Language and Time

I’m no linguist, but I enjoy learning about interesting features of languages.

Apparently “Chinese” (a term I use guardedly, as one might mean Mandarin, and one might mean Cantonese, or maybe even another local dialect) doesn’t have the concept of time built into their verbs.

I’ve kind of known this for a while, it was pointed out to me years ago that one must include a specific timing indicator in utterance. The English sentence “I am going to the store” might be rendered as “I go store now”.

The converse observation is what slipped me. English has time baked into every verb. Verbs have a tense.

Consider the verb “run”¹. It has various tenses: I run, I ran, I’ll run, I’m running.

“Chinese” would have to render those as “I run every day” or maybe “I am known to run”. The exact rendition would, of course, depend on the context.

Much depends on the context.   However, the big take away for me is that a people growing up with a language like this would have an alien take on time. Not incompatible, but differently nuanced. It’s possible in that language to consider a verb without the baggage which comes with assigning it into a sphere of time. To get an idea about the difficulty of this, try to imagine the conversation about dance one might have, and consider that you could not only refer to dance now, or dance tomorrow, or dance one hundred years ago, as we can in English, dance, danced, will dance, but there is one more option, dance with no time of the event implied. You can refer to dance as a verb without saying when that dance might happen or have happened.

This will take some consideration to understand the implications, but one interesting use is in spoken word performance, where you could use the same word with different following words for surprising effect.

Using “wu”, which is a Mandarin word for dance²:

I wu, in my youth, to celebrate my victories
I wu, in my prime, to show my sophistication
I wu, in my age, to maintain my faculties
I wu, in my mind, to celebrate my youth, prime my sophistication, and maintain my age


1. In fact, I suggest looking it up in a good dictionary. Its set of associated meanings is quite extensive.
2. Sort of. It’s properly romanized with a falling-rising accent, but this site doesn’t offer that.
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