To clarify, I'm not a linguist, and I only have a cursory grasp on any of this terminology, so sorry in advance for butchering it.

I'm wondering if any languages exist where one can recursively generate an infinite amount of tenses. I got thinking recently when learning french about how past perfect kind of does this in one dimension (past tense from the past tense, so to speak, albeit accomplished without recursive mechanisms, at least in the languages I know), but was wondering if some form of recursion could do so. Have any languages along these lines been discovered?

3 Answers 3


McCawley argues that recursively generated past tenses do exist in English. See discussion beginning about page 221 in Syntactic Phenomena of English. Past is a predicate of a sentence which may itself predicate Past of some sentence.


This is not exactly recursive because the recursion stops after one level, but it comes close to recursion: There is a formation termed Doppeltes Perfekt in German. Similar formations are also known from French and from Northern Italian dialects.

Basically, it extends the usual formation of the perfect tense auxilliary + past participle into auxilliary + past participle of the auxilliary + past particple.

  • Yeah, I understand that past perfect doesn't count. I was just wondering if certain languages employed recursion in a similar manner. Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 13:10
  • Summing up the linked description and my own experience, the Doppelte Perfekt is not used for a past before perfect. If there's an element of syntactic recursion, it does not primarily concern sequential time. It seems to express konjunktiv for one, or regular perfekt where participles are not recognized as perfect forms, instead as passives (e.g. "hat sich versteckt gehabt", and I'd add e.g. "geliebt", "getroffen"; "Hab' ich dich getroffen gehabt?") or rebased (?) infinitives (e.g. "gestehen", so we may construct "Er hatte gestanden gehabt, doch das Geständnis zurückgezogen").
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 21:59
  • @vectory: Well, it is, at least some times, used in place of the normal Plusquamperfekt aka Vorvergangenheit. Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 17:21

Tense is the grammaticalisation of temporal reference. Absolute tense relates a moment to the time of utterance or writing. So for a tense-prominent language like English, we have two morphological tenses: the past, indicating that a moment occurred before now, and the non-past tense, indicating it moment is now or in the future. It is debated whether the English auxiliary verb will should really be considered a future tense but from a functional perspective it fulfils the role of marking a moment after the time of utterance.

There is also relative tense which shifts the reference point away from the time of utterance. This is what the perfect in English does: it indicates that the moment happened prior to the primary tense. You can combine the perfect with all three tense options: the past (had), the present (have), the future (will have). In other words, it sets up a second level of relative time referencing. But it can also be used recursively. So with just one construction you can have recursive relative referencing:

By the time you read this I will have left by train, because I have never loved you, and I had lied when I said that I had fallen in love with you when I saw you the first time, but actually I had been spying on you for months because I had been sent after you because I had been recruited as a Soviet spy because I had a gambling debt because ...

But note that we wouldn't normally say that we have recursively generated tenses, each language still has a finite number of tenses which can be used recursively.

  • Any feedback? Anything wrong here or that I could improve?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 10:18

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