The fictional language Flaidish has this feature. But I recently found out about a natural language (Mixtec) where the present isn't the base form of a verb, its the future tense.

I found this surprising. Flaidish is of course fictional, but I never thought that there would be a natlang where the simplest tense wasn't the present. Though in Mixtec's case, many verbs are identical in the present and future tense (though not all).

In most languages of course, the other tenses are at least as complex as the present tense, if not more so (note how in English, past tense is marked with -ed or a stem change, while the present is mostly just the bare infinite, plus MAYBE the third person singular ending -s).

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    What is the "base form"? What students would learn? I'm sure there are many of those, especially ones were past and perfective aspect overlap. Hebrew is one to start with.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 21, 2018 at 7:51
  • The most basic form from which all other forms can be derived. For instance, the basic form of 'to talk' is 'talk', because all other forms are derived by adding affixes to that root (talks, talked, talking, etc...)
    – user19661
    Apr 21, 2018 at 8:16
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    That's not a concept which applies to all languages, but only the more agglutinative ones...
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 21, 2018 at 8:45
  • @curiousdannii Not agglutinative. It applies very well to English, for example, which is not agglutinative, and it doesn’t really apply very well to truly agglutinative languages, which often have a base from which all forms can be derived, but which does not correspond to any particular form or tense at all. I’d say the notion of a ‘base form’ being identifiable with any particular surface form is generally most applicable to fusional languages. Apr 22, 2018 at 13:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet English is definitely partially agglutinative, much more than a fusional language. But I suspect we're interpreting the question differently because there's often no common subset of related forms in fusional languages as something is always added.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 22, 2018 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


First, it is important to be clear on what "most basic form" as described above covers. One notion is "structurally simplest", that is, "having the fewest added things". The other is "phonologically best for predicting other variants". Mixtec seems to qualify as an example of the future being "most basic" because (a) the future has no prefixes or suffixes, (b) certain lexically specified change initial /k/ to [ʃ], and other change tone, in the present tense.

In Logoori, there are 4 future tenses and 5 past tenses; there is no "simple present", there is a present progressive, and a habitual which is a construction build from a hard to gloss particle plus the progressive. The present progressive has a progressive aspectual suffix -a- (a-gʊ́r-áa "he is buying"), and the form does not actually mark the present (it marks the progressive, like English "talk-ing"), since that is how you form the future and past progressives as well.

All verb forms except the imperative have a subject prefix, many have a tense prefix, and all, including the imperative, have a final suffix, either /ɪ/, /i/, /aa/ or, in lieu one of the preceding, /a/. We can exclude the tenses with the special suffixes in the search for the most basic form, since /ɪ/, /i/, /aa/ are non-basic. The candidates are:

Indefinite future: a-ri-gʊ́r-á "he may buy"
Immediate future: a-ra-gʊr-a "he is about to buy"
Most immediate past: y-aa-kʊ-gʊr-a "he just bought"
Recent past: y-aa-ka-gʊr-a "he bought"
Remote past: y-áá-gʊ́r-a "he bought" (long ago)
Imperative: gʊr-a

The imperative wins the competition for having the least morphology. Apart from obvious prefixes, the indefinite future and remote past also have special tone melodies; the imperative does as well, though it is not manifested in the toneless root class that includes /gʊr/.

Since the imperative is usually classed as a mood rather than a tense, and assuming the question is about "which tense", we could strike the imperative from consideration. It then appears that we have one tense that adds two things (the immediate future: a subject prefix and -ra-), and four that add three things (subject prefix and two prefixes, or subject prefix plus one prefix and a tone pattern). The competition seems to favor the immediate future as "most basic" (simplest) – however, this tense, unlike all other forms, cannot be used in a negative clause. With that competitor disqualified, we have a tie between the indefinite future and any of the past tenses, in terms of how many added things they have.

I would favor using the tone-melody as a disqualifier, because tone inflection is really not just one thing, it's an abbreviation for a set of interrelated processes (deletion of the lexical tone, placing another tone somewhere). If we count tone melodies as "more than one", we now have just two forms, the most immediate past and the recent past.


Probably this confusion is familiar within Indo-European linguistics. If we use the concept 'root' instead of 'base' we will understand this issue more accurately. In Indo-European languages, as far as I know, there is this notion of a root as a lexical entity: Root{reason}, can form: reasoning, reasonable, etc. In other languages with non-concatenative morphology like Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc) and Afro-Asiatic like Berber, things are different.

This latter class, especially Berber, has sometimes one simple AFFIX as a root (for example, a voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant alone means 'eat'). Sometimes Berber expresses future using the root itself without any morphological change. In relation to your question, observe the following data from Berber (spoken in Northern Morocco): Root{adr} 'demolish'

PAST: adr-x 'I demolished' the 'x' is 'I'
PRESENT: addr-x 'I'm demolishing'
FUTURE: ad- adr-x 'I will demolish'

If you can see the gemination of the intraconsonant in 'addr' deriving the present, but the PAST 'adr' is more similar to the root, i.e. more basic. The future also is marked, in this case, with 'ad' (will), becoming more complex. So Here the present is derived from the PAST not the other way around. Consequently, the PAST is more BASIC than other other forms.


You could say that in Proto-indoeuropean this might have been the case and there are indications of this in some later languages like Ancient Greek, however this is definitely debatable given the complex morphology and non-trivial rules of ablaut in PIE verbs, so take it more like "it is possible", rather than "PIE did this in a consistent manner".

We analyse the PIE word into its root, from which all other forms can be derived using extensive and complex set of rules.

The present tense is derived typically by expanding the root by infixed -e- (in sanskrit, this is called guṇa form). Sometimes it is expanded even further (e.g. n-infixation or reduplication) but let's not worry about it.

The aorist (basically something like perfective past, not dissimilar to English past simple) is derived by prefixing a so called augment e- (but in PIE, it is debatable whether the augment was really a prefix, a clitic or even a separate word) and the root remains in the non-expanded (zero-grade) form (of course, like with the present, there is a number of other affixes that can form aorist).

Examples from Ancient Greek:

λειπ-ω, λειπ-ει - I leave, he leaves

ε-λιπ-ο-ν, ε-λιπ-ε-ν - I left, he left

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