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Why do some languages not have continuous tenses
Thread poster: Anil Gidwani

Anil Gidwani  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 18:45
German to English
+ ...
Oct 13, 2008

I'm mystified why some languages do not have continuous tenses. Seems like a continuous tense is a pretty handy thing to have around, wouldn't you say?

English has a well-defined continuous tense, of course. So do Hindi and most Indian languages.

German does not, and uses words such as "gerade" to indicate continuous tense. I believe German is beginning to use expressions such as "Ich bin am lesen" for "I am reading", for example, although it is in no way official and is in fact frowned upon.

Does your language have a continuous tense? Did your language have a continuous tense which was discontinued at some point? How does your language deal with continuous actions? Does it use adverbs like German does? Is there any unofficial continuous tense creeping into your language?

Do share your thoughts.



[Edited at 2008-10-13 14:04]

[Edited at 2008-10-13 15:47]


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xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:15
German to English
+ ...
Why do some languages not have continuous tenses Oct 13, 2008

Anil Gidwani wrote:

I believe German is beginning to use expressions such as "Ich bin am lesen" for "I am reading", for example, although it is in no way official and is in fact frowned upon.


Ich lese gerade.
Ich bin dabei, zu lesen.
Ich bin am Lesen.
Ich bin gerade am Lesen.
Ich bin gerade dabei, zu lesen.
Ich lese jetzt.
Ich bin mit dem Lesen beschäftigt.

German offers more than enough ways of expressing an uncompleted action in the present, and I don't think that they are all new, unofficial or frowned upon. So who needs a continuous tense?

Do share your thoughts.


Well, since you mention it, I'd like to know what the point is of the definite conjugation in Hungarian. I haven't yet been able to establish any instance in which it isn't immediately apparent from the rest of the sentence whether the definite or indefinite conjugation is required, so the definite conjugation (or the indefinite, if you prefer) is completely redundant. Hungarian learners have to learn a complete second set of verb endings in all the various tenses, for no apparent reason. I have in fact suggested that Hungary's accession to the EU should have been made conditional upon abolition of the Hungarian definite conjugation, but for some reason none of the Hungarians I have mentioned this to have considered the proposition reasonable.

In fact, some Hungarians I have spoken to have pointed out that the German attachment to different genders for inanimate objects is a luxury that we can't afford in this day and age, and that was even before the subprime mortgage disaster. This is not quite true, since different genders do have their advantages. If a sentence contains more than one inanimate object, they can be distinguished by their pronouns, provided they are of different gender - which, since there are three genders, is statistically probable, at least if there are only two of them. Different genders therefore reduce, statistically speaking, the need to repeat the noun in full, so the preservation of gender is arguably a case of Germans being typically efficient, but with atypical subtlety. The English, by contrast, are quite happy to call a spade a spade, even if it is more long-winded than referring to the spade as "it", in order to distinguish it from a shovel, something which is not necessary in German, since everyone knows that the former (der Spaten) is masculine, the latter (die Schaufel) feminine.

The Hungarians take quite the opposite view. They do not even consider it necessary to have separate third-person pronouns for the different genders of people. The Turks agree. They both have a point: "he" or "she" can only be used to refer to a person who is known, so there should be no need to distinguish by gender. If the owner of the pronoun has not yet been named, either the speaker is rude, or she is the cat's mother. What's more, abolition of the gender distinction in pronouns would spare translators the semantic acrobatics they have to perform in order to be politically correct.

Speaking of being politically correct, or not, the Russians even decline their verbs in the past tense differently according to gender, and the Italians do the same with their reflexive past participles. What a mess! But what do you expect, look at the way they drive. I suppose I should slip in a few derogatory comments about Greek at this point, but I've already offended the Greeks enough for one lifetime, and anyway, I don't know any Greek. And in any case, it's someone else's turn to explain their least favourite grammatical device.

Marc


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 15:15
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
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They have Oct 13, 2008

I'm no specialist, but I would say German has it too.
English: I'm reading the paper.
German: Ich lese die Zeitung. There is no need to say "Ich bin die Zeitung am lesen". It can mean, that I read this paper regularly or at the moment, and it does not require any clarification.
But you are right that German speakers find it difficult to use this construction in other languages, where you have to make this distinction. But it is not essential for understanding meaning. Some languages use complicated methods, some can do without.
Regards
Heinrich


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M. Anna Kańduła  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:15
English to Polish
Why do some languages have so many tenses? Oct 13, 2008

Some languages have only 3 (past, present and future; logical, isn't it?), some don't have them at all (Chinese), and still there is a way to create a precise sentence (IMHO Chinese has the best, amazing way to say something most precise and the shortest way).

There are other grammar ways to say what one wants to say. English doesn't necessarily have to be "the model language".

My language does not have "continuous tense". It belongs to 3-tense languages (ok, it has 4, but the 4th one is barely used these days). We use different grammar/stylistic formulas to express notions of English "continuous tense". IMHO we don't need it. If all languages would work the same way, they wouldn't be that interesting

Anni


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Anil Gidwani  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 18:45
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
All languages express the continuous Oct 13, 2008

Thanks for all the comments.

Let me hasten to add that I'm sure all languages express the continuous tense, some choose to do it through a verb form, others through adverbs, yet some others through inflection etc. Each language has its own way of dealing with linguistic necessities, and there was no intention to imply that any one language was a 'model'.


There are other grammar ways to say what one wants to say. English doesn't necessarily have to be "the model language".


Which, by the way, many of us would agree that English is far from being.

I request the moderator to close this thread before language wars break out that I could even remotely be accused of starting.....

[Edited at 2008-10-13 16:23]


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Henk Peelen  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 14:15
Member (2002)
German to Dutch
+ ...
Dutch had, but it has vanished for a great part Oct 13, 2008

Reading the bible of my late grandparents I see a lot of sentences which do have the continuous, but it has vansihed greatly.
In English the -ing ending is an already more "flowing" equivalent of the other Germanic and the Romanic ending -end, -ent, -ant, -and ... Now in some parts of the English world even the g is often neither written nor pronounced making words more flowing together. Somtimes too much, leading to an hardly to understand drawl.
I think the main reason is not so popular in Dutch and German is that people like to express themselves as active and direct as possible. The continuous has a touch of "being in such or so state", which in Dutch could be used to express the advantages or disadvantages of the condition, for instance quiteness or commitment.
Wat doe je? Ik ben de krant aan het lezen!
What do you do? I am reading the paper!

Since it has been a way more in use than nowadays, it is still used to make something sounding important, old-fashioned, poetic and so on, particularly in church, governmental and juridical context.

Striking is the word "al" (all, wholly) before the gerund:
Al wandelend snuif je de geuren van het herfstbos op
While walking you smell de aroma's of the autumn wood.

Weaker is "onder het + infinitive"(under it + infinitive)
Onder het wandelen voel je je verbonden met de natuur
While walking you feel connected with nature


The reason it is popular in English could be due to French / Latin / Spanish influence which gave English an incredible lot of words, opening lots of possibilities to create "tone" or "pitch". For instance ask, demand and pray: ask is akin to Dutch eisen, demand to French demander, whereas and pray could be considered a "sibling" of French prier, and those siblings "cousins" of German, Dutch, Swedish verbs fragen, vragen, fragar respectively. Next to that the use of the continuous in French could have boosted its use in English.

Then there's another intersting feature in Dutch and German: inversion.
In English you take an adverb and after a comma you write a direct sentence:
yesterday, John came home by car
In Dutch you leave out the comma and put the verb directly behind the adverb:
gisteren kwam Jan thuis met de auto
or
gisteren kwam Jan met de auto thuis
Next tot tha, Dutch uses far less words like could, should, would, might and may.

Bottom line: as directly as possible (but there are many other possibilities to create tone, shade, pitch and so on.)


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:15
English to Arabic
+ ...
Why are languages different? Oct 13, 2008

I guess there are a lot more grammatical issues that you can raise, as grammar is very particular to each language (or language families).

In Arabic, the continuous can be expressed in two different ways:

1) The present tense. The present tense expresses the continuous by default*. So if I say "Ana aktubu risala" (I write a letter) it means "I am writing a letter". If I wanted to say "I write a letter every week" (ana aktubu risala kulla usbuu"), the "every week" bit would be enough to make clear that it's NOT the continuous tense.

2) The active participle, which is really a continuous tense: "Ana naa'im" ("I am sleeping" literally, I am "a sleeper"). Not all verbs lend themselves to that form though, so saying "ana katibu risala" can only mean "I am the writer of a letter" and NOT "I am writing a letter".


*Similar to German, as Heinrich noted above

[Edited at 2008-10-13 18:04]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 14:15
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Oddities Oct 13, 2008

Anil Gidwani wrote:
I'm mystified why some languages do not have continuous tenses. Seems like a continuous tense is a pretty handy thing to have around, wouldn't you say?


I have always thought that the continuous tense in English is one of those oddities in the language that you just have to put up with. Some things require the use of the continuous tense, even if logically a simpler tense plus flavouring particles would have sufficed. In fact, those poor English are so indoxicated by their continuous tense that other tenses capable of a wider array of functions are demoted to a reduced set of uses.

1. Does your language have a continuous tense? 2. Did your language have a continuous tense which was discontinued at some point? 3. How does your language deal with continuous actions? Does it use adverbs like German does? 4. Is there any unofficial continuous tense creeping into your language?


1. Not in the same sense as in English, no (my language is Afrikaans).
2. Pfft, probably, who knows?
3. In the same way as English deals with its lack of other tenses... flavouring particles in some cases, modals in other cases (and what are modals but a special class of adverb?) and sometimes just convention.
4. No, not really. Any language that adopts the English continuous tense was probably a poor language to begin with (or had poor speakers). It is a silly tense, after all. Useful in stuff like poetry and metaphor, but otherwise of little use.

==

I must add that using a simple tense simply because logically the simple tense suffices, where an English speaker would expect a continuous tense, is a mistranslation, of course.


[Edited at 2008-10-13 18:10]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 14:15
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Yes, but... Oct 13, 2008

Anil Gidwani wrote:
Let me hasten to add that I'm sure all languages express the continuous tense, some choose to do it through a verb form, others through adverbs, yet some others through inflection etc.


Yes, but... you seem to imply that English uses the continuous tense to express the continuous tense, and I don't think that is so. Not all English sentences employing the continuous tense relate to a continuous action. For example, any speaker saying "I am singing" isn't singing at the time that he makes that statement. Or, upon being asked what you will be doing tonight, you may answer "I'm reading a fascinating book", even if this conversation takes place in the morning.


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Anil Gidwani  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 18:45
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
It has its uses Oct 13, 2008

Samuel Murray wrote:

It is a silly tense, after all. Useful in stuff like poetry and metaphor, but otherwise of little use.

==


There I must respectfully disagree. Here's one situation where the continuous tense can be of great practical value.

Boss: Is the report complete?
Employee: I'm working on it.



[Edited at 2008-10-13 19:03]


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Grzegorz Gryc  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:15
French to Polish
+ ...
Perfective, imperfective in Slavic languages... Oct 13, 2008

M. Anna Kańduła wrote:


There are other grammar ways to say what one wants to say. English doesn't necessarily have to be "the model language".

My language does not have "continuous tense". [/quote]
You're imprecise.
In our language (Polish), we have perfective and imperfective verbs.
The function of the imperfective verbs is approx. the same that the function of the continuous tenses.

PS.
Yes, I know, we have iterative verbs too

It belongs to 3-tense languages

It's not so simple.
The perfective verbs don't have present tense.
Only the past and the future.
Try to give us the present od "zrobić" (to do, perfective), please, please....

(ok, it has 4, but the 4th one is barely used these days). We use different grammar/stylistic formulas to express notions of English "continuous tense".

Don't generalise.
Some example?

IMHO we don't need it.

'Cause we have these perfective and imperfective verbs

If all languages would work the same way, they wouldn't be that interesting

Yep.

Cheers
GG


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 14:15
Italian to English
Continuous "tense"? Oct 13, 2008

Samuel Murray wrote:

It is a silly tense, after all. Useful in stuff like poetry and metaphor, but otherwise of little use.

==


Strictly speaking, the continuous/non-continuous opposition is aspectual, not temporal. This is obvious from the fact that both the past and non-past tenses of the English verb can have continuous and non-continuous aspects (I went/I was going: I go/I am going), as indeed can other compound forms of the verb.

Like many grammar oppositions, the continuous/non-continuous contrast can be a powerful generator of meaning in combination with other linguistic conventions, such as the stative-dynamic opposition that is so important in English.

For example, "I go" and "I am going" may look very close in meaning in most contexts but what about "I love" and "I am loving"? The continuous aspect of a verb that is usually used statively (love), as opposed to one that is intrinsically dynamic (go), is charged with potential meaning because stative verbs by definition should not have a continuous aspect.

Hence the effectiveness of the fast food chain slogan "I'm loving it"

Of course, every language that has a continuous verbal aspect uses it in slightly or very different ways, which creates often unperceived problems of interference when speakers transpose the conventions of their native tongue into a second language.

FWIW

Giles


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Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 14:15
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
Where's now accusative with infinitive!? Oct 14, 2008

I'm mystified why some languages do not have continuous tenses. Seems like a continuous tense is a pretty handy thing to have around, wouldn't you say?


Just jumping on the badwagon ...

Took me years of Latin to realize, how handy accusativum cum infinitivo has been for Cicero for instance or Caesar making his visits to Gallia. One feels sort of ... betrayed?... because Slovenian does not have it. Oh well, but then, we do have dual. Imagine the fun we Slovenian translators have with nouns in plural: were they alone - i.e. just the two of them? Or was it menage a trois or - gulp - more?

Marc, how about Hungarian language? I hope they have it (the ACI I mean), as this would definitely constitute a mitigating fact.

On a general note: the subject reminds me of Mr Higgins complaining: Why can't a woman be more like a man?

Regards to everybody

Vito


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 15:15
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Aspects in Finnish Oct 14, 2008

When studying Russian I had to get aquainted with this phenomenon, that they have two verbs for every instance German has only one. But I noticed that my fellow students could cope more easier, their native language being Finnish and mine German.

In Finnish the continuous meaning as well as the iterative and the partial are expressed by the partitive. But when I came to Finland I had no formal training in Finnish, I thought all the time that the partitive is meant to express "part of something".

I'm not alone, foreigners for example wonder why you say in Finnish: "Rakastan sinua" instead of "rakastan sinut". I love you = rakastan sinua. This means my love is "on", I haven't stopped loving, but it does not mean, that I love only part of you, though "sinua" is the partitive of "sinä" = you.

Regards
Heinrich


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M. Anna Kańduła  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:15
English to Polish
That's what I meant Oct 14, 2008

Grzegorz Gryc wrote:

M. Anna Kańduła wrote:

My language does not have "continuous tense".

You're imprecise.
In our language (Polish), we have perfective and imperfective verbs.
The function of the imperfective verbs is approx. the same that the function of the continuous tenses.

PS.
Yes, I know, we have iterative verbs too

Cheers
GG

That's exactly what I meant. We have other ways to say some things, not "tenses" per se. Be it "continuous", or "perfect"/"imperfect" tenses in some languages. It just works a little different. I didn't mean we do not express such notions, but that there is no such grammar form, as "continuous tense". Or did I miss some "czas ciągły" in school?


Anni


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