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How many verb tenses are there in English? - Anna Ananichuk


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How many different verb tenses are there in a language like English? At first, the answer seems obvious — there’s past, present, and future. But it isn't quite that simple. Anna Ananichuk explains how thanks to something called grammatical aspect, each of those time periods actually divides further.

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While the categories of tense and aspect are commonly thought of as verb properties, there are examples of nominal (meaning noun) tenses. In languages like Guarani, widely spoken in South Africa, or Tundra Nenets, used in Siberia, Russia, nouns have suffixes that give them past or future meaning. For example, ‘a broken vase’ is vase + past tense modifier, literally “what used to be a vase”, a ‘law student’ is lawyer + future tense suffix, and tea is nothing more than past tense leaves.

Another wonderful verbal category closely related to tense is evidentiality, or indication of the nature of evidence for a given statement. In English we usually specify the source of information using special words ("reportedly") or phrases ("from what he told me"). However, other languages have whole systems of adverbial suffixes meant to show where the knowledge came from. For example, the Bulgarian language has a four-term system of evidentials: witness ("I know because I saw it"), inferential ("I assume so because there is evidence"), renarrative ("I know because I’ve been told") and dubitative ("I have heard about it, but I doubt it"). That means you can say ‘The cat ate the fish’ and by adding a couple of letters to the word ‘ate’ you will show how you got this information. To learn more about how languages across the world are similar and how they are different you can browse the World Atlas of Language Structures.

The idea that the language you speak determines the way you think is known as linguistic determinism, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You might recognize it from the recent Hollywood film “Arrival” where by learning the alien language in which the concept of time doesn’t exist at all the heroine was able to recall her own future. This hypothesis is not supported by most linguists and it is widely accepted that thought is not the same as language, all of which is brilliantly explained in a popular lecture by one of the world’s most influential linguists Steven Pinker. However, it stands to reason that language does affect the way our cognitive abilities develop – learn more about it by watching a talk at UC San Diego. To dig a bit deeper into how language is acquired in watch at this TED talk about the linguistic genius of babies

If you are a student of English and would like to see more English grammar explained through sketches, you can watch videos by this author here.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Anna Ananichuk
  • Director Luke Rotzler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Sound Designer Sam Bair
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Pen-Pen Chen

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