The philosophy of past and future tense

For a while now, I’ve been going through the Pimsleur language CDs program for French. I was listening to one on the bus the other day and it got to the explanation as to how you put verbs in past tense; how to say, “I bought something” as opposed to “I am buying something.” In essence, you put the verb “have” in front of the verb, like “I have bought something.” (It’s not quite that simple but that’s the gist.) This is pretty similar to English, where adding “have” puts the experience in the past. If you say, “I have eat something” it sounds like baby talk but gets the point across.

This is an interesting role for the word “have” isn’t it? We think f have as denoting ownership, like “I have a cat.” It’s almost implied that by experiencing something we take ownership of it. We own the experience of having eaten.

And how about future tense? In French, like english, you add the verb for “going.” For example, “I am going to eat a sandwich” makes clear the act will take place in the future. Again, this is curious. We tend to first think of “going” as traveling through space but here it’s almost like you’re saying “I am traveling through time into the future and there I will eat a sandwich.”

I’d be curious how this problem (how to place an action in the past or future) is handled in different languages. It would be quite interesting if all cultures used the same techniques but I’m almost certain that isn’t true. (I seem to recall reading about some tribal culture that really didn’t differentiate between the past and present or future—it was happening in some giant “now.”)

Language, as Wittgenstein noted, really gives illumination into the mind. And our thoughts are limited to the words we can use to express them.

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