African languages, Grammar, Tense Mode Aspect

Cool tenses in Bamileke!

So apparantly the language Bamileke-Dschang (a Bantu language spoken in Cameroon) has five relative time references. I ran across this while reading Evans (2009) and got so distracted I had to go find the original article (Hyman 1980):

There are five general distinctions:

proximate (+- a very short time)
same day (+- a few hours)
one day away (+- a day)
some days away (+-2 or more days)
long time away (+- a year or more)

So, it has five past tenses:

just did something
did something earlier today
did something yesterday
did something before yesterday, some days ago
did something a long time ago, e.g. a year or more ago

… and five future tenses

is about to do something
will do something (later today)
will do something (tomorrow)
will do something (after tomorrow, some days from now)
will do something (a long time, e.g. a year or more, from now)

But when these are combined in a sentence with two verbs, the first verb’s tense is relative to the second verb’s tense!

“These sentences have two readings. If the tense of the second clause is interpreted as referring to the present time of the discourse, (5) is read’he said [yesterday] that you will see the child [tomorrow]’ and (6) is read ‘he will say [tomorrow] that you saw the child [yesterday]’. In such a case the F3 and P3 tenses have absolute time reference. In a second reading, however, the tense of the second clause refers to the time represented by the tense of the first clause. In this case the reading of (5) is ~he said [yesterday] that you will see the child [today]’, and that of (6) is ‘he will say [tomorrow] that you saw the child [today]’. In this case, the F3 and P3 tenses have relative time reference.” (Hyman 1980)

 

Now, Germanic languages can do cool stuff with time too, but not nearly on the same scale. The most advanced we can get is something like “This coming december he will have been three months behind on his rent”.

 

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Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10409021.

Hyman, Larry M. 1980. Relative Time Reference in the Bamileke Tense System. Studies in African Linguistics, vol 11, no 2, August.