In English (for example), we say "I go/went/was going/etc.", inflecting the verb for tense and aspect while leaving the subject of the sentence unchanged. But are there any languages that would instead inflect the noun/pronoun? For example, suppose English were to have a nominal inflectional mark "-tu" indicating past tense: "Shetu go" instead of "she went."

Or are there at least languages where the noun must agree with the verb and not the other way around? So, using the made-up inflectional marker from earlier, we might say "Shetu went" instead of either "Shetu go" or "She went."

And if not, why not? It seems particularly strange (or "asymmetric") given that (in many languages), nominal inflectional categories like person or number affect the inflection of the verb (via concord).


Here is a relevant Wikipedia article: Nominal TAM

There is a fair amount of literature that mentions the existence of languages that mark tense on nouns; the first result I found on Google was this paper by Judith Tonhauser, "Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Nominal Tense" (2005), about Paraguayan Guaraní. Depending on the language, the meaning of a past-tense-marked noun may be along the lines of “an ex-/former [noun]”. Here is Tonhauser's first set of illustrative examples:

(1) a. Kuehe     a-hecha pa’i-pe.
       yesterday I-see   priest-PE
      ‘Yesterday I saw the priest.’
    b. Kuehe     a-hecha pa’i-kue-pe.
       yesterday I-see   priest-KUE-PE
      ‘Yesterday I saw the former priest.’
    c. Kuehe     a-hecha pa’i-rã-me.
       yesterday I-see   priest-RA-PE
      ‘Yesterday I saw the seminarist/future priest.’

Tonhauser actually argues that -kue and -rã mark nominal aspect, not tense (§1.1), although I would guess that, as with the English "perfect" construction, this is an area where different theorists may use different classifications. The similarity to English "temporal adjectives" such as former and future is mentioned in section 2 (p. 484); however, apparently there are some contexts where the Guarani constructions are not semantically equivalent to these English constructions.

There are also languages that use different “subject pronouns” for different tenses of the associated clause.

I don’t think it’s common for clausal tense to be marked on a non-pronominal noun in the clause. The Wikipedia article has a section "Clausal nominal TAM" where it mentions marking clause TAM on subject pronouns, definite articles, or though different kinds of case-marking.

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  • Thanks. I'll accept this answer if you can provide specific examples of each. – ubadub Oct 29 '18 at 23:45
  • And Greenlandic has a very similar thing. But I never knew this about Guarani! – OmarL Oct 30 '18 at 13:09
  • Robin Lakoff once told me that "Ex-Mother-In-Law-To-Be" was by far her favorite kinship term. She called it a Future Perfect Noun Phrase. And then there are the accidental number paradigms imposed by logo and trademark creators: One Volvo, Two Volvimus (Indicative Present First Person); One Audi, Two Audite (Imperative Second Person); One Fiat, Two Fiant (Subjunctive Present Third Person). – jlawler Oct 31 '18 at 19:03

In Japanese it is possible (and very usual) to conjugate adjectives to the past tense.

For example, to say something like "Tanaka was strong", the construction has the form: "As for Tanaka, [strong-past]." (There is no verb "to be" in Japanese, and instead this is the usual construction)

Using hepburn transliteration, strong is "tsuyoi" and its past tense is "tsuyokatta", and the whole sentence becomes:

Tanaka wa tsuyokatta.

Without transliteration:

  • Tanaka: 田中
  • "Strong": 強い
  • "Strong" conjugated to the past: 強かった

Full sentence:


Note: the sentence above probably does not feel natural to a native speaker, because I omitted the "politeness markers" usual in Japanese for brevity and in order not to drift away from the topic in question.

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  • 1
    These i-keiyoushi are usually called "adjectives", but isn't it better to analyse them as verbs? They are (more or less) exactly the same morphological class. – OmarL Oct 30 '18 at 13:08
  • @Wilson It's true that what is usually called "adjective" in Japanese does not correspond perfectly to the usual (western?) concept of "adjective", but if this distinction is important, I would say then that they aren't verbs either... I'm not a linguist though. If they happen to be verbs from a technical point of view, then we have two classes of verbs, because surely what I'd call "Japanese verbs" are something else. That said, I picked "tsuyoi" for the example, which is an i-keyoushi (or simply keiyoushi), but I could have picked a na-keiyoushi (or keiyoudoushi) like "kirei". – Pedro A Oct 30 '18 at 13:39
  • 2
    This is interesting but not particularly relevant to the question (which is about inflecting nouns) – ubadub Oct 30 '18 at 15:54

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