Mandarin Chinese appears to be a language that may not express tense (at least in the way I will define below), and it does not seem to allow aspectual coercion.

By not expressing Tense I mean, such a language will fail to show morphological exponence of past or present-oriented meanings. English shows present and past on the verb by suffixation to a root or root suppletion (he goes versus he went respectively).

By allowing aspectual coercion, I mean in this case that phrases that by themselves would denote momentaneous events, e.g., achievement verb phrases like win the chess match or arrive, can be used to convey other aspects when they appear (a) with progressive aspect, or (b) with adverbials like in an hour in some cases. Some examples in English, which don't sound bad to my ear:

  1. Mary is winning the chess match
  2. Mary won the chess match in 5 minutes
  3. The train is arriving
  4. The train arrived in 2 hours

Such a language as answers my question would (a) not show morphological exponence of past/present by means of affixation or suppletion, but (b) equivalent sentences as (1)-(4) would be perfectly acceptable.

  • 1
    Let me double-check that I understood you correctly. So you're interested in languages without (grammaticalized) tense but with aspectual marking? If so, then Bhat calls them aspect-prominent languages. See his "The prominence of tense, aspect, and mood" as something to start with.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 20:12
  • 1
    @AlexB. no, it's not a question about lgs without tense but with aspect. The 2 phenomena I'm interested are not obviously connected, but may be (theoretically). A language without aspect might not have equivalents for (1) and (3), which leaves (2) and (4). An answerer of this question would either speak or have regular access to a speaker of a tense-less language and a way of translating some of (1-4) that preserves aspectual properties (progressive in (1,3), use of adverbial in (as opposed to for) in (2,4)). Note that some semantic theories would predict (1-4) to sound bad in English. Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 20:28
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    I am wondering if a bona fide example can be found easily. If a verb's aktionsart class is achievement, then it is usually incompatible w/ progressives and "in 5 minutes" adverbials. We say that there is coercion in the English cases because English-speaking semanticists still feel that "win"&"arrive" are achievements, even though the test fails. If I consult a speaker of Gengbe, and "Mary is winning the match" is grammatical it could be either because the equivalent verb is in a different Aktionsart class, or that there is true coercion. What may be needed is a Gbe-speaking semanticist.
    – user483
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 0:14
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    @AlexisWellwood Can you give an example of a language with looser requirements: one that has aspectual coercion, whether or not it also has tense marking? I suspect you may include English in this category, but its coercion is achieved through adding prepositional phrases. I'd be interested to see an affix that changes the lexical aspect of the verb root, thereby restricting the set of PPs that are possible to adjoin to it.
    – Alek Storm
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 12:15
  • In Quechua and Aymara, there's no morphological distinction between past and present but the languages have a variety of aspect suffixes. E.g. sartwa "I went/I go" vs. sarasktwa "I'm going" vs. saraskaktwa "I keep going", etc. There's a morphologically distinct future tense though.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 20:33

3 Answers 3


I hope I understood you question correctly. I think Chinese gets the closest to the language you're talking about. I am not familiar with aspectual coercion term but I would not say that Chinese does not allow it. There are sentences in Chinese where Tense in not expressed in either morphological or syntactical way but inferred from the context.

他_He 说完_to finish talking 后_after 过_to pass 五_five 分钟_minutes.
5 minutes passed after he finished talking.

昨天_yesterday 我_I 吃_eat 豬肉_pork
He ate pork yesterday.

他_He 前天_the day before yesterday 到_arrive 北京_Beijing 的_*descriptive particle* 
He (is/being) arrived to Beijing the day before yesterday. 

上个_Last 星期_week 天天_every day 下雪_to rain。
It was raining every day last week.

In Chinese if everything is clear from the context the speaker is allowed to drop certain functional words.


I believe Cantonese fits your description.

Mary is winning the chess match
Maalai jeng-gan pou zoengkei
Mary win-asp. {classifer for chess match} chess

Mary won the chess match in 5 minutes
Maalai ng fanzung zau jeng-zo pou zoengkei
Mary five minutes {adverb expressing the result of a condition} win-asp. {classifer for chess match} chess

The train is arriving
Gaa foce lai-gan laa
{classifer for train} train come-asp.

The train arrived in 2 hours
Gaa foce loeng go zungtau zau dou-zo
{classifer for train} train two hours {adverb expressing result of condition} come-asp.

Cantonese, like all Sinitic varieties, does not mark tense as you can see above.


In attempting to answer I'll start by assuming a definition of 'aspectual coercion' as involving the use of discourse to force a reinterpretation of grammatically or lexically encoded aspect to make it match the actuality of the event being described (i.e. as per Dölling (2014). If this is accepted it would seem likely that all languages can do this to some extent, so any language which does not have grammatical tense would meet the OP's criterion. One of the classic examples is: 'Fred played the sonata for one day'. Playing a sonata is an inherently bounded event, but this is contradicted by the addition of the adverbial 'for one day'.

Using Google Translate with languages which have no grammatical marking of tense I get the following (back translations seemed to confirm that they work tho it would be useful to have comments from speakers):

  • Bahasa Indonesia: Fred bermain sonata untuk satu hari
  • Mandarin: 弗雷德出场索纳塔一天 Fú léi dé chūchǎng suǒnàtǎ yītiān
  • Cebuano: Fred nakighilawas sa sonata alang sa usa ka adlaw
  • 1
    The Mandarin one isn't grammatical at all... I'd probably say, 弗雷德弹那首奏鸣曲,弹了一整天 Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 4:29
  • Thanks, I was unable to judge. So your translation has the intended meaning? If so the point is still valid so thanks again! Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 5:03

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