I am a student learning languages who is interested in linguistics! In trying to keep myself organized with my own study sheets, I wanted to know, do all languages have the same basic verb tenses? I'm currently studying German and Albanian. While on a German grammar site, the verb tenses were listed as:

  • Present
  • Simple past
  • Future
  • Present perfect
  • Past perfect
  • Future perfect
  • Passive present
  • Passive simple past
  • Passive present perfect

I tried to Google this for Albanian and couldn't seem to find much (there aren't a whole lot of resources for the language anyway).

So would all European languages have these 9 tenses? Or all languages in general? If not, what cases are standard in most languages?

I'm not so much concerned about a few exceptions with extra verb cases (if they exist). More whether or not most languages seem to have those 9. Or rather, what the common cases are.

  • @zixuan So is that a yes? These are generally found in all languages?
    – q-compute
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 1:01
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    In linguistics we usually use 'tense' to refer to morphosyntax that locates an event in time (whether relative or absolute) and 'aspect' to refer to morphosyntax indicating the internal temporal structure of the event. Many of the 'tenses' you list are actually combinations of tense and aspect. The Wikipedia article on TAM (tense-aspect-mood) should help clarify these distinctions and provide an answer to your question. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 2:02
  • 4
    Take a look at WALS, chapters 65-80.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 2:31
  • 2
    It's worth noting that German and Albanian are both Indo-European languages, so you have to be very careful about extrapolating from "both German and Albanian" to "maybe all languages".
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 6:15
  • 6
    Meanwhile, Wikipedia's article on grammatical tense has a pretty decent overview of different tense systems, followed by a pretty arbitrary but still not useless sampling of examples. And their articles on most languages—like Albanian—cover the tense system.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 6:17

2 Answers 2


Short answer: Not at all! Some languages only have two: past and non-past (English, Japanese). Others have past, present, and future (Ancient Greek). Still others have separate "recent" and "distant" past tenses (Lingála, Swahili). And some have no tense at all (Proto-Indo-European, Mandarin).

Long answer: There are two important things to note here.

One is that every language can express all of these tenses, and more besides—no language has a special verb marking for "on January 13th", for example, but we can easily say "on January 13th I went out to the bar with Alex".

The question is instead which parts are mandatory: in English you can't have a verb without a tense, while in Mandarin you can. And in English, that special mandatory marking that's incorporated into the verb (that is, the morphological part) has only two types: past ("walked") and non-past ("walk"). The future, and any other distinctions, involves bringing in extra words like "will".

The other thing to note is that the question's list combines three different things together: tense, aspect, and voice.

Tense, simply put, is when something happened. Past, present, future, recent, distant, January 13th.

Aspect is how that time is measured: imperfective aspect means it's ongoing, for example, while aoristic means it happened at a single moment, and perfective means you're talking about the endpoint, it's over and done with. That's where your "perfect" tenses come from.

Voice is the weird one. It's whether the "subject" of the sentence is the person doing the action (active), or the person the action is done to (passive), or both (reflexive/middle).

And then there are moods (is this something that really happened, or something you want to happen, or a general truth everyone knows, or something that'll happen if another thing happens?) and evidentialities (did you see this firsthand, or hear it from someone?) and all sorts of other interesting markings that interact with tense, aspect, and voice in too many ways to possibly list here.

Some languages mark all of those, like Ancient Greek, which has a whole convoluted matrix of tenses, aspects, and voices that you can mix and match. Others don't: English needs extra words to say anything about aspect at all. Lingála has a special "ultimate" tense-aspect combination for things that have happened and are now irreversible; my professor calls it the "dead" marking because it's often seen on the verb for "die". (He's joked that the New Testament in Lingála spoils the twist way too early, because when Jesus dies, that marking is missing!)

TL;DR: Language is complicated! All languages can express all of these things, but not all languages "have" them in the sense of mandatory morphological marking. Some "have" more, some "have" less, some "have" none.

  • 7
    Great explanation—but things are even more complicated than this. Many languages mix mood, evidentiality, etc. in with the tense-aspect-voice complex. And the distinctions are rarely as clean as they seem from IE. For example, look at Turkish's "simple tenses", which include note just things like aorist and future, but also things like necessitative. You can say the last one "isn't a tense" or "isn't a tense-aspect", but that doesn't change the fact that it combines with plain/story/rumor to form compound tenses in exactly the same way aorist does.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 6:51
  • @abarnert True! Honestly I think that "marking" is a better term in general, since very few languages have the nice tense-vs-aspect-vs-voice-vs-mood matrix that Ancient Greek does; I mostly want to make it clear that "tense" as in time isn't the only thing marked.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 6:57
  • Well, "marking" could mean case (or case-gender-definiteness-…) just as easily as tense-aspect-… Also, "marking" has even more uncomfortable Chomskyan "this feature marking forces the V to move to I" implications than "tense" does. But we're probably not going to solve all of the terminological problems of modern linguistics in a comment thread. And there's only so complicated your answer needs to be to make the point the OP needs. So I think it's fine as written.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 7:05
  • "on January 13th" can be split on to "on" and "January 13th". January 13th is considered usually to be a date but sometimes it's a tense like in your example because there is a "on" besides the date "January 13th" so January 13th is the tense not just the date in the context. Commented Jan 27, 2019 at 1:56

No, not really because some even have no tenses like Mandarin Chinese, where it doesn't seem to have those at all.

What I mean is that the Mandarin Chinese language has verbs with no tenses, in fact all of them so Mandarin Chinese doesn't have any tenses at all!

(You can also see that English only has past, non-past tenses.)

Only just some have those. Those are just the special languages.

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