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Alles das man sagen kann, das kann man klar sagen

“All that can be said can be said clearly”

    - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung.

 I am afraid that somebody rattled my cage. On the discovery that some not widely spoken language had no fewer than five past tenses, that somebody observed that the more people who spoke a language, the fewer tenses that language has. Perhaps they were thinking of Putonghua, or Mandarin, which has one verbal form that is used for everything. Obviously Mandarin makes great use of particles and what we would call adverbs to refine the meaning. English, though, is the most widely used language on the planet, and without giving it much thought I listed ten past tenses. Just because English does not have many verbal forms (go, goes, going, went, gone) does not mean that it does not have many tenses. Here are my original ten past tenses as listed.

1. I was going                               Imperfect

2. I went 2 meanings:                Preterite and Aorist

3. I used to go                              Perfective continuous

4. I have gone                               Perfect

5. I had gone                                 Pluperfect

6. I have been going *                 Imperfective continuous

7. I had been going                      Pluperfect continuous

8. I did go Two meanings:          I DID go, emphatic; I did GO, Perfect **

9. I would have gone                   Perfect conditional

10. I would have been going      Imperfect conditional

      * I have been going is only regarded as a past tense in English. In other languages this is a present formation, as in the French Je vais à l'école depuis trois années = “ I have been going to school for three years”.


      ** As in Shadrach, Neshach and Abednego

 Into the fiery furnace they did go.

There are of course other constructions, some of which would count as tenses in certain other languages. For instance:

1. I had to go                          Past necessitative

2. I used to have to go         Perfective of the same

We can also identify:

1. I have been on the point of going                 (This has a present meaning)

2. I had been on the point of going                   Past tense

3. I would have been on the point of going     Past conditional

It should be noted that all these forms belong to everyday English speech and would be understood by every native English speaker. For the sake of completeness we might mention the Imperfect Subjunctive though I were going, which is certainly no longer in current use.

 At this point I should like to explain the concept of aspect, which is crucial to many of the languages with which we are most familiar. That means the distinction between perfective (completed action) and imperfective (incomplete action). This is especially fundamental to the Slavonic languages. Russian has only one past tense, but there are separate forms for the perfective and imperfective, which combined with an impressive array of prefixes enables the language to take its place as one of Europe's great literary languages.

 Latin has only three past tenses: Imperfect, Perfect, and Pluperfect. Perhaps our languages spokesman was thinking of Latin when he stated that widely spoken languages have fewer tenses. Latin did, however, lack for subtlety; it was a farmers' language that had been pressed into service to administer an empire. Even so, the three tenses each had a subjunctive form, that is, a form that describes the potential rather than the actual. English has almost lost the subjunctive, and American writers who try to hang on to it generally use the wrong form. French makes do with two tenses that have a subjunctive form, the Present and the Imperfect. However, not many French people know how to use the Imperfect Subjunctive, and the Past Conditional tense is generally preferred. By and large it is confined to users with a literary education. For example:

 C'est vers le moyen âge, énorme et délicat

 Qu'il faudrait que mon cœur en panne naviguât. - Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).

 Before English, the nearest we ever came to having a world language was Ancient Greek, which in its heyday was used for trade, science and culture from York to Kandahar. How many past tenses does Greek have? The answer is just four: Imperfect, Aorist (or narrative Past), Perfect, and Pluperfect. Yet the Greek verb is one of the most terrifying constructs of the human imagination. I counted all the forms of a regular verb once, and got 478, including infinitives and participles. And there don't seem to be many regular verbs either. The complexity is contrived thus:

 Tenses, six. That is, the four past tenses plus Present and Future.

      Number. Singular, Dual, and Plural. (English retains two relics of the old Indo-European Dual: the word both and the comparative adjective.) (The Latin nos for “we” was originally the Dual form (“we two”) which at some remote time absorbed the standard Indo-European plural form that we have in English.)

 Mood. Indicative, Imperative, Subjunctive, and Optative. The latter is used for wishing, but it got muddled up with the Subjunctive in most modern languages and disappeared.

 Voice. Active, Middle and Passive. Think of it this way: Active: I am building a house; Passive: The house is being built; Middle: I am having a house built. The trouble with this is that there are theoretically as many as six ways for a verb to be deponent. In Latin Deponent verbs are common: they are described as having a passive form but an active meaning. But adding the Middle Voice into the equation enables a vast complexity to operate. Furthermore, there are verbs that are part-deponent, which means that some tenses of the same verb are deponent and others not.

 Then there are forms that are difficult to imagine what use they could have been put to. English has an imperative in the present tense only: Go! Greek has imperatives in all the tenses. For no good reason I can remember the second person singular imperatives in all the tenses of the “regular” verb luo “I loose”. Lue luson luou lusai leluso luthēti!!!

 Just when the unfortunate student is starting to think he has got the hang of all this, he turns the page of the textbook and finds that there is another set of verbs altogether – verbs in -mi. There is as it happens just one residual verb in -mi in the English language: I am. Greek eimi, Sanskrit asmi. And of course there is the full set of numbers, tenses, moods and voices, plus deponency. For instance, “I can” is dunamai, which is a Middle Deponent verb in -mi.

 Wealthy Romans would employ a slave called a “pedagogue” to beat the Greek language into their sons, a practice that was copied in nineteenth-century public schools in England. What I am saying is that complexity is no bar to a language being used widely. What counts is status, to achieve which people will put themselves, or at least their children, through any amount of torment.

 Speakers of European languages have been accustomed to thinking of the structure of language as if it were Latin or Greek. Hence the technical terms are drawn from Latin grammarians. But there is no need for these patterns to operate elsewhere. We have mentioned Chinese, with one form instead of the Greek 478. The Nama language of South West Africa has two past tenses. They are not Perfect and Pluperfect, enabling the user to assemble actions in time (“I cooked dinner after I had washed the saucepans”) but Near Past and Remote Past. I do not know how the users decide when an action is near and when it is remote.

 French has a most unusual verb form called the Past Historic. It is not used in speech, only in narrative writing. When you think that writing is supposed to be a means of recording the spoken language, then French disproves that idea. The Past Historic is the inflected past tense, that is, it relies on verb endings and not on auxiliary verbs. It is not the only language with a special form for written narrative. Welsh has a “Narrative Infinitive”. This enables long stories to be told without the constant repetition of the same verb endings, which would sound tedious, for the “infinitive” is usually the simplest form of the verb. Specialists will complain that the Welsh infinitive is not an infinitive at all but a verbal noun, but that is a bit nit-picking in my opinion. Hebrew had a narrative future, presumably for the same reason. Some of the prophecies in the Bible are probably not prophecies at all but narrative descriptions.

 Here is a footnote concerning aspect, that is, the distinction between completed action and incomplete action. Let us look at the final two lines of Moïse by Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863):

  Josué s'avançait, pensif et pâlissant,

  Car il était déjà l'élu du Tout-Puissant.

  “Joshua stepped forward, thoughtful and growing pale,

  For he was already the Almighty's chosen one.”

The standard narrative past would be s'avança. By using the imperfect tense, Vigny is implying incomplete action, that is, entirely justified hesitancy on the part of Joshua. It is just one change in the vowel sound, but the extra meaning packed into it is tremendous. How do we cope in English? We do not have the right tense for our translation to do justice to Vigny. The best way, probably the only way, is to change the verb altogether. Instead of “Joshua stepped forward” we need to say “Joshua started forward”.

 It is probably fair to say that any language that is not a pidgin or a creole has a means of saying anything that needs to be expressed; constant conversation will see to that. Different languages have evolved different modes of expression. It would be improper to claim that our language, or any other, is more refined, or more efficient. Even a brief understanding of how languages work is conducive to a respect for the cultures that have produced them.


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