Author Topic: Tensless languages  (Read 3962 times)

Offline josephusflav

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 12
Tensless languages
« on: May 10, 2018, 03:42:42 PM »

I'm trying to wrap my min around the idea of a tenseness language.

It is my understanding that in  a tensless language you would have one verb form to represent the all variations of the idea ("work" would mean works, worked, is working)  but use something like adverbs to qualify the sentence as being about the past.

So for example,here is a attempt at a English sentence with a tensless form of work, stop and run.

" I work (worked) yesterday and two days after today I work (will work) again."

"I run (ran) all the days of my youth,  I not stop (will not stop) in the future."

Is this a good basic understanding?

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 2043
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Tensless languages
« Reply #1 on: May 10, 2018, 05:40:51 PM »
Superficially, yes. But languages aren't just like English minus some features. There are usually other features that balance that out, or at the very least conventional expectations about how to interpret things.

Most "tenseless" languages have aspect marking instead, indicating whether the event is completed, ongoing, habitual, yet to begin, etc. Like if in English we said "I have eaten, am drinking, and gonna sleep". The same ideas of pastness and futurity can be expressed, but in a grammatically different way. That's the case in Chinese, where aspectual particles are (optionally) used when needed.

On a theoretical level you can find a lot of research about 'tensenessless' if you search for the term, and it is an open debate whether any language really is tenseless (regardless of how it is manifested grammatically). See this recent discussion:

But thinking of a 'tenseless' language as one just lacking something English has... why not think about things English lacks? For example, many languages have evidentiality which is (in some cases obligatory) encoding of the source of knowledge of the speaker on the verb. So you might have five different verb forms (regardless of, in addition to tense, aspect, etc.) that encode things like "I'm certain" or "I heard it from someone else" or "I'm just supposing". We can of course mark that in English with adverbials. But in some languages it is obligatory. So speaking a tenseless language is like speaking evidentialityless English-- it's normal for the speakers, and they have no problem communicating, although they don't use the same system as found in some other languages.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Matt Longhorn

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 33
Re: Tensless languages
« Reply #2 on: June 29, 2018, 02:39:37 AM »
There is some debate in those studying Ancient Greek as to whether the different "tense forms" actually encoded tense or whether just aspect. The debate centers on the indicative form with almost all agreeing that aspect is the most prominent factor across the different moods, with absolute tense not being present outside the indicative.
The debate seems to be highly charged and those who argue for a tenseless indicative being in the overall minority. Unfortunately the meaning of aspect also differs depending on who you read in these studies, and certainly the aspectual value of the perfect tense form. Some argue, along with Comrie I believe that aspect is related to the internal temporal make up of an activity as portrayed by a speaker / author.

Anyway, just a random set of comments from the stuff I have been reading... about 2,300 years back though so not sure how relevant now!