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Tenses without English equivalents?
January 20, 2012 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Tenses without English equivalents?

Wikipedia lists some intriguing ones but doesn't identify which languages use them.
posted by Trurl to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Spanish has two kinds of past tense: preterite and imperfect.

Preterite is for events that are definitely in a specific past. For example "Yesterday I ate a turkey sandwich for lunch." This corresponds pretty much with the English past tense.

But imperfect is a little weird and doesn't map to any particular verb tense in English. It refers to a more general past, an event that happened before but isn't mapped to a specific moment. For example "I used to eat turkey sandwiches before I became a vegetarian." You can convey that idea in English, but it's not done via a special tense.
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 AM on January 20, 2012

French and Italian have the "simple" past, which I believe is only used in written form.
posted by Melismata at 8:54 AM on January 20, 2012

The thing that will complicate your search will be tenses that exist in English, but that English uses verb phrases and helper verbs for. For instance...

it's not done via a special tense

Languagehat can chime in, but I think linguists might say that English does have that tense, but expresses it with verb phrases or other helper phrases rather than direct one-word conjugations of verbs. Or, in many cases, it takes the same written/verbal form as the preterite. When I was a child, I thought as a child. Clearly that doesn't mean that when I was a child, there was this one instance when I thought as a child... instead it's expressing the past imperfect that during that period when I was a child, I continuously thought as a child.

In Sara C's example, "I ate turkey sandwiches before I became a vegetarian."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:04 AM on January 20, 2012

German also has a 'simple past' and a 'past perfect' as well as the more common 'present perfect'. Simple past is mostly used for stories and implies that the action is continuing (in the context of the story) - a rough translation would be 'he was eating a sandwich'. Present perfect is used in everyday speech and states that the action is complete - 'he ate a sandwich'. Past perfect is for more distant past events, or can be used with the present perfect to show which event came before the other - 'he had eaten the sandwich'.
posted by lovedbymarylane at 9:06 AM on January 20, 2012

In Tagalog/Filipino you can conjugate for a "recently completed action".

e.g. "dating" (arrive) becomes "kararating" if you just got there (add "ka", double the "da", change the "d"s to "r"s because they are preceded by vowels), but it's "dumating" if you've been there for a while.

Tagalog grammar (like other southeast asian languages, I believe) is way different from anything I've encountered in the west.

Wikipedia has a good summary.
posted by ropeladder at 9:21 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depends on you define tense, but english doesn't really have a future tense.
posted by empath at 9:30 AM on January 20, 2012

South African English has a helper phrase that indicates a kind of intermediate future tense, that doesn't exist in Queen's English: "just now".

e.g. "I'll be dropping by just now"

It's used to indicate a period in the near future - but not immediately.
posted by roofus at 9:32 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe the same kind of helper phrase as roofus mentions also exists in Welsh English, but instead of 'just now' it's 'now', as in 'I'll be there now' or even 'I'll be there now in a bit".

*This assertion is based entirely on what I have gleaned from various Welsh characters in the BBC sitcom 'Gavin & Stacey', and may or may not be actually correct.
posted by lovedbymarylane at 9:37 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Italian has the remote past, which is only used in the written form to describe historical events and the like.
posted by ikaruga at 9:46 AM on January 20, 2012

Portuguese has a future subjunctive that doesn't have a counterpart in English, for things that may happen in the future but are not certain to occur. (Example: "when I graduate" or "when I marry") Portuguese inserts an amount of uncertainty that is only implied in English.
posted by ambrosia at 9:49 AM on January 20, 2012

'past perfect' as well as the more common 'present perfect'

English has this as well.

Past Perfect: He had eaten the sandwich.

Present Perfect: He has eaten the sandwich.
posted by Sara C. at 9:57 AM on January 20, 2012

Don't have an answer, but for "native" English speakers' reference, I count at least 13 verb tenses in English (depends on how you count the "going to" variants:

had done
had been doing
was doing
has done
has been doing
is doing
is going to do
will do
will be doing
will have done
will have been doing

Whatever you list should ideally not correspond to one of these.
posted by tigrrrlily at 10:01 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

In Tagalog/Filipino you can conjugate for a "recently completed action".

Some varieties of "non-standard"/vernacular English have something a little like this for long completed or long initiated action. For instance the AAVE and US Southern "He's been eating Ethiopian food", which implies that he's been doing it regularly for a long time.

It depends on the inflection of "been", I think, so it's not purely grammatical. I might be wrong about that, though.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 AM on January 20, 2012

Japanese has some really interesting verb conjugations, such as the volitional, which is used to say "Shall we do X?" or "I'm thinking of doing X". That's not impossible to express in English, we just don't have a verb case for it. I wish I remembered more, but I only took two semesters of Japanese.
posted by mumblingmynah at 10:26 AM on January 20, 2012

I don't speak a word of Portuguese but I was talking to someone who does (albeit as a second language) the other day and they said that there is a different past tense for something which will never happen again and something which could or will happen again.
posted by neilb449 at 10:55 AM on January 20, 2012

tigrrrlily, depending on whether one considers them "moods" or "tense", you left off:

conditional: could do
past conditional: could have done
future conditional: might do
subjunctive: had done (but still a separate form from simple past)
posted by IAmBroom at 11:04 AM on January 20, 2012

In Uzbek (and other Turkic languages) there is a choice between verb endings which convey how certain the speaker is of the fact they utter - e.g. whether they experienced it first-hand, or heard it from someone else. Although it looks like the wikipedia article you link to doesn't consider that a "tense."

In Khalkha Mongolian there is a verb tense that is used only when telling fairy tales or legends, and also by journalists when recounting news stories. Perhaps this also relates to a distinction between simply reporting other people's words, versus knowing about something more first-hand. But this tense is not used by most people most days (unless you are a journalist).
posted by scrambles at 11:23 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh, ooh, jumping in on what scrambles said! In modern Turkish, you use the miş (pronounced mish) tense to indicate that the information you're relating was heard secondhand (Burcu is going out with Egeman!), or that it's a surprise/something you've just realised (Wow, this kebab is delicious! Oh look, it's snowing!). For example:

Mehmet çıktı mı? - Has Mehmet gone out?
O çıktı. - He has gone out. (As in, yeah, I saw him leave.)
O çıkmış. - He has gone out. (As in, I presume he's gone because I haven't seen him around).

This is very useful for gossip and journalistic report. Mostly gossip.
posted by Concordia at 11:51 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think what you're asking for are languages in which the tense in question has been lexicalized. That is, the meaning that is trying to be conveyed can be found in a single (probably conjugated) verb. This is why it's argued that English "doesn't have a future tense". Sure, we can express the future tense, but we don't have a single verb that does the job. Unlike romance languages, ex. French, "J'irai au ..." = "I will go to the ...". Notice how the English version is two words, "will go".

Also, there are really only three tenses: past, present and future. The rest are aspects (habitual, imperfect, etc.) or moods (subjunctive, conditional, etc.). I get that for the purpose of the question, you are combining all three and that's fine, but the differences exist and are treated more or less distinctly (or just differently) in other languages (especially in the grammar).
posted by iamkimiam at 1:11 PM on January 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I sort of disagree with the example of German. The tenses don't map to English particularly well, but I believe English has all of them.

The simple past in German supposedly is for events that happened in the past that aren't related to what's happening now. So that's why is gets used in stories for what's happening in the present of the story, the same as the past gets used for narration in English. (And, I think, the past perfect is for stuff that takes place before the simple past.) On the other hand, the perfect is supposedly for stuff that happened or started in the past, but that is relevant/still happening now. Then it turns into a giant mess because some dialects of German basically don't have the simple past at all and use the perfect instead. I was basically taught to write in the simple past and speak in the perfect.

German has a future (actually, two), but the present is used frequently to convey some future occurrence. Of course, this happens in English--'Tomorrow, I'm going shopping.' and 'Morgen gehe ich einkaufen.' (Or is that the future in English? Everything I know about grammar comes from learning German.) Then there's the Futur I, which is the 'normal' future (and, I think, the only future if your present is conveyed in the simple past), and the Futur II, which is the future perfect ("will have done"), which works fairly similarly to English. (Except there are particles which can turn either of those futures into statements of probability.)

German does have to subjunctives and, offhand, I don't think the Konjunktiv I has an English equivalent. It's used for indirect speech (so reporting what someone else said, but not a direct quote), which I don't think English marks at all. (This comment is now long enough that I can't make coherent statements about any language without doubting myself.) Of course, however many years of Latin in school make me insist on saying that the subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood.
posted by hoyland at 1:18 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

had done
had been doing
was doing
has done
has been doing
is doing
is going to do
will do
will be doing
will have done
will have been doing

fixin' to do
could do
might could do
should do
ought should do
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:21 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

iamkimiam said more or less what I was going to say, except she's better at it.

Also, there are really only three tenses: past, present and future.

The grammatical tenses article linked in the question indicates more granular tenses in other languages that are still purely temporal in lexical information: tenses for "earlier today" and "later this week", tenses for "not previously but from now or later on" and "not from now on, but previously or currently", and so on Obviously some of that information is necessarily cultural (what is the definition of a day?), but do these not count as different grammatical tenses than a general or simple past/present/future? They seem to encode absolute or relative time without necessarily referencing mood or modality or whatever else (like evidentiality, which is one of my favorites). Do those just exist as verb phrases in other languages and so we're not counting them as single-word conjugations?
posted by Errant at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2012

Scrambles–what you're describing is called "evidentials"–the verb form indicates how you know what you are saying (firsthand, secondhand, that sort of thing). A lot of languages have some form of them.

Japanese has a conditional and a provisional that both kind of collapse to "if this happens..." in English, except that one emphasizes the conditional verb itself, and the other transfers the emphasis to what follows.
posted by adamrice at 3:18 PM on January 20, 2012

Japanese uses the "nonpast tense" ("refers to either the present or the future, but does not clearly specify which. Contrasts with past.")

"I'm going (now)" and "I'll go (tomorrow)" are both (in informal language) just 行く. You can add a time word if you need to be specific, but generally you don't (this is one of many things in Japanese which are understood via context).

Japanese also has potential and causative verb forms -- the first roughly means "to be able to", and the second roughly means "to be made or caused [or allowed] to".

読む (yomu) means "to read"
読める (yomeru) means "[I] can read [it]"
読ませる (yomaseru) means "[someone or something] caused [me] to read [it].
posted by vorfeed at 6:47 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

vorfeed, I think English has the nonpast too: "I'm going to the shops tomorrow, do you want me to pick anything up?"

This is going to be difficult because generally if something is meaningful, languages will find a way to express it. Some take fewer words, is all.
posted by Acheman at 7:44 AM on January 21, 2012

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