From my understanding of Chinese, the language lacks any sort of grammatical tense but is instead very aspect driven when describing actions.

Is this a reoccurring pattern among languages with a high use of grammatical aspect?

  • I don't know, how would you rate English? And Ancient Greek? The continuous in English and the aorist in Greek are very prominent, and yet they have all sorts of tenses—depending on your definition of tense, of course, since linguists use wildly different definitions. According to some linguists, a tense has to be a single word, while others treat tense as a property of a clause, not a verb. The mainstream definition is more fluid and less easy to pin down. – Cerberus Feb 11 '13 at 22:53
  • There is grammatical tense in Chinese. Analytic languages, unlike synthetic ones, simply use separate morphemes (words) to indicate tense and aspect. A good example is Verb + 了. It can mean tense (past continuous, past perfect, nearest future), aspect (changing state), or mood (comparative). – bytebuster Feb 11 '13 at 23:02
  • @bytebuster: 了 marks perfect aspect -- it's incorrect to say that it indicates past tense. Consider a sentence like 明天吃了早饭就去打篮球吧, where the action it's describing is in the future. Also, the sentence final particle use of 了, which is the one marking a change in state, has a different distribution to the aspect marker -- it's always sentence final, while 了 is a post-verbal clitic. They are separate morphemes. – jogloran Feb 12 '13 at 8:49
  • There is, however, an analysis by Sybesma of a possible tense marking sense of sentence-final de in Mandarin and lei4 in Cantonese. It's behind a paywall, but the article's title is Exploring Cantonese tense. – jogloran Feb 12 '13 at 8:51

There is actually a chapter on perfective-imperfective aspect in the free online resource, The World Atlas of Language Structures, where this hypothesis is discussed and specifically rejected by the authors. Here is the relevant quotation from it:

Even if perhaps not so often formulated as an explicit hypothesis, there seems to be a widespread view of tense and aspect as alternatives to each other – that languages tend to be either “tense languages” or “aspect languages”. If this were the case, we would expect a negative correlation between imperfectives and perfectives on the one hand, and pasts and futures on the other. The data presented here provide no support for such a conclusion. In fact, there are considerably more languages in the sample that have both the aspectual and temporal categories, or neither of the alternatives, than have one only. It is plausible that there is rather a positive correlation between all the categories under discussion and the general morphological complexity of the verb.

Östen Dahl, Viveka Velupillai. 2013. Perfective/Imperfective Aspect. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/65, Accessed on 2015-03-31.)

  • This reminds me of Maddieson 1984's comment that large vowel inventories tend to go along with large consonant inventories (and I believe with surprasegmental complexity). – adam.baker May 31 '18 at 8:46

Compared with English, Chinese does not have the rich performances of tense and aspect. 了 is used for the multiple functions including tense, aspect and mood, for examples: 我刚才吃了。past tense. 我们吃了后再走吧。aspect. 我现在就去吃了,好吧。mood. 我说了他了。aspect+tense. At the same time, Chinese has reduplication which is often treated as aspect. However, the identical use of reduplication cannot be found in English.


For example, all Slavic languages use aspect heavily — almost every verb is either perfective or imperfective; however there are tenses, and even a lot of tenses in some languages (seven or more).

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