Ranto Appendix – P


Some languages follow a scheme where every main clause must contain a marker, which is built right into the verbal conjugation system, to indicate whether the action is set in the past, present, or future (from the speaker's point of view).  Since this is true of many Indo‐European languages – and especially since it's true of Latin – it is taken absolutely for granted in traditional schoolbook grammar, and people often find it hard to grasp that there could be alternatives, let alone that they might have advantages.

However, only about half of all languages grammaticalise tense in anything like this fashion; and you don't need to go far to find one that doesn't work like Latin.  English does have grammatically compulsory tense marking on verbs, but it's only a two‐way distinction between past and non‐past; we don't strictly speaking have a “future tense”.  Seriously, don't listen to those classics‐crazed schoolteachers!  I will leave is just a modal construction – parallel to I can/should/must/may leave – with uses that include referring to a future time (compare I leave tomorrow).  That doesn't make it a grammatical future tense any more than o table! is a first‐declension feminine singular noun in the vocative case.

It's already routine in English to use a variety of present‐tense constructions when talking about the future, as in we're leaving soon, because it's going to start raining; and it's easy to imagine a minor variant of English applying the same sort of logic for past events – we're recently leaving, because the rain is coming from stopping.  Tense inflections are anything but essential!  Indeed, quite a lot of the time they're somewhere between useless and actively misleading:

In English you might plausibly argue that the simple non‐past form is just the unmarked default, not a present tense, but that certainly isn't true for Esperanto, where all the tenses are equally elaborately inflected; and Esperanto forces us to put these inflections on verbs that would be better off without them, treating sentences like the above as if they needed to be pinned to a timeframe just as much as my alarm clock is ringing.

Some of the languages completely lacking in tense inflections are weakly inflected in general, while others instead focus on signposting the subtly different concept of “aspect”.  Either way, this doesn't mean that they are incapable of specifying whether a thing happened in the past, present, or future; it just means that the question “when?” is treated the same way as others like “where/why/how often?”, and answered where relevant by means of adverbs or auxiliary verbs or the like.

As with all mandatory inflectional markers, replacing it with some sort of optional non‐inflectional modifier makes it easy to do things that Esperanto currently can't:

(If you think that last is never going to happen, ask a physicist.  In an Einsteinian universe, events in a distant galaxy are not necessarily part of my past, present, or future!)