Since 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.]