I should probably confess up front that I don't have a great deal of knowledge of foreign languages, but I have lately taken a strong interest in the structure and nature of language, and have spent a lot of time trying to learn about it.

One thing I've noticed, from all the languages I've learnt about, is that it just seems to be taken for granted that tense is expressed by modifying the verbs.

Now, the answers to Is there any language where time is grammaticalised by inflections on something other than its verbs? have lead me to believe that there are languages which frequently use other means to express tense, but the technique of modifying verbs to express tense still seems (at least as I understand it) to exist in some form in all of them.

Is this true? Have I missed or misunderstood something?

If it is true, I'm very curious about why this might be, and even if it isn't, I'm still curious about why it seems to be so rare. Is there a logical (or psychological) reason why verbs (as opposed to nouns, for example) should be the natural place to express tense.

Of course, if it isn't true, I'd also be fascinated to learn more about the language or languages in question.

(Note that this question has been heavily edited, since in its original form it was almost a duplicate of the linked question).

  • @lemontree Thanks. I didn't notice the "list-of-languages" tag. Feb 10, 2017 at 11:18
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    @curiousdannii Ah, I obviously missed this one when I searched. It does seem to be the same essential question, but I'd say there are also aspects of my question that aren't covered by it. Now that I'm aware of the other one, is it accepted practice here to modify my question, so as to differentiate it? Feb 10, 2017 at 11:42
  • Yep it's expected that either you modify it sufficiently, or this one will be closed as a duplicate. The other question doesn't have great answers yet, but hopefully it will eventually :)
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 10, 2017 at 11:45

5 Answers 5


In Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, the verbs never change their form, it is the pronouns that have the tense. In Wolof there is I-which-is-now, I-that-will-be, I-that-was, and so on, each pronoun has the 5 Wolof tenses, each tense having 2 aspect variants, perfect and imperfect. In other words, you take a past tense pronoun and the unchangeable verb and you get a past tense verb phrase.

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    This looks like exactly the sort of thing I've been wondering about. Thank you. Feb 11, 2017 at 11:57

Chinese is the one. Like many asian-oceaninc languages, it is a modal rather than tense language. Verbs in chinese do not change according to time of the action.

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    I don't know what an Asian-Oceanic language is, but Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan and more aspect-based than mood-based. Austronesian languages are more mood-based. Feb 10, 2017 at 16:24
  • @Waves, you are right. The term "asian-oceanic" I've just made up for the purpose of saying that there is some concentration of modal languages in the region. Thanks for the comment.
    – coobit
    Feb 10, 2017 at 17:31
  • @coobit Thank you. I didn't realise Chinese tense worked like this, so this is fascinating. That said, couldn't we argue that the verb is still being modified to some degree, just in a less direct way? Feb 11, 2017 at 12:05
  • @Termite, well, but what do you mean under "modification of the verb"? In Russian there is a verb in present tense "делаю" and if you change"ю to л", then the verb "делал" is in past now. Veb changes it's "visual shape" (writing) and spelling too. In chinese, there is 买 (it's not in any tense at all or rather in superposition of all tenses" if you what it to be translated as "past tense" you can do it in many ways. But no matter what you do to it, it will never change neither it's pictographical shape nor the spelling. You can add 了 after 买 rendering it as 买了 (some kind of past tense).
    – coobit
    Feb 11, 2017 at 12:43
  • Does 买了 count as "verb modification"?
    – coobit
    Feb 11, 2017 at 12:43

In Vietnamese, neither the verb nor any part of the sentence is modified due to tense. To indicate tenses, particles "đã" (past tense), "đang" (present progressive tense), "sẽ" (future tense) before verbs. If none of these particles is in the sentence, the tense is still understood in the context.


Tôi đã làm rồi.
I -ed do already.
I have already done. (English present perfect is used as past tense with an adverb.)

Nó đang làm việc.
He -ing work.
He is working.

Tôi sẽ đến.
I will come.

Ngày mai trời có mưa.
Tomorrow sky have rain.
Tomorrow, it will rain. (Auto-understood that this is future, as there is "tomorrow").


I think what you're searching information over is Inflectional Morphology

First I'm not sure the idea that "it just seems to be taken for granted that tense is expressed by modifying the verbs." is very valid. If ever somebody made this claim there would be a lot of Eurocentrism in there. This claim might be true for a huge number of Indo-European languages and also fusional languages but it might not stand at all for a variety of other languages, ancient/Mandarin Chinese being an obvious example.

Basically, there is this (perhaps incomplete) classification of "isolating" vs. "fusional" vs. "agglutinative" languages. Citing Wikipedia (apparently not the best source but it still provides some information), an "isolating" language by definition "is a type of language with a very low morpheme per word ratio and no inflectional morphology whatsoever. In the extreme case, each word contains a single morpheme."

I suggest you find some materials in that direction. Simply searching for materials on "isolating language" should give you a lot of what you're looking for.

This entry on WLAS might also be useful.

In any case, there doesn't seem to be a pre-established reason why inflectional morphology must exist. A lot of missing language features in one language compared with another can be well covered by some other mechanisms. For example, in German there is no gerund, but it doesn't stop people from being able to express the idea of something happening right now.


whether or not "tense" is even meaningful in (Classical) Arabic is an open question. Arabic verbs do not generally have tense, although they have aspect. to give a definite future meaning to an imperfect like yadbribu you prefix the invariant "sawfa", a separate word. but "yadribu" can have any "tense" depending on context.

"daraba" is taught as past tense (he struck) and "yadribu" as present or future, but that's wrong. the main distinction is aspect not tense.

  • I think most people who actually know Arabic (as opposed to having read some Wikipedia articles) would contest this energetically. If it is anything to go by, the name that the classic Arabic grammarians give to the verb form ضرب is in fact الماضى that is: “past”.
    – fdb
    Feb 11, 2017 at 22:42
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    Gee, you're not very arrogant are you? If it helps, I have translated large chunks of Sibawayhi, and by most standards am an expert on the Arabic philological tradition, having read lots of the stuff in Arabic and virtually the entire scholarly corpus in English. I suppose it's people like you who misteach the language. And fwiw "past" is a superficial and misleading translation of الماضى.
    – mobileink
    Feb 12, 2017 at 3:47
  • These are all things we could discuss in an appropriate context (which this is not), but it should be based on the study of a specified corpus (e.g. Jahili poetry), not on prescriptive grammars. As far as secondary literature is concerned, I do not think that anyone since Reckendorf has studied classical Arabic syntax on the basis of an extensive knowledge of the literary sources.
    – fdb
    Feb 12, 2017 at 10:05

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