Knowing Only the Present

M.C. Escher: Hand with Reflecting Sphere - what's behind you seems to be before youSince history is on my mind anyway…

From Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days blog recently, by guest blogger Tero Ykspetäjä: the top five reasons “Why Finnish Is Cooler Than English.” Reason #5 (with slightly tongue-in-cheek coda):

There’s no future tense in the Finnish language. The present tense is used instead. “No future,” as the Tähtivaeltaja slogan says. This makes it easy to seize the day, to live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow. At least in theory. There are some who insist on trying to introduce a sort-of future tense by artificial constructs like “you will come to know this,” but they are clearly in the wrong and should stop immediately.

I jogged over to Wikipedia and found this example:

The future tense is not needed due to context and the telic contrast. For example, luen kirjan “I read a book (completely)” indicates a future, [while] luen kirjaa “I read a book (not yet complete)” indicates present.

(If you’re a native English speaker — perhaps especially so — contemplating following the link to Wikipedia’s article on telicity, and you are not a linguist, prepare yourself to learn more about the language than you ever picked up in Mrs. Grundy’s fifth-period class. Let alone on the playground.)

All of which got me wondering: are there any languages with no past tense?

Duh, what a question. I should have known this (emphasis mine):

All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology — i.e., changes in form of a word — to indicate the word’s function in a sentence. In other words, Chinese has few grammatical inflections — it possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to “the, a, an” in English), and no gender.

It’s a topic for a *cough* future post, maybe. But I’ve always been interested in the idea that knowing one language from birth, as opposed to another, might (does?) shape the way one thinks throughout life.

For instance, if you have no grammatical form to express the future tense, can you even think in terms of a time containing events which have not yet happened? If you can’t express the past, what goes through your mind the first time you see a timeline? If your language has no tenses at all, do you have clocks and calendars? What does “time” itself mean to you? If you forget something you mean to pick up on the way home from work, what is the context in which you fail to pick it up, vs. the context in which you formed your intention to remember it in the first place — is there a “when”? (And what on Earth do you make of bizarre concepts like “daylight savings time”?)

Surely it can’t be that you think of “time” only as what English speakers call the present, a sort of neverending concurrency. Surely you don’t think you may walk out your front door and eventually come within (say) a mile of where the Emperor Gaozu is currently taking a bath.

Er… can you?

I think I’m experiencing some sort of linguo-philosophical vertigo here. (Almost said “at the moment” but, well…)

[P.S. For the link to the post on Finnish-vs.-English which started this avalanche of paradox, thanks to the “Instant Distractions” sidebar at Colleen Lindsay’s blog.]

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  1. Yes, fascinating – and how about the idea that you are a different person (or perhaps more accurately behave as a different person) when you speak a different language? (In fact in French class we were assigned French names … perhaps ‘Angele’ is this alter-ego still).

  2. As an ESL teacher, I could go on and on about grammar and language… but that will have to wait for a less busy lifetime. Anyway, this sort of thing is always interesting. Although coming from someone who can say things like, “I love teaching the conditional but I hate teaching modals,” it may be suspect.

  3. As a sign language interpreter, I have to pipe up and say that ASL is one of the most difficult languages to learn (as an adult), despite the misconceptions people have about it (every word has a sign, and every word in a sentence is signed). It’s a visual, gestural language with a syntax very diferent from English, and you have to ENTIRELY and COMPLETELY change the way you think. You have to think in visual terms. Does that make ANY sense? And, when interpreting, you are communicating the meaning of an utterance — i/e, in English, we have about a bajillion meanings for the one word “run,” but in ASL, you sign the meaning/the concept behind it. Running a machine is different from running a meeting and running to the store and your running nose. Oh, it’s difficult to explain in writing!

    But ASL can also employ simultaneous communication, which makes it terrifically cool!

  4. Kate: I could go with the “behave as a different person,” absolutely! (Which must make life as a UN interpreter complicated as bejeezus.) Just to take one example (a rather dumb one, now that I’m thinking about it), Wikipedia is silent on the subject of whether “baby talk” is considered a whole different language, but BOY does simply using it change the way people interact in other ways. (One of the things that appealed to me about The Missus was that she never used baby talk with me.)

    Marta: I forgot you teach ESL. If what Kate says about becoming a different person applies… well, no, because now I recall you said somewhere that you teach ESL w/out actually being bilingual, right? (Sentences using more than one phrase like “teaching the conditional” and “teaching modals” kinda make my eyes water, I must say.)

    Jules: When I was training to be an English teacher, one of my “mentors” told me about an exercise she liked to give her junior-high students. The boys had to write a paper describing how to tie a necktie, and the girls had to write one describing how to wrap a package. [This was a fairly long time ago, when certain gender-role assumptions were safe ones.] Afterwards, one of the boys and one of the girls would read his/her paper aloud to a, well, a victim of the opposite sex — who had to follow the instructions EXACTLY… with predictably entertaining results.

    After reading your comment it suddenly dawned on me how blasted difficult that would have been if the instructions had to be rendered in ASL.

    By “simultaneous communication” you mean, like, sounding out things — maybe even DIFFERENT things — as you’re doing the signing?

  5. Nope, I mean….well, it’s hard to explain without showing you. There’s the sign for “day,” and there’s the sign for “three.” You can make the three handshape with one hand while, at the same time, signing day with the same hand to indicate “3 days.” Same for weeks, months, years, many other things. You can also use what are called classifiers in ASL (talk about changing the way you think — whew! Classifiers are challenging), which show the movement, location, and appearance of a thing. After a signer indicates a person or thing, a classifier can be used in its place to show where and how it moves, what it looks like, and where it is located. So, the classifer for “car” can be signed, and you can show the car swerving, swerving while driving quickly, while simultaneously showing the driver falling asleep….all of that, of course, indicating, say, someone falling asleep at the wheel and swerving from the road. All of those utterances/meanings communicated simultaneously, whereas in spoken English we have to take it one step at a time. :)

    Did you see this I posted at 7-Imp? Perfect display of classifiers in actions, not to mention one of the coolest ASL A-B-C poems I’ve ever seen.

  6. Jules: I made this the subject for today’s post. If you’re still following this thread of comments, please check to be sure I’ve presented things accurately.

    Thank you so much for opening up a previously unknown world of wonders!

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