Do certain languages have verb tenses that we don't have in English?

I’m just curious if other languages have tenses that don’t exist in English. For instance, in French, there’s the subjunctive, which I don’t think exists in English.

In Chinese, there aren’t really tenses at all. While, I think I’ve heard that a certain group (in South America, perhaps) uses the future tense as the present. Does that make any sense?

There is a subjunctive mood (note: mood, not tense) in English. It’s only distinguishable from the indicative mood in some cases. There’s also some dialectal variation about how much it’s used.

There are languages with more tenses than English and languages with less tenses. This doesn’t mean that some languages can express certain ideas about when something happened and other can’t. All languages can express approximately the same amount of information about when something happened. Some languages do this by changes in the verb and some do it by adding other words to the sentence.

The subjunctive mood exists in English. It’s just not used as commonly as in French. Examples:

If I were rich I’d travel the world.
If that be the case, we have a problem.

I’m sat here thinking about the subjunctive mood .

Does the above count as such or am I totally off?

Is “I used to could” an example of the English pluperfect?

Japanese has a number of tenses that don’t exist in English (at least, I think they don’t) :

  • the causative tense (to be forced/allowed to do X)
  • the passive-causative tense
  • the conditional tense (if I do X)
  • the imperative tense (commands)
  • the volitional tense (let’s do X)

Japanese verbs can also be conjugated as negatives.

Not exactly what you’re going for, but Japanese also lacks ambitransitive verbs, which makes learning the language difficult for English speakers.

It’s non-standard, or informal, because “could” is not the infinitive form of the verb can/could – that verb has no infinitive form in standard usage, and you have to use “be able to”. The verb “used” is the past form of “use”, which is rarely used in the present form these days in this sense, but forms a sort of past continuous tense as an auxilliary verb.

Most English verb tenses are formed with auxilliary verbs: without them, you only get the simple present tense (e.g., “I go”), and the simple past tense (e.g., “I went”). Some common auxilliary vebs that form tenses are:
be (e.g., “I am going”)
do (e.g., “I did go”)
go (e.g., “I am going to go”)
will (e.g., “I will go”)
and have, which in its past tense forms the English pluperfect tense (e.g., “I had gone”)

Here’s a famous quote playing with the subjunctive in English:

You’re totally off. A sentence by itself can hardly take the subjunctive mood in English AFAIK; it turns up in subordinate clauses of complex sentences to indicate hypotheticals and so on.

The prayer book we used to use in church had the following at one point in Holy Communion: The sermon (if there be one). It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t a piece of 17th-century dialect on the lines of “I be old Bayleaf the gardener, zur”.

In French it’s easier for a peeved cabbie to complain about the size of his tip by saying <<Que voudriez-vous que je fasses avec trente-six centimes?>> but in English the most idiomatic translation just falls back on the inifinitive: “What do you want me to do with 24p?”. We could say “What do you wish that I do with 24p?” but that just looks like the indicative; only in the third person singular can we draw the distinction in a sentence like “He’s got a point, dude: what do you wish that he do (not “does”) with 24p?” But unless you’re a grammarian you’d never talk like that. :smiley:

It counts as bad grammar, I think, but English is my second language.

While the subjunctive exists in English, it’s certainly a lot rarer than in Spanish (and Catalan, but Catalan-speakers are mostly bilingual with Spanish). One of our worst problems is how to express in English the kind of things for which we’d use a subjunctive in Spanish.

Spanish indicative has 10 tenses; subjunctive has 6; imperative has 1. We consider the combinations “haber”+participle as their own tenses, not sure if this is the case in English since we were never taught English grammar at the level that we were taught Spanish one… do you consider “to have done” as a tense or a verbal combination?

In my experience, you rarely find exact matches in tenses from one language to another. When you see them listed they may appear similar, but you can find some pretty big differences in usage. English actually has more tenses than the other languages I’m familiar with - some might even say that English takes a perverse pleasure in it - ‘If he had been seen to be going, he wouldn’t have had to explain why he hadn’t had to’… aaarrrgghh ! There are probably languages out there with more tenses, although I couldn’t say which ones.

For example - French has no equivalent to the present perfect and no present continuous - so a word for word translation of ‘I’m writing this post’ will come out as ‘I write this post’. Obviously context, adverbs etc will complete the information (although occasionally it is simply not explicitly stated).

Tenses are often used in ways that are not intuitive with regard to past / present / future - you might say ‘I’m staying at home tonight’, and not ‘I will stay at home tonight’ or ‘I’m going to stay at home tonight’. And for the really complicated you could say ‘I will be staying at home tonight’.

Would you say that Japanese has more distinct tenses than English ? When I was teaching English I used to warn my students that we don’t conjugate much, but we have a lot of finicky tenses.
Are the Japanese volitional and imperative two distinct tenses - do they conjugate for all persons ?

To take a tangent I am always perplexed as to why English speakers almost never use the present tense for action in the present (we say “I am playing basketball,” rather than “I play basketball,” which is used to mean that I often play basketball, or I know how to) but newspaper headlines use the present tense for events that occurred in the past (“Dewey Defeats Truman”).

This is called the “historic present” it is used to give the sensation of immediacy. “A man walks into bar and asks for a beer …”
I play - just gives a general fact, true in present time
I’m playing - gives the added information that the duration of the activity is limited
example “I’m learning German” the course has a set length; “It’s raining” it has to stop sooner or later !

English has no future tense, per se. The future is indicated by using the auxiliary “will” and the zero form of the verb (i.e., the infinitive without the “to”), but it is not a tense:

Other languages have an actual future tense that needs to be conjugated. French, for instance, has one that differs from other tenses.

Yes, I’ve always thought that “present tense” is a bit of a misnomer. You can also use it for future events (“tomorrow, we drive to Chicago”). It’s the anything-but-present tense, surely?

Gitfiddle, as others have said it is difficult to translate tenses from one language to another - you are not just translating words but concepts of time and perceptions of facts. However, the most obvious example is that we do not have a “Future Tense” in English, we have a dozen or so ways of talking about future time but we do not have a true inflected future tense.

Giles was on the right tracks but we get caught up in terminology. If we consider a “tense” to be a change to the form of the main verb then we have two tenses Present (I work, he works) and Past (I worked, he worked) which give us the basic fact that something is, or was, true.

We then use a variety of auxiliary verbs to add layers of meaning. In the basic, simple form, “do” is used to indicate negation or questioning. Some are also used in the affirmative form and add an idea of time (be = limited duration, have = a link with the past). The modals (can, should, will et al.) give an extra nuance or impression of a situation.

Reality Chuck you beat me to it - serves me right for posting from work !

Usram you’d love a guy called Michael Lewis - in his “The English Verb” he proposes a new naming system for English verb forms which does away with the misleading time references.

The Greek aorist is used for past action, but in a sense that is not strictly parallel to any English or Romance-language construction. (And one I do not understand well enough to try to explicate it.) One of the classic minor arguments in New Testament studies centers on a particular aorist form, along with a parallel subordinate conjunction:

Now, “knew her not” is that famous Biblical euphemism for “[did not] have sex with.” And this construction seems to imply that Joseph held off on intercourse with Mary until after Jesus had been born. Period. Implication: “afterwards, all bets are off; they did the dirty like any married couple.”

But that is the implication in English. The tense for “to know” and the Greek conjunction translated “till” do not carry the “present perfect” meaning that English does. “Bill Clinton served as President until Jan 20, 2001” implies to everyone that that’s the date his term ended. But in Koiné Greek, “Wm Rehnquist served as Chief Justice until Jan 20, 2001” is equally true – and, as obvious, does not carry the “that’s when he stopped” implication. The Greek preposition might more clearly be translated “at least through” – the aorist verb, “continued to [not] know her [at least until and by implication past a given later event, viz, Jesus’s birth].”

All of which is of course food for a lot of interdenominational arguments.

But the point is that the Greek aorist has no single clear English translation – it definitely refers to certain past events, but its meaning shifts contextually among a variety of English constructions.
Then it may be worthwhile to observe the satem group Indo-European languages’ use of aspect: Two parallel verbs, one of which implies continued action and the other completed action, used interchangeably to make the sort of distinctions we would usually make with periphrastic constructions: “He wrote [impf.] for at least four hours daily over a fifty year span. As a result, he wrote [perf.] over 200 books between 1940 and 1990.”

It’s also worth noting that while Irish [Gaelic] preserves tenses in the strict grammatical sense, its marked preference syntactically is to use periphrastic constructions in place of them. The famous Irish-dialect style (“Sure, and would you be after giving me a cite for that?” ;)) is a stereotypical attempt to render bilingual Irish people’s efforts to utilize that familiar syntactic style in English.

Slight tangent, but English also has a weird tense where “future” wording is used to indicate completed events, as when a football announcer says, “that will make it Chiefs 20, Raiders 17” after the Chiefs kick a field goal.

He’s allowing for the guys on the scoreboard to do the maths :wink: