Back to the Future

This time our video takes a look at whether or not the English language has a future tense:

This work is largely drawn from my own doctoral dissertation, so it kind of feels like going back in time and revisiting the topic! In this blog post I’m going to (gonna? I’ma?) go into some more of the detailed grammatical background of this topic for those of you who are (like me) real grammar nerds. Of course this still only scratches the surface, so if there are any real keeners out there perhaps I’ll post a copy of my dissertation too. Let me know if you’d like to see that.

As a comparison to how the English futural constructions work, it’s useful to have a look at how tense works in a language that certainly does have a grammatical future tense, Latin. For the verb amare “to love” the present tense (in the first person singular) is amo “I love”. To make it a future tense you add a different ending, amabo “I will love”. So one word on its own can express the basic idea of futurity, unlike “will love” in English, though being formed with a single word isn’t essential to a grammatical tense. But let’s jump forward to see what happens in French, which is a descendant of Latin. Because of sound changes that happened in the transitional stage called Vulgar Latin, it became difficult to distinguish between future tense as in amabit “she will love” and past tense as in amavit “she loved”, an obvious problem. So Vulgar Latin dumped the one-word future tense and started using an auxiliary verb, the verb habere “to have”, to form a new futural construction, as in amare habeo “I will love”. What happened next was that auxiliary verb habeo got simplified down and glued on to the end of the main verb to give us a one-word future again, as in French j’aimerai “I will love”. So we’re back to where we started. Funny thing is in addition to this one-word future tense, called the futur simple, French also developed yet another future construction, the futur proche, with the auxiliary verb aller “to go”, as in je vais aimer “I will love”. The distinction between these two tenses was originally how distant a future you wanted to talk about: the futur proche was for the near future and the futur simple was for the more distant future, but today the distinction is really more one of formality, less formal for the futur simple and more formal for the futur proche. The even funnier thing is that the original Latin future amabo was itself originally created by having a form of the verb to be , which comes from Proto-Indo-European root *bheuə- “be, exist, grow” glued on the end of the present tense verb. And the word future itself, as we saw in the main video, also comes from the verb to be, from Latin futurus, which is the future participle of the verb to be which comes from the suffixed form of that same root, *bhu-tu-.

Now Latin had another set of futures. While first and second conjugation verbs had endings like amabo “I love” and amabit “she will love”, third and fourth conjugation verbs had endings like audiam “I shall hear” and audiet “she will hear”, which look a lot like the forms of the subjunctive mood, audiam “I may hear” and audiat “she may hear”. So again we see the future occupying the intersection of tense and modality. And getting back to the English modal auxiliary verbs will and shall, they can be used in their past tenses to indicate not only mood, as in I should go or I would go, but also to indicate future in the past, that is an action that is happens in the future relative to another action in the past, as in he knew he would win the race.

Now as we saw, French has a future tense formed with the auxiliary verb aller “to go”, and English can do this to, with the so-called go-future as in I’m going to love, often reduced down to I’m gonna love, or even I’ma, as in I’ma let you finish. This construction first appears in the Middle English period, and comes about through the idea of going somewhere for the purpose of doing an action, as in I’m going (in order) to hunt. So this construction originally implied purpose. Similar to this are constructions like he is to leave tomorrow, which uses the verb to be with the infinitive to indicate a planned action.

And speaking of the verb to be, in Old English there were two forms of the verb to be in the present tense, eom “I am”, eart “you are”, and is “she is”, or beo “I am”, bist “you are”, bið “she is”. Often these forms are interchangeable, but when the verb is referring to the future the beo/bist/bið forms are almost always used, and eom/eart/is forms are almost never used, so this can be a way of distinguishing the future tense from the present. The future of the verb to be is also sometimes indicated with another verb weorðan which really means “to become”. So he was, is, and will be can be expressed in Old English as he wæs, is, and bið, or as he wæs, is, and weorð. This futural usage might also remind one of modern German werden which can be used with the infinitive to form the future tense, as in ich werde haben “I will have”. One other specialized use of the beo/bist/bið forms is to indicate a gnomic statement, that is a statement of general truth without any indication of actual time, as in the sky is blue which in Old English would be seo lyft bið hæwenu. Interestingly, another way of making a gnomic statement in Old English is with *sculan “shall”, as in cyning sceal rice healdan “a king shall rule a kingdom”. The word gnomic by the way comes through Greek gnomikos from the Proto-Indo-European root *gno- meaning “know”, and gives us not only the words know and gnomic, but also the word gnomon which is the vertical shaft on a sundial which casts the shadow indicating the time.

And the sundial leads us to the history of clocks and timekeeping, which will be covered in an upcoming Endnote video, so stay tuned for that!