Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Free "Will" and the Future Tense

As people interested in such matters know, the consensus since Jespersen has been that English has only two tenses, a past and a present, because the future tense is indicated by an auxiliary verb -- will -- rather than an inflectional ending. I find this argument unconvincing, because it relies on a definition of "tense" that seems entirely arbitrary. Anyhow, I realized while reading the linked post why the past tense survived in the Germanic languages and the future didn't: it's because there are three, or fewer, root systems in all the Indo-European languages I'm aware of: present, past, and past pple. (e.g. L. habeo habui habitus) The Latin future tense comes from tacking "future" inflectional endings onto present tense roots; English, having lost its inflections, uses auxiliary verbs to indicate the future. The distinction doesn't seem terribly important; it isn't as if they have a different set of roots for f.t. verbs.

On the other hand there is this:

"For example, because of the Kawesqar's nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary."

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