How does grammar shape our thoughts?

Grammar can influence how we perceive the world

Complicated grammar, difficult pronunciation and inconsistent spelling can all make learning a language difficult. But the aspect of new languages that I find most challenging is the different tenses. Tenses are hugely important because they shape the way we think about time and can offer us insights into cultural values.

So how do the 12 tenses of English compare to other languages? As English speakers we may assume that all languages must have at least a past, present and future tense. This is not the case. Many languages have only two tenses (e.g. future and non-future) or no tenses at all (e.g. tonal languages). Other languages contain tenses that do not exist in English. For example, the Tanzanian language of Bantu has tenses to describe separately events that happen “today” or “tomorrow.”

12 English tenses:
Present simple (I talk) Present continuous (I am talking)
Past simple (I talked)Past continuous (I was talking)
Future simple (I will talk)Future continuous (I will be talking)
Present perfect (I have talked)Present perfect continuous (I have been talking)
Past perfect (I had talked)Past perfect continuous (I had been talking)
Future perfect (I will have talked)Future perfect continuous (I will have been talking)

English is a relatively practical language. In comparison, languages such as Spanish and Italian are more philosophical in the way that their tenses represent ideas. For example, one of the past tenses in Spanish represents past habitual actions with no specified end that can include ideas such as past mental state, background information to an already defined event or to indicate past age/time. As a Spanish learner, trying to speak accurately in the past tenses can be a challenge because my English-speaking brain is not wired to think in the same way.

One of the largest tense systems is found in Turkish. Turkish has 26 tenses, including 8 past tenses. Agglutination is used to form these tenses. In other words, you add together different language particles to form a new word. This means there are lots of conjugations to learn but, unlike many other European languages, Turkish is highly regular (woo!). For anyone that is learning a Romance language, you will understand the pain of verb conjugation.

8 Turkish past tenses:
Simple past
(sevdim = I liked)
Necessitative past
(gelmeliydim = I should have come)
Past continuous
(ders çalışıyordum = I was studying)
Conditional past
(olsay= If only it had happened)
Future in the past
(gelecektim = I was going to come)
Pluperfect
(kalmıştım = I had stayed/failed by then)
Second form of future in the past
(girerdim = I would enter)
Reported past
(umarım evi temizlemişimdir = I hope I have cleaned the house)

In comparison, Mandarin Chinese has no verb conjugations and uses other methods to express time. You can directly state the time/day that the event happened by including words such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. Once the time frame has been established in a conversation you don’t need to mention it again. Simple statements can therefore be at any point in time, express a question or be a response. So a lack of verb conjugation can also be highly complex!

Let’s end by mentioning the greatest tense in existence. Japanese has a tense that is essentially dedicated to passive aggression. Literally its meaning can be translated to: “This event happened, and it really annoyed me.” I would love to know how this tense developed because I think it is absolutely brilliant.

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