More specifically, what I'm looking for is this: verbs have no conjugation or inflection; the only form is the infinitive. The language does have verb tenses, (past, present, future, conditional, etc), and the tense is indicated by an auxiliary verb, not surrounding context, e.g. forms like I will go and I did go, not I go tomorrow or I go yesterday.

Obviously the above examples show that English does this for some tenses, but I'm curious if there's a language that exclusively does it.

  • 1
    What do you mean by "tenses" and "conjugation"? It sounds like you're asking for a contradiction. All languages can refer to the past, present and future; not all languages have tenses. I suspect you are asking about tense inflection without subject inflection.
    – user6726
    Dec 12 '19 at 5:44
  • 4
    I don't think it is a contradiction - I think the asker is looking for languages which have tense morphemes that are not affixes. For example, Mandarin Chinese verbs do not inflect, but a particle (separate grammatical word) is added to the end of the sentence for various aspects (not quite tenses, but related) Dec 12 '19 at 5:55
  • 1
    I might not be using the term tenses correctly. I mean that there are different ways of using the verbs to indicate things such as different points or periods in time. And I mean that the verb word itself is not modified to do it.
    – adashrod
    Dec 12 '19 at 6:13
  • Japanese uses suffixes for tense and aspect, and also for respect, but there is no indexing of verb forms to match gender, number, person, or any other properties of the subject or object.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 14 '19 at 0:15

There are plenty of languages that do what you are looking for. In linguistic typology, languages that encode grammatical functions (such as tense) as separate words are called "isolating" (one mnemonic that I use is "they isolate the different meanings into different words"). Those separate words are frequently referred to as "particles."

Polynesian languages tend to have isolating verbs with a lot of tense particles. Some examples from the Wikipedia page on Hawai'ian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaiian_grammar#Tense,_aspect,_and_mood)

ua + verb: perfective aspect, past tense; or perfect tense/aspect (ua hana au "I worked", "I have worked"). Note that the pre-verbal marker ua is often omitted in speech.

i + verb: past tense (i hana au "I worked"); or, perfect participle (i hana "having worked", "who had worked")

e + verb + ana: imperfective aspect (e hana ana au "I was working", "I will be working")

ke + verb + nei: present tense, progressive aspect (ke hana nei au "I am working")

e + verb: future tense/mood (e hana au "I will work"); or, infinitive (e hana "to work"); or, imperative mood (e hana ʻoe "Work thou!")

mai + verb: negative imperative mood (mai hana ʻoe "Do not work thou!")

verb + ʻia: passive voice where the agent is marked by e (Ua hana ʻia ka honua e ka Haku. The world was created by the Creator.)

I also am providing a link to a map of languages with this set of features. Black means "have past tense and have a fully isolating typology," blue means "have past tense, and have both isolating and non-isolating typology, so might fit the bill," and white means "does not fit what you are looking for" https://wals.info/combinations/20A_66A?v6=c00d&v1=c000&v0=cfff&v14=cfff&v13=c00d&v8=c000&v7=cfff&v24=cfff&v27=cfff&v23=cfff&v22=cfff&v21=cfff&v26=cfff#2/25.5/153.0

Aspect is another grammatical category which is not quite tense, but similarly is an encoding for a verb in time. Mandarin Chinese uses particles to express aspect, so might also be what you are looking for.


I understand "conjugation" as combination of a verbal stem with pronominal affixes, and "inflexion" as vocalic modification of the verbal stem.
This being said, an example is Coptic. AFAIK, verbal forms in Coptic combine independent pronouns followed by more or less complex Tense-Mood-Aspect-Modality forms followed by a stable verbal stem.
Plenty of languages actually have that kind of system. "conjugation" and "inflection" as defined above are not the most frequent situation (IMHO).

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