Teach Yourself Japanese
Subject: Re: future tense
From: Alexander Poquet (atpoquetucdavis.edu)
Date: Wed, 03 Apr 2002 02:16:03 GMT
This may interest you.
Technically, English (and all Germanic languages, it's a feature of the phyla) also possesses a two-tense inflective system (unlike the Romance languages, for example). We require the use of a modal verb (will) to specify the future tense; the grammar does not explicitly mark it, and instead we must do it lexically (like Japanese).
Consider the phrase "Tomorrow we go to war." Note the lack of the "will" modal. It is unnecessary; the tense is understood from context. Some languages are much more pedantic about temporal agreement and require the future tense in this phrase for consistancy.
While it is true that English is more pedantic in general regarding tense than Japanese is, think a bit on this. You may realize that the lack of a future tense (which is often confusing to speakers of European languages who think they depend on that bit of information) is actually not that important. Some very isolating languages do not require that tense be marked at all! Likewise, some languages distinguish more than simply past/present/future.
At any rate, in Japanese, you are best off not referring to the "present" as such, because it isn't. The terms "past" and "nonpast" are much more fitting. The "present" is much too flexible (temporally) to be called a present.
This post becomes off-topic from here on out :)
Along similar lines, it has been my experience that many students of Japanese are bothered by the lack of number marking. Many words in English are not marked for number; fish, deer, to name two. This doesn't bother anyone, right? In French, number is marked orthographically but rarely orally -- again rarely posing a problem.
As a rule of thumb, there is a notion in linguistics which hypothesizes a lexicon/grammar balance. Very heavily inflected languages (like Finnish) are often more limited in vocabulary because so much of what is described lexically in other languages is a grammatical feature of the language; similarly, comparitively non-inflected languages (like Chinese, or even English) describe things lexically rather than grammatically. Which is better? Neither. Both have their strengths.
For example, the phrase in German: "den Mann kenne ich" versus "ich kenne den Mann" are the same sentence with a subtle change of focus made possible by the case-marking in German. Adequate translation into English cannot be achieved without lengthy explanation. The same permutation of word-order is not possible in English, because our case-marking is weak. Japanese can approximate the distinction with the topic marker "wa".
However, try to say "He's been going to go work on that for a while now and hasn't" in any language other than English and you'll quickly realize how flexible and subtle English's tense system is -- exactly because it avoids overly inflecting its verbs. (English has a recursive tense system.)
Anyway, hope that was interesting.
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