I have found a mention on such a system among some South American native languages in Adam Jacot de Boinod's book I Never Knew There's A Word For It.

Non-academic reading, which doesn't make it less interesting. Yet the fact of it being non-academic allowed the author to spare the important details.

Can someone help me with specific names of such languages? Thank you in advance.

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    Do you mean a different tense/aspect system for speaking of mythological events? The grammatical equivalent of "Once upon a time, ..."?
    – jlawler
    Jan 23, 2013 at 21:24
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    wals.info/feature/66A, something to start with.
    – Alex B.
    Jan 24, 2013 at 2:22
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    @jlawler Yes, kind of. In the atlas link provided by Alex B there is such a featire in Maidu (...the suffix pa?áje idicates 'a time long ago in ancient or mythical times; long before my time'' (Shipley 1965:52). There also was an example of Yagua.
    – Manjusri
    Jan 24, 2013 at 10:59
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    One of the best review articles on this is Botne 2012 oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/…
    – Alex B.
    Jan 25, 2013 at 17:57
  • The example of Yagua is given at the WALS. A detailed description of the language is available in this 1985 PhD thesis(14 MB pdf). The relevant tense is described p244 as PAST3 Sep 10, 2013 at 17:35

2 Answers 2


Kawesqar is an example of such a language. In fact, quite a few languages have tenses that tend to be used in myths, stories, fairy tales, etc.

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    Here, too, some examples and more details would be useful.
    – robert
    Sep 9, 2013 at 19:17

I'm sure I've read the following idea written by a linguist somewhere. I didn't manage to find the reference and I'd love to have serious references for that. The following is mainly a first person description of my native language's grammar, on an aspect which is not taught at school, but seems obvious in retrospect.

Such an indigenous language is my native modern French ! The tense corresponding to mythological/ancestral past is passé simple (French Wikipedia link, with more details, but in French).

Basically, this past tense was used for distant past event (older than 24h) in the 18th century but totally disappeared from oral speech by the beginning og the 20th century. It stayed in formal writing, and by now only appears in old text and fairy tales. For example, when my 8 years old niece invents a fairy tale, it is at the passé simple tense, and it is the only occasion she ever uses this tense.

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    Interesting, but I would think this is more some kind of "archaic register* than a "marked ancestral past". Kind of like using "thee" and "thou" in English. I'm not an expert in these fields though ... Sep 10, 2013 at 17:57
  • It is not so archaic, but more formal, and evolving. I would say that in 20th century, it was almost only used as a kind of narrative past, and for children born in this century, it has become "the mythical distant past of fairy tales", which is also marked by "il était une fois" (once upon a time). But I'm not a linguist myself. Sep 10, 2013 at 21:55
  • "Archaic" and "archaism" have specific meanings within linguistics. Basically consciously using words and forms no longer common to impart a certain flavour. The OP is asking about something where you would be able to choose between two contrasting forms in the same context depending on the timeframe. Possibly even in the same sentence. Much like you can mix past, present, and future freely. Sep 11, 2013 at 3:06
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    Passé simple is clearly an achaism in this sense, but only for the 1st and 2nd person. (Plus-que-Parfait and Imparfait du subjonctif are achaism in all person). Remains used in the third person (see e.g. the intro of this 2011 paper about passé simple acquisition in children (pdf)). Sep 11, 2013 at 9:41

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