Is there a language in which the present tense exactly expresses present time reference? English may use present tense to express past events(known as historical present) and future events(especially in some dependent clauses).

According to a post, "Indo-European languages generally have two tenses: past and non-past. The non-past (what you call the present) can be used for the future, though depending on the language other means might be preferable when speaking about the future." Therefore, I guess most Indo-European languages can use present tense to express future.

Historical present is found in English, Latin, French, Russian, and other languages. I think it is a rhetorical device rather than a grammatical phenomenon. Even Japanese has historical present.

According to Wikipedia, in a conditional sentence, English and French may use present tense for future reference in the dependent clause, while Italian uses future tense. However, in a clause introduced by "as soon as"(obviously not a conditional clause), we can still use present tense for future reference. Therefore, the provided information is still insufficient.

PS: Sentences that express general truths or aphorisms are not considered here.

  • 2
    So you are looking for a language in which present tense is never used for historical present, future or anything else? Jun 15, 2016 at 18:41
  • Why exclude general truths when they are true in the present?
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 16, 2016 at 1:27
  • @curiousdannii Because they're generally understood to also be true in the past and the future, so not limited to only the present, I'm guessing. Jun 16, 2016 at 7:15
  • Well, my post may have some ambiguity. Yes, I am looking for a language in which present tense is never used for historical present, future or anything else. (some not so "strict" answers are also of value ). Sentences that express general truths or aphorisms are not considered here, because some people may argue they are "timeless". English usually uses simple present tense to express such sentences. Whether or not the language uses present tense to express such sentences doesn't matter.
    – discenter
    Jun 16, 2016 at 11:45
  • In addition, "present time reference" means we examine/describe/consider the event from the point of view of present time rather than the event occurs at present.
    – discenter
    Jun 16, 2016 at 11:51

1 Answer 1


That's a tough question considering the number of languages in the world ;-) According to V.A.Plungyan "Why languages are so different?" (popular linguistics) a language with the quality described by OP is NOT known to the modern science.

As a side comment (from the same book): .... for example, Japanese and Finish only distinguish (by means of tense) past and "non-past" (i.e. present+future). ... While there is only one known language that distiguishes future and "non-future" - Takel'ma, language of north-american indians, state of Oregon.

  • That's not entirely true: Finnish does have more than one past tense form, namely imperfect, perfect and past perfect. Hovever, the latter two found their way into the Finnish language only under Germanic influence (as well as SVO syntax and subordinate clauses, which Finnish did not have natively either). So yes, originally, Finnish didn't know more than present and simple past tense, but you couldn't claim this to hold for modern Finnish. Jun 19, 2016 at 13:55
  • @lemontree And all these three tense forms denote 'past', right? I see no contradiction, you probably misunderstood Plugnyan's statement.
    – tum_
    Jun 19, 2016 at 14:05
  • I don't see the point in mentioning Japanese and Finnish then - aren't there extremely many languages which don't have an explicit future tense? Jun 19, 2016 at 14:07
  • My fault, I missed the "for example". So, more correct quotation is: "Normally, a language has three tenses: past, present and future. ... However, there are languages that combine present and future - for example, Japanese or Finnish...."
    – tum_
    Jun 19, 2016 at 14:15
  • Okay, it seems that it was really me misundrestanding your post then. What made it unclear for me was that I missed something like "for example Japanese and Finnish", but of course the claim itself is correct then one doesn't have to put it that way you proposed in your comment. I think it was really me misunderstanding your point, sorry :) Jun 19, 2016 at 14:19

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