Has anyone encountered a language in which there is no lexical entry corresponding to English "before" and the relation of temporal precedence is manifested by something equivalent to "earlier than"? I would be most grateful for your help!

Let me elaborate a bit by means of an example:

  1. John arrived before George.
  2. John arrived earlier than George.

Is there a language in which "before" and "earlier than" as given in the above sentences would be represented by the same lexical entry?

  • 1
    Seems likely. There aren't many terms that have perfect equivalents in all languages. I wonder, why do you ask about this particular word? Jun 18 '15 at 22:22
  • It's relevant to something I am currently working on. Jun 18 '15 at 23:10
  • Did you mean "earlier than" not to be a word at all, but e.g. something like a declension of one another lexical unit? Or did you mean that "before" stands for "be + fore", e.g. perceiving time as location?
    – bytebuster
    Jun 18 '15 at 23:54
  • See the question again, I have made the necessary amendments (I hope)! Jun 18 '15 at 23:58
  • 1
    "Before" and "earlier than" are basically synonyms. I don't know why you'd want to distinguish them like this.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 19 '15 at 0:38

BEFORE (in the limited sense of a temporal comparison) is one of the Semantic Primes of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. Though NSM researchers have not considered every language in existence, they have studied languages from every large family, so I'd consider this decent evidence that this is something every language will have. Note that the primes may be represent by affixes or phrases rather than just single words.


If you need a language where "before" did not also have any positional aspect (in English, it has: "be + fore" = "in front of"), like described in this question, then Thai language is a good example.
Consider this:

The key word is ก่อน [kɔ̀ːn] (first, prior, early).
Thai is analytical language, so there's naturally no lexical distinction between "early" and "earlier". All tiny details of the message are constructed with particles, e.g. ก่อน ที่, see below.

"John arrived before/earlier than George"
Thai:  จอห์น     มาถึง      ก่อนที่       จอร์จ
IPA:   tɕɔːn   maː tʰɯ̌ŋ  kɔ̀ːn tʰîː   tɕɔ̀ːdʒ
Eng.:  john     arrive   prior+at    george

"cool before drinking":
Thai:  เย็น    ก่อน   { ที่ }   { จะ }    ดื่ม
IPA:   jen   kɔ̀ːn    tʰîː    tɕàʔ    dɯ̀ːm
Eng.:  cool  prior   at      FUTURE   drink

"recent game(s) they played well":
Thai:  เกม    ก่อน    พวกเขา       เล่น   ได้      ดี
IPA:   keːm   kɔ̀ːn  pʰûːak kʰǎw   lên   dâj     diː
Eng.:  game  prior    they        play  PAST   well

ก่อน is also used in morphology of the word "earlier": เมื่อ ก่อน [mɯ̂ːa kɔ̀ːn], literally, "at time + prior".
เมื่อ [mɯ̂ːa] is just a service word indicating a point in time.

Minor note. Thai script uses no spaces between the words. Space mark separates sentences instead, just like full stop and comma do in English. I used spaces above so that the reader distinguished individual words.

  • Ukrainian and Russian also have the preposition до [do] which means 'before' but not 'in front of'.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jun 28 '16 at 12:22

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