Time Traveler’s Guide: Verb Tenses in 8 Languages From Around the World

Some languages have a staggering 10 tenses.

Let’s go on a journey.
Let’s go on a journey. / CSA Images/Getty Images (globe); LueratSatichob/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (speech bubbles); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Have you ever felt that English could use a couple more tenses to truly capture the nuances of the past, present, and future? We’re inviting you on an exploration of languages that have taken verb tenses to fascinating new heights, from the intricate stripped-down West Greenlandic to the intricacies of the Kiksht past.

But first, let’s define what we mean by tense. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, tense is an “inflectional category whose basic role is to indicate the time of an event, etc. in relation to the moment of speaking.” Essentially, it’s how words morph to show where an event is in time compared to the present moment. In this piece, we’re focusing solely on tense, excluding related concepts like aspect, conditionals, voice, and other factors that often come into play when verbs change form.

With our grammatical gear in hand, let’s go on an exciting jaunt through time and language (though it’s important to note that not all linguists agree on all these classifications).

1. West Greenlandic // No Tenses

When it comes to verb tenses, West Greenlandic takes simplicity to an extreme: It’s one of the many languages that has no traditional tense system at all [PDF]. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t speak of the past in West Greenlandic. For example, aggirpuq may mean “he’s coming” or “he was coming,” depending on the context, while siurna (“before”) makes it quite clear that siurna aturpara means “I used it before/last year.”

West Greenlandic is far from the only language to have no time-related inflectional marking on its verbs. Other tenseless languages include Vietnamese, Yukatek Mayan, and Dyirbal (an Australian language).

2. English // Two Tenses

Having a single tense would be like having a clock with only one time: It really doesn’t tell you anything, and that’s why there are no single-tense languages. But there are lots with two—including English.

Despite what you may have learned or thought, English has no future tense. Most linguists agree that English has only a past and a present, or you might say a past and a non-past tense. So I went there yesterday is past tense and past time, but I see the dentist tomorrow is present/non-past tense for future time.

What about will or be going to? Well, their basic meaning is to indicate future time, but they’re not inflectional—they don’t change the form of go. English has go, goes, went, gone, and going, but no “gowill,” so most linguists think we don’t have a future tense.

That being said, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language argues that we have two past tenses, the preterite (he went there) and the perfect (he has gone there). But very few other linguists see the English perfect as a tense, so we’ll count English as among the two-tensed languages.

Others commonly put in this group include Arabic, Finnish, and Japanese. If these languages divide the temporal world into what has passed and what has not, you might wonder if there are other ways to split things up. Of the languages that have been well studied, none has a present/non-present binary tense system, but a few, such as the New Guinea language Hua, have future/non-future systems.

3. Italian Sign Language // Three Tenses

To the extent that most of us think about tense, three is the number that we imagine languages have. Ternary tense systems are, in fact, quite common, though not as ubiquitous as you might think. Italian Sign Language is one example of a language with such a system. In ISL, some signers indicate tense with the position of the shoulder: Signing with the shoulder tilted backwards indicates past tense; with the shoulder aligned with the rest of the body present tense; and with the shoulder tilted forward future tense.

4. Isbukun Bunun // Four Tenses

Isbukun Bunun, a dialect of an Austronesian language of Taiwan, is an example of a language with four tenses: remote past, recent past, present, and future.

The idea of four tenses may be difficult to get your head around if your language doesn’t divide up the world this way, but it may be easier if we think of words rather than tenses. For instance, along with words for tomorrow, today, and yesterday, Japanese has a word おととい (ototoi), which means “two days ago.” If you want to go back farther, you need to count the number of days, as in English (e.g., five days ago). When it comes to words, then, Japanese can express two different past-day times, even though it has only one past tense. Isbukun Bunun is like this, but with grammatical tenses instead of with words.

Interestingly, Isbukun Bunun marks the remote past by doubling the recent-past -in- affix as -inin-, like this [PDF]:

  • Present: hanup, “hunt”
  • Recent past: h<in>anup, “hunted”
  • Remote past: h<inin>anup, “hunted”

5. Luganda // Five Tenses

Once you’re comfortable with the idea of four tenses, then no new mental equipment is needed to understand how a language could have five. By some counts, Luganda, a Bantu language spoken in the African Great Lakes region, is just such a language, with the following set of tenses: distant past, recent past, present, immediate future, near future.

When we find languages subdividing time into the recent and the remote, it’s natural to wonder how strict this is. Given the amount of variation found in the number of tenses, it may not be surprising that there’s variation in cut points too. Luganda is pretty flexible, and what counts as “recent,” “intermediate,” or “distant” depends a lot on context.

6. Haya // Six Tenses

In contrast to Luganda, Haya, another language from the Bantu family, has some pretty specific rules about its past tenses. The first past tense—let’s call it P1—is only for things that happened earlier today. P2 works with nyeigolo (“yesterday”), but it doesn’t play nice with mbweenu (“today”) or ijo (“the day before yesterday”). So, you’d say tukomile nyeigolol to mean “I tied (P2) yesterday.” Then there’s the third past tense, P3, which is the go-to for anything that happened before yesterday. And then there are two futures and a present [PDF].

7. Kiksht // Nine (?) Tenses

Let’s dive into one of the most complex systems of past tense distinctions: Kiksht, a Chinookan language of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Kiksht basically has a four-way showdown of past tense prefixes:

  • ga(l)-: the most remote form, used for events that happened from a year ago and beyond
  • ni(g)-: used for situations from the previous week up to a year ago
  • na(l)-: typically used for things that happened yesterday, but it can stretch back to a day or a few days before yesterday
  • i(g)-: used for events that happened earlier today

But wait, there’s more! This four-way distinction has another two-way split: According to Tense by Bernard Comrie, “The time periods defined by the prefixes ga(l)-, ni(g)-, and perhaps i(g)- … are each subdivided into an earlier portion, marked by the prefix u-, and a later portion, marked by the prefix t-.” That means there are six or seven distinctions within the past (depending on whether or not the u-/t- distinction works with the i(g)- set). So, Kiksht isn’t just playing a four-way game of past tense—it’s taking it to the next level. (Or it was. Sadly, the last fluent speaker of Kiksht died in 2012, but there are efforts to revitalize the language.)

8. South Baffin Inuktitut // 10 tenses (more or less)

Linguists are a contrary lot, and they often disagree on what qualifies as a tense or even what tense means. But even if they can’t agree on an exact number, at least everyone can agree that South Baffin Inuktitut has an abundance of tenses. They’re split among an unmarked present tense, and various past and future tenses, which may or may not break down like this [PDF]:

Inflectional Suffix

Temporal Domain



Most Distant Past

Some years ago


Distant Past

Before yesterday


Near Past



Recent Past

Earlier today


Most Recent Past

Moments ago

(No explicit marker)




Most Recent Future

In a minute


Recent Future

Later today


Near Future

After today


Distant Future

After several years

Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then get our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out now! You can pick up your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.