By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! It’s time we talked about time, and why the English language has no future… tense!
Okay, you’ve probably always been told that there are three tenses, past, present, and future, right? Like I loved, I love, and I will love. So why am I telling you that English has no future tense? Well, in Old English, as was true with all the older forms of Germanic languages, there wasn’t a future tense at all, there were just two tenses, the past and the present, or more properly the past and non-past tenses, since you would use the non-past, what we conventionally call the present tense, for indicating both present actions and future actions. We can still do this in Modern English, like saying “I go to the doctor tomorrow”. And in subordinate clauses we never use the future tense, as in “If it rains tomorrow…” never “If it will rain tomorrow…”. But if we want, we can specify that the action of a verb is in the future by using auxiliaries such as will and shall, as in “I shall stay home” or “He will go to the doctor”. So can we call these constructions future tenses? Well, maybe, but there’s a lot of disagreement on this point. First of all, as we just saw, the future tense isn’t grammatically required to express the future, we can simply use the present tense forms. Furthermore, if we look at the etymology of the auxiliaries used to form the future constructions in English, it appears that they may carry other meanings in addition to future time reference. So will comes from Old English willan, which generally meant “to wish, desire”, though already in Old English willan was just beginning to be used to express futurity. It goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root with largely the same meaning. One cognate of will is the word volition, which comes into English through Latin. So some would argue that even today there is some slight element of wishing or volition in the Modern English auxiliary will. Similarly, shall comes from Old English *sculan which meant “to be obliged, have to, must”, and again, although it was already beginning to express futurity in Old English, it can be argued that even now it still has connotations of obligation or necessity. Willan and *sculan are part of a set of verbs called modal verbs which express mood or modality, in simpler terms elements of possibility, obligation, permission, ability, and so forth. Other modal verbs in Modern English include can/could, may/might, ought and so forth. They all sort of qualify the action of the main verb in some way. One way of thinking about the future, then, is as occupying the intersection of tense and modality. And the word future itself, by the way, comes from the Latin futurus, the future participle of the verb to be which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *bheuə- “be, exist, grow”, which also gives us the English verb to be. Which makes sense, since these English ‘will’ & ‘shall’ forms were called the ‘future tense’ by grammarians who were trying to fit English grammar into the model of Latin verb forms, even thought they don’t really work the same way.
But here’s where the interesting connection comes in, which will take us on a trail that will eventually lead back to our English future construction. At the same time as will and shall were first starting to be used to to express futurity in Old English, there was an ongoing philosophical debate most explicitly expressed in a highly influential late Roman text, which was often read, recopied and translated in the middle ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. The debate was whether people had free will or whether the world was governed deterministically, in other words did God predetermine all of creation in one go. It’s all kind of about the nature of future events. Boethius comes down on the side of free will. But the important thing to notice here is that the two options in this philosophical debate, free will vs determinism, parallel the two modal connotations of our two auxiliaries, willan expressing volition (or free will) and *sculan expressing necessity (or determinism). When the Old English scholar-king Alfred the Great translated the Consolation of Philosophy into Old English, he was very careful how he employed willan and *sculan, with attention to their modal connotations. Now of course it’s impossible for me to summarize the entire history of this debate, which still rages to this day, with such questions as to what degree do our own brains predetermine our actions, and is free will simply an illusion. But I want to point out one particular stop on this path, the debate between Catholic Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther the founder of Protestantism. Because you see this was one of the sticking points between the Catholic tradition and Luther’s fledgling Protestant Church, whether salvation was a reward for your actions in life or a predetermined gift from God. In a series of writings aimed at one another, Erasmus and Luther debated this question, Erasmus on the side of free will and Luther on the side of determinism. You see the Catholics, believing in free will, not only accepted good works as a way into heaven, but also took to selling pardons, basically get-out-of-Purgatory cards, in order to make a little money for the church. Luther thought this was corrupt, and figured only the elect (previously chosen by God) get into heaven. What you did during life wasn’t the cause of your salvation. So thinking about the future helped to start the Protestant Reformation.
Getting back to King Alfred, he also translated one of the philosophical works by St Augustine of Hippo, the Soliloquies, basically an inner dialogue which explores the nature of the soul, that doesn’t get very much into matters of time. But another of Augustine’s works does. The Confessions is essentially an autobiography, in which Augustine describes his misspent youth as what we would now see as a troubled teen from a good family who acts out in a variety of antisocial behaviours, the whole wine, women, and song routine. Some things never change, I suppose. In his Confessions he famously encapsulates his feelings at that time with the line “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Eventually he cleans up his act and converts to Christianity, becoming one of the Four Fathers who basically established much of the groundwork for the Western Church as we know it today. His autobiography ends with some reflections and commentary which we might now recognize as an early attempt at cognitive science, when in book 11 he turns his attention to time and how we perceive it. He starts off with an oft-quoted statement about the difficulty of discussing the subject, musing “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know: but if I want to explain it to someone asking me, I do not know”. Well, I know I often feel that way, so again some things never change. He then goes on to discuss the very familiar and conventional three-part way of looking at time, with a future that in the instant that is the present is converted into the past. As we’ve seen, this three-part division isn’t the only way of looking at it. But for Augustine writing in a Roman, Christian context, this is pretty standard. The Latin verb system has three tenses, past, present, and future, and the Christian sense of history moves inexorably from Creation to Judgement Day. But the particularly clever bit is what he does next. He collapses all three times to cognitive operations in the present moment: “It is now clear and plain, that neither things to come, nor things past, exist. Nor do we properly say, there are three times, past, present, and future; but perhaps it might be properly said, there are three times: a present time of past things; a present time of present things; and a present time of future things. For these three such things are in our souls; and I do not see them elsewhere. The present time of past things is our memory; the present time of present things is our sight; the present time of future things our expectation.” So that’s another way to think about the future, expectation and prediction. By the way, it’s not entirely clear whether Augustine sided with the free will camp or the determinism camp, but the Protestants certainly read him as expressing a deterministic viewpoint and adopted him as a kind of grandfather of the Reformation.
But what is clear is that this all comes down to how you divide up time. And that makes sense, given the etymology of time. The word time originally meant a “limited space of time”, traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root *da- meaning “divide”, which came into Old English as tima. Tide (tid in Old English) also descends from this same root meaning originally a “time or season” as in Yuletide. Time gained its modern abstract sense of “time as an indefinite continuous duration” only in the 14th century. Tense, on the other hand, is a tricky one, but according to one proposed etymology may have to do with dividing up. First of all there are two words tense in English, which may or may not be etymologically related, tense as in a verb form, and the adjective tense as in tension. What seems immediately clear is that tense comes from Latin tempus, which also means “time”. This Latin word may come from the the root *tem- meaning “to cut” so in other words a segment of time. Or it may come from the root *ten- meaning “to stretch”, so a stretch of time. And related to these tense words, or maybe not, are the words temporal and temple, which both also are two separate words in modern English. Temple can mean a place of worship or the area on the side of the head. Temple the place of worship may come from the *tem- root from the notion of a space “cut out” or therefore “reserved” as a place of worship, or it might come from the *ten- root from the notion of stretching a string to measure out the area for worship. The other word temple, the area on the side of the head, may come from the stretching notion because of the skin stretched out over that portion of the skull, or it might come from the idea of time, as in the appropriate time (in other words the right place) for dealing someone a fatal blow. What’s more we have the two words temporal with the same set of confusions, temporal referring to time, and temporal referring to that part of the head, most often used to refer to what lies underneath that spot, the temporal lobe of the brain. Complicated etymologies, but we better move on or we’ll run out of time!
Speaking of the temporal lobe, though it doesn’t specifically have anything to do with time, one of its functions is language processing, specifically in the area known as Wernicke’s area, named after Carl Wernicke, which is responsible for language comprehension as opposed to language production which is handled in Broca’s area in the frontal lobe. It also turns out that there doesn’t seem to be one time centre of the brain, but rather many distributed systems, one of which is the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a tiny region in the hypothalamus which regulates the daily circadian rhythms. Other brain areas that are particularly important for our purposes are the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex which are implicated in planning and voluntary action, operations in the domain of the future. This sounds a lot like Augustine’s present time of future things. And what about Augustine’s present time of past things, which he sums up as memory? Well that’s also a crucial function of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, originally literally horse-sea-monster, then subsequently used to refer to seahorses, and then to the brain region because of its similarity in appearance to the seahorse. The hippocampus is part of the temporal lobe, and is involved in converting short-term memory into long-term memory. And as it turns out, memory may play an important role in thinking about the future. The human brain seems to be uniquely capable of what is called mental time travel: remembering the past and predicting the future. What’s more, we draw on our memories for the raw material for constructing possible futures. Brain imaging shows that remembering and imagining the future use very similar regions in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. We may have developed mental time travel, as well as language, for the evolutionary advantage it gives in being able to plan future actions.
Now sticking with the scientific approach, specifically as it applies to prediction, there is the field of future studies or futurology, an interdisciplinary field about predicting the likely futures we may encounter, based on looking at past and present trends and extrapolating into the future. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells is often considered the father of futurology, which grew out of the book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought: An Experiment in Prophecy published in 1901 and a Royal Institution lecture he delivered in 1902 and later published called The Discovery of the Future. In addition there was also an early twentieth century cultural movement that had ideas of the future at its core, Futurism.The Futurists, primarily a group of Italian artists, writers, musicians, architects, and even cooks, looked to the future with excitement and optimism, and to the past with contempt, valuing speed, machinery, and violence, led by the founder of the movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who wrote a Futurist Manifesto. In the 1920s and 30s futurism became entwined with fascism and Marinetti even founded a Futurist Political Party in 1918, which was absorbed into Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party a year later. Mussolini championed one of the tenets of futurist cuisine: replacing pasta with rice in Italian cooking. Mussolini wanted to ween Italy off of its dependence on imported wheat and onto domestically grown rice. And it can be said that Mussolini not only valued violence, but also machinery and speed, as per the old cliche about him that “at least he kept the trains running on time”!
And Mussolini takes us to World War II, where we also find another notable figure in the pantheon of time. If European fascism started World War II, science was there at the end of it, with the invention of the atom bomb, which might have been built first by Germany had Albert Einstein along with fellow scientist Leo Szilard not sent a letter to President Roosevelt urging the US to start what became known as the Manhattan Project. Of course Einstein is most well-known for his theory of relativity which cast doubts on the possibility of time travel into the past but showed the way towards time travel into the future. He is also known for his work on quantum physics, becoming dissatisfied with the probabilistic direction quantum physics was taking, preferring instead a more deterministic universe, famously stating “God is not playing at dice”.
But to bring our story back to its linguistic starting point, determinism and relativity also have important meanings in the field of linguistics, specifically linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis after 20th century linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The idea simply put is that the language you speak and its characteristics either determine as per linguistic determinism or in the weaker form of linguistic relativity influence the way you think and perceive the world. This hypothesis is a matter of hot debate currently among linguists as to what extent language does (or doesn’t) influence thought, and this debate is largely localized in the category of time in language. Whorf (incorrectly as it turned out) believed that the Hopi language, spoken in what is now Arizona, had no concept of time, and so he surmised that the Hopi were unable to think about time in the same was as for instance an English speaker does. That’s linguistic determinism. Since then other scholars have picked up on the idea, such as medieval scholar Paul C. Bauschatz in his 1982 book The Well and the Tree: World and Times in Early Germanic Culture, who claims that as early Germanic languages like Old Norse and Old English had no future tense, merely past and non-past, speakers of those languages would be unable to think about the future, a concept that they only gained through interaction with Christian culture and the Latin language. These are strong claims that many don’t agree with. More recently economist Keith Chen claimed in a 2013 article that whether or not a language has a future tense distinct from its present tense can affect future-oriented behaviour, such as saving money for the future. Basically his argument goes “languages which grammatically distinguish the present and the future may bias their speakers to distinguish them psychologically, leading to less future-oriented decision making”. So how we categorize our English future verbal constructions might have an influence on how we think. However, after much criticism, Chen has backed away somewhat from his bold claim, while weaker forms of linguistic relativity have been tentatively identified by some cognitive linguists. But this controversial subject is definitely a topic for a FUTURE video!
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