How "futureless" languages impact political thought


Originally published at:


Why is Estonian the language of example when Japanese is considerably more widely spoken?

Russian and Turkish introduce their own little wrinkles; I have no idea about Estonian.

(ref with more linkage)


Margit Tavits is from Estonia and has most likely more experience with East-European languages.


Double plus good


English doesn’t have a true future tense either, and does not obligatorily mark the future in all cases. Language Log has an interesting discussion of the hypothesis that future tense marking affects forward-looking behavior in native speakers.


Haven’t read the thing, but I’m definitely skepitcal. I think similar claims are (always? usually?) overstated.

I recommend John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax, which provides a debunking of this sort of Whorfian idea.


I stopped (or decided to never start) reading this after seeing “impact” as a verb in the title.


This sounds pretty bogus to me. Just because something is not explicitly called out by some grammatical rule, does not mean speakers are unaware of it. French, for example, often prefers the present tense in cases where English require a progressive conjugation. For example, literally, “I watch television” instead of “I was watching television”. French speakers are perfectly capable of telling whether the action was ongoing, in the past or in the present. In English, authors who describe action in the past using the present tense are not incapable of keeping track of time; they using language to convey immediacy.

This kind of linguistic analysis gets debunked on a regular basis. Maybe it’s time to stay skeptical.


Four centuries of use as a verb not enough for you?

The seed of this hearbe remooveth the tough humours bedded in the stomacke, how hard impacted soever they be.

— Pliny the Elder, Natural History; trans. Philemon Holland, 1601.

The desire for a more inward light had found expression at last, the unseen had impacted on the seen.

— E. M. Forster, Howard’s End, 1910.


No wonder why I am laugh at how Russians are talk.


The Aymara language envisions the future as behind and the past as ahead. After all, one cannot see the future but the past is easily seen.


I’m a Japanese to English translator/interpreter by trade. Japanese (along with Chinese, which I don’t speak) is frequently given as an example of a “futureless” language in these kind of hypotheses and they are always, without fail, completely unmitigated bullshit.

Yes, Japanese doesn’t have a future tense. Yes, there can be some confusion about the exact timing of an event when one is describing something in a “non-past” tense. But this is exactly why Japanese has a plethora of words to indicate timing that don’t exist (or are far less used) in English.

Saying that someone’s grammar inherently changes the way that they think about politics or economics is reductivist, orientalist and frankly, kind of stupid. There are far better ways of analysing East Asian culture in sociological terms that don’t boil down to “I did, like, a year of Japanese during college and they totally don’t have a future tense, so that is why they, like, totally think in the now.”

The languages in question do not have a grammatical future, sure, but you can bet your arse they have a whole bunch of temporal words that fill in the gaps.


You mentioning Aymara reminded me of this:


Wow, European languages have way fewer pronouns than Japanese, which is why everyone in the West is so self-obsessed all the time.
ETA: /s

You guys get why this is bullshit, right?



Umm their pronouns have more than 1 meaning, japanese people are just as self-obsessed as the rest of humanity, not everyone in the west or anywhere is self-obsessed, even self obsessed people are not that way all the time, Japanese pronouns are called deictic classifiers, they are only used in reference to present things, many linguists assert that Japanese has no pronouns.
Did I miss the one you were referring to?


I should have put a sarcasm tag in that post and will edit it to reflect that; I had hoped the italics would have been enough

Japanese has no pronouns? Really? So what are watashi/ore/boku/kimi/omae/wareware/anata/ai(soi/koi)tsu/kare/kanojo(etc etc etc, depending on how archaic you want to get)?

Also, you know “deictic classifier” is another way of saying “pronoun”, right?


Please do tell me more about these pronouns/deictic classifiers with more than one meaning though, I’d really like a list.

Also, I’d love to see which linguists say Japanese has no pronouns at all; do you have a link?

(I’m a dick most of the time and I’m in a generally bad mood after spending most of the day travelling; if you genuinely have links to back those claims up, I would be really interested to read them. I’m going to stop ranting now.)


In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns. As functionalists point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages.ref

I know that they are pronouns in English. Other languages may use other methods of deictic classification.

The common English personal pronouns, such as “I”, “you”, and “they”, have no other meanings. However, most Japanese personal pronouns do. Consider for example two words corresponding to the English pronoun “I”: 私 (watashi) also means “private” or “personal”. 僕 (boku) is a masculine form of 私 (watashi). It is mostly used by males, especially those in their youth, but tomboys are known to use the word as well. ref


In the 私 example you give above, the usage is exactly the same as in the English (me, my, mine, I) but the word itself functions as a pronoun in all of those uses. I’m really not convinced that one can argue that Japanese has no pronouns at all, just because some of its pronouns function nominally.