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No time like the present

2006-02-7 @ 12:18 » Français

It’s no big secret that we live in the present. The past is but a memory and the future is yet to be. But the present might be where we always are, representing it in the language is tricky. Few people actually notice, even if they speak more than one language, that languages each have their own solution to this problem.

When I say represent, I don’t mean finding words to express it, like “now” or “present” but rather giving it a grammatical form. You see, the present is in reality only a point in time. Points have no dimension; in this, the present can be seen as the edge of a sword: it is impossible to stand on it, one must use part of either side for stability.

Representing a point, a boundary, means either giving it a dimension, or standing on either side, so as to have enough room to manoeuvre. In my studies, I’ve seen three ways of representing the present. French borrows from the past and the future to create a bounded tense. Germanic languages, on the other hand, have chosen to place it on either side of the edge, thereby offering only two tenses (apart from periphrastics): past and future (or “non-past”), or actualized and unactualized. Lia Korrel, in her Ph.D. thesis, showed (through a comparison of usage between the English present perfect and its Dutch counterpart) that English has chosen to start the moment on the ‘future’ side of the edge, to begin with a non-actualized part, whereas Dutch, like German, begins with an actualized part, the ‘past’ side as it were.

This may seem trivial, but this choice has repercussions on the way we speak. Indeed, since English places the current moment at the beginning of the future, everything that comes before is seen as past. Since French, on the other hand, includes a bit of past in its present tense, some part of what comes before can be included (part of what comes after also, as in English but probably not Dutch).

In English, we say, “I have lived in Montréal for 10 years” where French has “J’habite Montréal depuis 10 ans” Similarly, we say “I went to the movies yesterday” but “Je suis allé au cinéma hier.”

This representation also affects the use of words like this/cette. In French, “cette nuit” refers either to the preceding or the following night, whereas in English, “this night” (or tonight) means the following one (the other being “last night”). There are probably many more repercussions on the way we talk about the near past and future; would be worthwhile to take a look at them. (This difference between English and its sister language is also responsible for some of the peculiarities of its verb system such as the progressive, the to before the infinitive and the way modals like can, may or will are used.)

Does this grammatical representation affect our general representation of time? Hard to say. I don’t think it determines it, but it’s a good bet it has a subtle influence.

What do you think?