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Languages distinguishing degrees of remoteness in their T/A systems constitute a small but significant number of the world’s languages.

Dahl & Vellupilai (2005), for example, list 40 of 222 languages (~18%) as marking temporal distance in past tenses. Although basic features of such systems have been described for at least a quarter century (Dahl 1984; Chung & Timberlake 1985; Comrie 1985; Fleischman 1989; Bybee et al. 1994), all have assumed a straightforward linear approach. This paper addresses two general issues: how multi-tense systems are organized and “degrees of remoteness” delineated, and whether there are limits to the number of tenses possible. Data come from a study of some 350+ languages marking degrees of remoteness, leading to the conclusion that there are four means of delineating remoteness—time regions, time scales, time depth, and dissociative domains—that ultimately determine limits to the number of tenses.

According to Dahl (2008), distinctions in marking temporal distance are concentrated in three general areas, whose languages constitute the core of the study: Niger-Congo languages, Trans-New Guinea languages, and some Amerindian languages. The common linguistic conceptualization of temporal distance is grounded in a linear approach: temporal markers situate events progressively more distant from the deictic center, typically the time of utterance. There are a number of reasons to think that this view is inadequate. First, there may be idiosyncratic overlap of temporal range, as, e.g., in Akoye (TNG): remote past (P3) may be used even for events occurring on the day of speaking, normally marked by a hodiernal past (P1); yet, the pre-hodiernal past (P2) cannot. Second, there may be multiple negative markers whose distribution appears random, as in Tunen (Bantu): P1 and P2 each take -sa-, while P3 and Present take -lɛ-. Third, there are formal similarities in tense-marking grams that correlate with natural cycles (e.g., days vs. months). Such facts are not readily captured in a linear approach. To take a simple example, in Barasano (Tucanoan; Columbia), there are four past markers, two of which include the gram -bãsi. However, the two do not denote temporally adjacent regions, so one may ask (1) what role does -bãsi play, and (2) why is its distribution temporally split?

This paper addresses these kinds of questions, proposing that remoteness systems are organized in layers determined by time scale and divided into Current (CurTR) and Distal Time Regions (DisTR). This can be briefly illustrated with the Barasano data. Barasano scales time in terms of two natural cycles: days (marked with -bʉ) and years (marked with -ka). With no additional marking, each denotes that the event so marked occurred during the relevant current time region. The suffix -bãsi denotes the relevant distal time region.

Barasano tenses scaled

                                                            DisTR                             CurTR

                                                          pre-Annual                          Annual

                Time scale

                      YEARS              P4        > year                         same year      P3

                                                            -ka-bãsi                            -ka       


                                              pre-Hodiernal            Hodiernal


                      DAYS               P2     < few days                        same day       P1

                                                            -bʉ-bãsi                           -bʉ                               Future

This model is applied to languages from the three focal areas, including the complicated case of Kiksht (Amerindian) (Comrie 1985), a strikingly similar system in Mituku (Bantu), and Mian (Papuan)—all of which exhibit a fourth type of remoteness marking—time depth


Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. (1994) The Evolution of Grammar. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Chung, Sandra, and Alan Timberlake. (1985) “Tense, aspect, and mood.” In Timothy Shopen (ed.), Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Volume III: Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 202-258.

Comrie, Bernard. (1985) Tense. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press.

Dahl, Östen. (1984) “Temporal distance: remoteness distinctions in tense-aspect systems.” In B. Butterworth, B. Comrie, and Ö. Dahl (eds.), Explanations for Language Universals. Berlin & New York: Mouton. Pp. 105-122.

Dahl, Östen. (2008) “The distribution of hodiernality distinctions in the world’s languages.” http://tinyurl.com/hodiernal.

Dahl, Östen and Viveka Velupillai. (2005) “The past tense.” In: M. Haspelmath, M. S. Dryer, D. Gil, and B. Comrie (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 39. Available online at http://wals.info/feature/39. Accessed in August 2009.

Fleischman, Suzanne. (1989) “Temporal distance: A basic linguistic metaphor.” Studies in Language 13,1:1-50.

Hjärtligt välkomna!

Östen Dahl & Ljuba Veselinova