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Is there a name for languages that have no specific past tense? For example, in the language of Kiribati there is no separation between past and present tense. To indicate the past, one must specify when exactly (i.e. yesterday, a few days ago, last week, last month).

I'm specifically interested in how societies with oral transmission of traditional knowledge think about the past as related to the present, and how this is embodied in language - are there established linguistic theories about this?

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    No, there's no special term for it. There are so many possible configurations of tense, aspect, and modality that nobody wastes special names on one unless it's very very unusual. – jlawler May 20 '14 at 0:40
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    I think, all languages can express tenses, however they do it in different ways. Analytic/isolating languages have no morphological ways to do that, but they express past tense by syntax: vs. 吃了. – bytebuster May 20 '14 at 3:10
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    @bytebuster, linguists usually use the term 'tense' to refer to verbal morphology for indicating location of the event in time. By that definition many languages don't have past tense, but all languages have a way of indicating that an event happened in the past. – Gaston Ümlaut May 20 '14 at 6:19
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    There's no relation between lack of literacy and lack of tense, since already in the earliest recorded languages we find well-developed tense systems. – TKR May 20 '14 at 18:37
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    "Tenseless languages" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenseless_language might be a subset of what you're looking for. But there are probably also other subsets, e.g. languages with a "future/non-future" tense dichotomy – dainichi May 22 '14 at 0:42
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There are many possible tenses and thus even more possible combinations of tenses, so many that it is unlikely that each has a name.

Tenseless languages to not distinguish tenses at all. Thus they are a subset of the languages with no distinct past tense (as @dainichi commented).

Similarly, the nonfuture tense implies a lack of distinction between the past and the present. That subset of languages with no distinct past tense includes Rukai, Greenlandic, and Quechua.

Because it is unlikely that there exists a language with a nonpresent tense, ie one that distinguishes past and future from present but not from each other, the union of the set of tenseless languages and the set of languages with nonfuture tense is, I believe, what you seek.

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Here is a copy of a post about present/past/future tense in Indonesian. Priscilla 86, the poster, is Indonesian.

Our verbs don't change whether an action takes place in the past, present, or future. We simply have to insert time-qualifying words somewhere in our sentences (usually in the beginning). Also, we don't differentiate between singular and plural or male and female.

For example:

  1. Present: She eat the cake.
  2. Present continuous: She now eat cake.
  3. Past: Yesterday she eat the cake / she already eat the cake / she just eat the cake.
  4. Future*: Tomorrow she eat the cake.

The underlined words are the time-qualifying words.

  • We do have some sort of future tense. We have a word that means 'will' that we can add to a sentence. Sentence #4 can also be written: Tomorrow she will eat the cake but it will sound formal.

In daily conversation, saying 'Tomorrow she eat the cake' will suffice as you have already qualified the time by saying tomorrow, so you don't really need to add will to the sentence as it is implied.

Source: http://forum.thefreedictionary.com/postst143558_Writing.aspx

There are a lot more Asian languages which express tenses in this simple way. And their concept of past/present/future time is as clear as ours. You could call such languages "languages without conjugation".

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