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I just learned about Tenseless languages, such as Chinese. But I'm interested to see what this looks like and/or means.

For example, wondering if one could write a tenseless sentence in English and explain how it solves the past/present/future problem without using grammatical tenses like "they will do x" or "they did x".

Partly what I'm wondering about is this:

The six-tense language Kalaw Lagaw Ya of Australia has the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today/near future and the remote future.

In English, you could accomplish that by saying "Way back in the day, we used to do x..." for remote past, and "We just did x..." for recent past. Then for today-near-future, you might say "I'm about to go to x", when answering the question "what are you up to today". So I am wondering if these sort of features (like asking about your day) establishes context of tense of some sort. And so in a language like Chinese, you don't need to have tense built into the grammar. You would just instead do something like this:

Way back in the day, we do x.

We do x a few minutes before now.

I go to school after this.

Wondering if that's sort of how it is, or if one could provide better examples to demonstrate how it works.

I get confused, wondering how to write sentence without past tense verbs and such.

I saw a cat.

I see a cat in the past. (Not sure if this is how it's done).

I see a cat in a time before now. (Or like this).

Or...

I step into the past. I see a cat. I step back to the present.

Another example:

The sun went down.

The sun goes down in the past.

The sun, in the past, goes down.

In the past the sun goes down.

I am not sure which one would be correct.

The sun will go down.

The sun goes down in the future.

The sun, in the future, goes down.

In the future the sun goes down.

None of these seem to accurately capture the original English sentence, so I'm curious to see how you approach this.

  • Example in some languages you may know: In German and French, and optionally in Italian and Spanish, people say I play football where an English speaker must say I am playing football or I will play football*/*I am going to play football. In fact in German and French there is really no way to say I am playing football. It may be clear from the context if they say I play football tomorrow, or they may add something like right now or often. So context or adverbs work fine where English requires tense. Similar for some past tenses. And some languages take it even further... – Adam Bittlingmayer Aug 29 '18 at 17:18
  • "used to do X" has durative aspect; it's not just an indicator of remote past. – Keelan Aug 30 '18 at 6:52
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A common saying in linguistics is, languages don't vary in what they can express. They only vary in what they must express.

In English, it's morphologically impossible to have a finite verb without specifying when it happened/happens/will happen (*). In Chinese, that's not an issue: the default state of a verb has no information about the timing.

However, you can specify the time of an event by using extra words. "I went to the store" in English could be translated into a tenseless language as "I go to the store" or "I go to the store in the past" or "I go to the store yesterday", depending on how much information is directly relevant.

For another example, English doesn't have morphological evidentiality: we don't use a different verb form for things we heard secondhand. Some languages do, and you can't use a finite verb without specifying how you know about the event. But in English, we can still express that distinction, we just need extra words: for example, "I heard that…"

(*) Non-finite verbs, like infinitives and modals, are untensed in English: the "will" in "he will go" has no tense of its own, for example, nor does the "to go" in "he wants to go". But English on the whole is still a strongly-tensed language, because most semantically important verbs are finite.

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  • What do you make of "would"? I think you could read it as allowing a time-ambivalent sentence – Luke Sawczak Aug 29 '18 at 12:27
  • @LukeSawczak Modals like would are untensed in English. All of them refer to past, present, and future, though not always simultaneously. – jlawler Aug 29 '18 at 14:24
  • @jlawler In that case I think the answer can address the question more directly by adding that non-finite verbs can indeed result in tenseless sentences in English. – Luke Sawczak Aug 29 '18 at 14:33
  • @LukeSawczak Added a note about that. Modals, infinitives, etc have no tense in English but make up a small fraction of the semantically relevant verbs. – Draconis Aug 29 '18 at 15:30
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As Draconis explained quite clearly, English is a tense language, which requires finite verbs (in matrix clauses) to be gramatically tensed to specify its temporal conditions. And I'd like to talk more about Chinese.

To say Chinese is a tenseless language means that modern Chinese lacks grammaticalized tense which overtly inflects verbs in different temporal settings. Instead, modern Chinese deploys aspectual markers, temporal adverbs and contextual reasoning to determine the temporal relations (ie tense and aspect).

Take a look at these examples.

Wo dapo yige huaping.

I break a vase.

For a isolated sentence like this, since there's no contextual reference supplied by discourse or temporal adverbs, it simply provides the information that I am the agent for the action of breaking the vase. Therefore we cannot know when the event take place even though its English translation is in simple present tense. Hence such sentences are rarely independently uttered in communication in Chinese since it yields not much useful information. By comparison, these sentences are more often used.

Zuotian wo dapo yige huaping.

Yesterday I break a vase.

or

Wo dapo-le yige huaping.

I break-REAL a vase.

REAL above denotes le, the aspectual marker of realization in Chinese. Not going into messy details, we can simply treat le here as a perfective (also defaultly in the past) marker. However, combined with atelic verbs or added future adverbs (or clauses), le can also yields a continuative or future reading, which is why it's better called realiaztion marker.

Besides le, Chinese relies heavily on aspectual markers such as guo, zhe, modal verbs such as hui, jiang to specify its temporal relations, even though, it's not uncommon to see Chinese sentences such as those OP raised which only uses temporal adverbs to supply the information of even time.

For more complicated clauses, things like definiteness status or scope of DPs can also alter the temporal interpretations of clauses.

Jo-wang Lin has written a few papers concerning the 'tenseless' feature of Chinese. Here is one of the more comprehensive ones in case you are interested.

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  • This is great, those examples are super helpful. Wondering if you could write more of them! – Lance Pollard Aug 30 '18 at 14:39
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In addition to Draconis's answer, I would like to say something about tenseless infinitival clauses in English. These are complements of verbs known as implicative or aspectual, such as try, forget, begin, manage and many others. They are tenseless as they cannot contain any tense indicating adverbs, which can occur in other infinitival clauses:

He tried to translate a text (*tomorrow).

cf. He decided to translate a text (tomorrow).

Thus, the complements of these verbs do not have tense altogether. By the way, they have a lot of other peculiarities, which are due to their lacking of "activated" Tense, Aspect, Mood projections. For instance, they strongly resist finiteness:

*I tried that he translate a text.

cf. I decided that he translate a text.

Another example is Small Clauses, whose tense, likewise, must match that of the matrix clause:

He seems honest.

He seemed honest.

P.S. your intuitions about how to express tense without resorting to inflection are right. You confusion seems to be due to the mere possibility of expressing tense in the given contexts, of which you are aware. However, there are constructions in which there cannot be any tense whatever, in any language. Imagine how you were to express tense in those. Without tense markers the clause tense either matches the tense of the adjacent clauses, or gets some neutral, maybe gnomic, general interpretation. I hope this helps.

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You may construct sentences moving the verb into predicate position requiring the infinitive:"I like to talk". In "@Aharon explains it better", there is no tense either. As a foreign speaker my use of the present progressive is sometimes off, but I don't think it is preferable there.

On the other hand it may be helpful to look at participle -ing constructing nouns from verbs. So the "I go to the store (in the past)" may be thought of as "I have going to the store". It should be instructive to look at future tenses: English doesn't inflect it and uses auxiliary constructions with "will" or "going to". Similarly, past constructions with "have" as shown are somewhat figurative.

That doe not say much about chinese, but that would be too specific anyhow, while other examples need to be compared. Indeed, I showed that english is such an example, with the future tenses. This should be comparable across Indo European languages. It is not clear how much these shared with Proto Sino Tibetan for example. The mainstreem does not know any such connection and the typology is no exception.

It's probably not helpful to think of "I going shop" as a collocation of nouns, comparable to primitive sign language without any morphology (although I'd be interested in such typology). What does seem helpful is expression of tense encoded in prepositions by convention, so e.g. "(I will go) to the shop" may express direction and "(I was) in the shop" may express spatial-temporal aspects - and hardly ever the other way around, if I'm any judge (I nean, "was to" is unuasual, though not unheared of). That is, somewhere the morphologic morphemes need to stem from. I have a hunch, this kind of contextual prepositioning may be one possible origin.

I haven't looked at PIE morphology before - will update answer when I will have did :) After all, "pre" may express time and/or locality.

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