Since "present tense" might not be meaningful for some languages, the question could better be phrased as "Are there languages that wouldn't describe the actions in a picture with the same tenses or structures that they would use to describe actions happening in the present?".

This question is inspired for this one in English Learners SE, where the OP asked why English uses present continuous to describe the actions in a picture painted long ago, even if those actions actually happened long ago. Somebody asking that about English seems to mean that it is not an universal feature of all languages, and in fact it seems that other ways could be possible.

I've checked Wikipedia articles on pictures in the languages I can grasp (some Romance and Germanic languages and Basque) and as far as I can tell all of them describe what happens in the pictures using the equivalents to present simple or present continuous, as if the actions in the pictures were happening right now.

Are there languages that do otherwise?

  • 1
    I think it's the same in Japanese, like 「あれ、おかしな帽子かぶってるね」 rather than 「…かぶってたね」.
    – Angelos
    Jun 2, 2020 at 14:30
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    Depending on what you see on the picture you can describe it differently even in English ("a man stared to a dog", "a man who just fell from a rock", "one man killed another one"),
    – Anixx
    Jun 3, 2020 at 9:42
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    Maybe languages with a perfective/nonperfective system do this. I'm thinking of Arabic, but don't actually know the language. Jun 3, 2020 at 14:37
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    Just for clarification: In English, we describe such a picture with "a man is holding a hare", and if we saw an actual man (not a picture) holding a hare we would describe what is happening as "a man is holding a hare". Same tense, although if the picture represents an actual man, he hold the hare long ago. The question is whether this is an universal feature or if there are languages that would use different tenses to describe what is happening now in real life and what is happening in a picture.
    – Pere
    Sep 5, 2022 at 9:06
  • 1
    It may seem natural that this must be universal, but there are many features that feel natural to be universal until we learn that some languages do it in a different way. That's what makes it worth asking.
    – Pere
    Sep 5, 2022 at 9:09

3 Answers 3


It isn't clear whether the question is specifically about pictures, and if so, what kind of pictures. Under one interpretation, English; under another interpretation, probably no language. The differences that I am alluding to are about the perspective that a person might take given a certain task, and how those perspectives relate to grammar. I suggest that attention should be paid to experimentally controlling the assumptions made by language subjects, as is standard in semantic and pragmatic fieldwork.

The first question is, what is "normal behavior" for reporting events as you observe them. It is not normal to narrate a thing happening in front of you (plural), instead you might make comments to the guy next to you, such as "OMG he just kicked the dude!" or "He's gonna fall on his butt" or "He's beating the pants off of Tom". That is one narrative context, which doesn't involve pictures. A similar narrative context is when you are reporting events in real time to a person who can't see what is going on. A third context is professional broadcasting, which may or may not be the same (because professional broadcasters may follow a professional style that is not used by ordinary people).

There are various theories of information about events related to "when" questions, for example the Neo-Reichenbachian theory which seems to be the most widely adopted in linguistics, which relies on three time concept: utterance time, topic time and event time. Utterance time and event time are fairly straightforward (it's about external actions, namely the event and the act of uttering). Topic time is, to put it one way, "the time which the sentence is about", which is not totally self evident. In telling a story, the narrator may "put themselves in the past" and therefore use a present tense form, or they may "remain in the present" and talk about past events as though they are in the past.

This flexibility of perspective seems to exist in every language, but nevertheless there are cultural conventions. The present tense was used in the Star Trek "Darmok" narrative, even though the events were in the (far) past.

A picture being a representation of an event, that abstraction can be temporally removed from the event that it represents, but w.r.t. "the things that happened", it is (especially if it is a photograph) less-removed from the event than a verbal description or stick-figure drawing – it is more vivid, which encourages a "current time" perspective. Therefore, you can easily describe what's going on in the picture in the present, or in the past.

However, the perspective that you take is highly influenced by why you are saying anything in the first place. If somebody asks a "present-relevant" question about the question such as "which person is Julius Caesar", the question is not about what JC was doing 2 millennia ago, it is about the picture that we see right now, so the natural response would be "He is the guy wearing red velvet". If the question is what event this picture reports, you could say "JC executed his enemy" (assuming a fait accompli in the picture) and "JC is executing his enemy" would be unnatural. However, if the picture depicts the actual execution, that would be a natural response.

I do not believe that there are languages that have special grammatical rules for pictures. Instead, there may be cultural conventions governing the perspective that you use in talking about an event. Photographs especially have a special ability to make past events more "vital" and present-relevant.


Punjabi lacks tense of any kind in most sentences so it kind of does not fit this question well. When you ask about if the same structures are used to indicate something is in the present, strictly speaking there are no structures to indicate the present inherent to the language. Instead, time relative to the situation is simply extralinguistic, and does not have to influence the structure of a sentence. There is one word which has tense, ਹੈ, but its use is optional, and not necessarily indicative of time on its own.

So there is no distinction to be made for pictures, but if you are still interested to know examples of how this idea of indicating present continuous tense is not universal, this is technically one. In this case, it is just because we do not have to indicate this anywhere.

Citation: Bhardwaj (2016). Panjabi: A Comprehensive Grammar, Chapter 11.

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    Interesting, but I'm not sure this answers the question. The asker specifies how the question applies to languages without tense: they're asking if you'd mark the actions in a picture in a different way than you'd mark actions happening right in front of you. And it sounds like Punjabi would mark those in exactly the same way (namely: not marking them at all, by default).
    – Draconis
    Sep 5, 2022 at 3:06
  • Every language has structures which indicate something taking place at the present time. Such structures may not be different from structures indicating that something takes place in the past or future, but they are there nonetheless. As @Draconis says, if present actions are generally unmarked and picture descriptions are equally unmarked, then they are in fact treated the same, using the same structures. Sep 5, 2022 at 13:01
  • "Every language has structures which indicate something taking place at the present time." This is not true of Punjabi. A statement does not have to be placed temporally. Sep 6, 2022 at 18:14
  • @earlyinthemorning So you’re saying Punjabi speakers cannot describe or comment on anything that takes place in the present moment? That is obviously untrue – it would be useless as a tool of communication. As I said, every single language ever spoken on earth has ways to describe events that are currently taking place, including Punjabi. Even if constructions used for current events are the same as those used for past or future events, they are still there, and it is by definition the case, then, that describing pictured events will use the same constructions as describing present events. Sep 7, 2022 at 14:20
  • There is a distinction between requiring that the time of the situation be indicated in the grammar, and that information simply remaining information (non-grammatically). This is what I took "structures which indicate something taking place" to mean. By analogy, English requires pronouns to match the gender of their antecedent (If "Mary" is female, then "Mary" must be "she.") Punjabi does not as pronouns are ungendered and are structured based on proximity instead. This does not mean we cannot discuss gender, but this particular structure is not require it where English does. Sep 8, 2022 at 20:30

The question most likely came from a person who has one present tense in their language, and in English classes they usually strictly teach foreigners that present continuous is only used for things that are happening now, at the moment. So, the formal logic suggested that person that present indefinite or another tense would be possibly better suited, even if in their native language they would use just present.

  • 2
    I don't see how this answers the question.
    – TKR
    Jun 3, 2020 at 19:44
  • +1 Probably it doesn't answer the question, but it's a frame challenge of the guess in the question that the author of the other question's language doesn't use present tense to describe what happens in a picture. Not the answer, but still worth upvoting - specially given the lack of an actual answer.
    – Pere
    Dec 24, 2021 at 12:11

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