan language spoken by some 5,690 speakers in the upper Amazonas region of northeastern Peru (marked #81 on the map from the Yagua is said to distinguish no less than five past tenses, including two proximate tenses (meaning roughly ‘a few hours previous to the time of utterance’ and ‘one day previous to the time of utterance’) and three past tenses (meaning ‘roughly one week ago to one month ago’, ‘roughly one to two months ago up to one or two years ago’ and ‘distant or legendary past’). For example, to report a man’s death that happened between a week and a month ago, a Yagua speaker would say sadííchimyaa, while if the said death occurred between 1 to 2 months and a year ago, the way to report it in Yagua would be sadíímyaa. The difference between these two forms is in the past tense 1 suffix -siy vs. the past tense 2 suffix -tíy (both suffixes as well as other morphemes undergo sound changes because of the other morphemes they co-occur with in these words, but we need not discuss those details here). Note that Yagua, like Swahili discussed in yesterday’s post, is a head-marking language, meaning that the pronominal features of the subject — in this case, that it is a third person singular subject ‘he/she’ — is expressed via a prefix on the verb rather than an independent pronoun.

It should be noted also that, as with the future tense, which may be used for non-future events, grammatically past tense forms may be used for non-past events. For example, in Russian the past tense Ja ushla (literally ‘I left’) may be used for a future event, when I am about to leave, but have not left yet; another peculiar use of the grammatical past tense for non-past events in Russian is in commands (especially, in the military), where a sergeant or a petty officer may order a private Upal, otzhalsja desjat’ raz (literally, ‘Fell down, did ten push-ups’).

English, like Russian, allows past tense to be used for non-past events, but while Russian uses it for rude commands, English uses it for polite offers, in a very formal register. Here’s how Joel Hoffman describes it in his book And God Said. How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning:

“At the end of a meal, a tuxedoed waiter in a fancy restaurant might ask a diner, “Did you want some more coffee, ma’am?” The wrong answer is, “I did, but now it’s too late.” In restaurantese and, more generally, in very formal registers, the past tense substitutes for the present tense.”

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