Friday, March 30, 2012

Ruminating on Tense

You must understand that I see language as being almost synonymous with beauty. You may enjoy paintings, sculptures, music, dance and other forms of artistic expression. While it is not considered odd in our culture to be emotionally moved by these things it may seem odd to some that I find the study of languages to be an extremely moving experience. When I am learning a grammatical rule in any language it is difficult and yet so rewarding to master it. So although you may not see the following as much more than boring tripe about grammar stuff, I see it as an attempt at describing indescribable art and complexity.

How many main verb tenses are there in English? Most of us would answer that there are three, past, present, and future. In my grammar class, however, we were told that in reality there are technically only two tenses i.e. past and present. The reason for this being that in order to form the past and present the verb changes form. In order to form the future we simply add a modal to the present:

Present: I jump
Past: I jumped
Future: I [will or shall] jump

It is an interesting idea. Technically, we do not have a future tense. Now I was satisfied enough after hearing this. I thought it was interesting. Then in my Arabic class I was learning the future tense and I realized that in spite of all the differences between Arabic and English they had this principle in common. In both the past and present verb tenses the verb changes form. The present simply requires the addition of a modal to convert to future tense. Here is the verb "to study" (keep in mind arabic is read from right to left):

(I study)   Present:          انا ادرس 
(I studied)       Past:          انا درست
(I will study)    Future:  انا سوف ادرس

For the sake of not being misleading or incorrect, the past and future conjugations above are not complete sentences. In Arabic to be grammatically correct you need to specify when something happened. For example, "I studied yesterday" or "I will study tomorrow."

This realization made me happy because the similarities between Arabic and English are few and far between. So a grammatical rule that I understood from my first language was handy. But then I remembered another language that I studied a while back that has an even more intriguing system of verb conjugation. That language is, Haitian Creole. This language is interesting because when conjugating between the past, present, and future tenses, the verb does not change form. For example take the word "jwe" which means "to play" (jway; the j is pronounced as in the medial sound in meaSure).

Present: Mwen jwe.        (I play)
Past: Mwen te jwe.         (I played)
Future: Mwen va jwe.    (I will play)

Now it is also interesting to notice that there is a modal for both future and past in Haitian Creole. Another interesting thing is that in English the verb changes form depending on whom the verb is describing. This is not the case in Haitian Creole:

Mwen jwe.   (I play)
Ou jwe.        (You play)
Li jwe.         (It plays)

There is no difference in conjugation for the third person as there is in English. This unchanging verb form makes learning conjugation in Haitian Creole extremely easy compared to other languages that are much more complex.

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