A cricket writer enlightens us on the Urdu tense system

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Pakistan is playing England in a series of cricket matches, and on Sunday, August 29, Mike Brearley filed from the famous Lord's cricket ground an unbearably pompous article in The Observer about how things are going. "Cricket is the cruellest game," he began; "It is also, by the same token, the kindest" — I will spare you the rest of the self-contradictory pseudo-literary drivel of his first paragraph. But with his second paragraph he moves into linguistics and theology, and I think Language Log has to comment on the former:

There is no future tense in Urdu; the future is in the hands of Allah, it is not for mortal men to speak as if they presume to know what it holds. But Pakistan's players must at least have feared for their future as the day wore on.

Can you guess what I did on seeing this, Language Log readers? (Apart, that is, from muttering imprecations under my breath, not for the first time, about how I simply do not understand the tendency for people to talk about language as if they can just make stuff up and nothing needs to be fact-checked.) I know a little about the Indic languages, and I do have some of the right books. So I got up, walked across my office, and plucked my rather ancient (1962) copy of Teach Yourself Urdu from the shelf.

This is from page 44, in the chapter on the verb, first subheading:

I shall or will escape

həm bəcenŋge
məyŋ bəcuŋga
tu bəcega twm bəcoge
  ap bəceŋge
voh bəcega voh bəceŋge

Feminine changes -ga to -gi and -ge to-gi.

Notice that the book is giving single inflected forms: the first word in each example above is a pronoun (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person downward, singular and plural across), and the second word is a verb inflected in the future tense.

It is English that does not have a future tense (see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, chapter 3, for a detailed argument). Urdu quite uncontroversially does have one.

So what the hell did Mike Brearley think he was doing? What is the strange nature of linguistic subject matter that leads journalists, and writers of all sorts, to mouth off about it without a care, announcing random falsehoods as fact? Metallurgical claims are treated as needing at least some kind of fact-checking with metallurgists: you can't just assert that lead is highly brittle at room temperature or that vanadium explodes if put in contact with water. But linguistic claims are left to the same sort of uncontrolled mouthing-off as totally subjective opinions about food or fashion.

Brearley could describe the Pakistanis' uniforms as looking awful if he wanted: it's just a matter of a personal opinion. He could say their play was inept and clumsy; that's presumably something he is paid to know about. He could even comment on the disgustingness of the post-weekend corruption story that has broken in Britain about members of the Pakistan team planning to fail deliberately at certain times by advance arrangement with betters who want to place money on their failures: that would be a moral judgment that it would be quite reasonable to assert.

But how on earth did he form the impression that he could treat factual claims about their well-known language in just the same way, and make random assertions about its tense system? Urdu has between 60 and 70 million speakers, all of whom know the future tense; taken together with Hindi, with which it is almost identical in its grammar, it is in fact the 4th most widely spoken language in the world. The Wikipedia page on Urdu grammar actually gives an analysis under which Urdu has two future tenses, a contingent future and a definite future. So much for not offending Allah by presuming to talk about events that are to come. Brearley was just spouting garbage.

Was thirty seconds of fact-checking just too much for The Observer (supposedly a quality newspaper) to manage?

Never mind; I ask only rhetorically; do not bother to answer. I mean my questions merely as exasperated exclamations about a world in which people do not grasp the idea of human language being the subject matter of an interesting empirical discipline.

Hat tip: Language Log reader Maurice Buxton


  1. tom said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    Brearley can certainly be pompous, (pomposity is hardly the worst of traits) but he's also written thoughtfully on the game. It's certainly annoying when our specialities are traduced either through malice, indifference, or ignorance. And I recognise that in a sense language is everyone's speciality, whether they know it or not. But I'm not sure there's anything so wrong here. We're allowed, thank God, to be wrong – there may even be a certain rightness in the wrongness sometimes. And even if you don't think so, there is a pleasure in both being put right and putting right.

    If he'd slighted a player, a person, then maybe there's cause for anger, but the only person he can possibly be said to have embarrassed through ignorance is himself. The pomposity (hardly the worst of traits – often quite entertaining) is not exactly one-sided either, if your last paragraph is anything to go by.

  2. Scott said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    Ah, but in Journalese, "there is no" means "there is". It doesn't matter that I don't speak Journalese, or even know much about it; if I say it, it must be true.

  3. S.W. said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    I don't mean to defend terrible journalism, but here is a possible explanation for his mistake: when I was taught the little bit of Urdu that I know, the future tense your book shows was described to me as the "ultra-polite imperative." It seems possible that it's both ("Will you step out, please?" being something like "Please step out"). Meanwhile, the present tense plus "inshallah" was described as "what you say for the future." But, as I say, I didn't learn very much, and I learned it in a weird context. It's still irresponsible of him to make a flat declaration about the language — I wouldn't do it, since I clearly didn't absorb the whole language — and also especially stupid to draw religio-cultural conclusions, since one glaringly obvious fact about Urdu is that it's virtually identical to Hindi, which is spoken by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, etc.. I'm told the two languages are sometimes lumped together as "Hindustani."

  4. Mike Eslea said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    Dearie me, Brearley is usually regarded as one of the more cerebral cricketers. Anybody ask Tuffers or freddie for their view?

  5. Megan said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    LL has to comment on the linguistics but not the theology?

    The claim is that Urdu doesn't have a future tense because of the mindset of people who speak Urdu. I'm curious about Brearley's source of this information as well.

  6. bulbul said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    There is no future tense in Urdu; the future is in the hands of Allah
    A local pundit wrote the same about Arabic a while back. We (the local Arabists) proceeded tore him a metaphorical new one, but these people are made of teflon.
    As for the theological point, I've heard that one before as well, and it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of a Quranic passage in Sūrat al-Kahf:

    وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا إِلَّا أَنْ يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ
    18:23 And never say of anything, "I shall do (this or) that tomorrow."
    18:24 Unless you add "If God wills it." …

    It is interesting to note, however, that in 18:23, it's not the future tense that is used, but rather the present participle.

  7. xyzzyva said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I wonder if his thinking was influenced by the oft-retold factoid that Hindi (and presumably Urdu—yes, there it is) has a single word for both "yesterday" and "tomorrow": कल / کل / kal ? I've heard this explained as reflecting Hindu theology: tomorrow and yesterday being one and the same, eternal universe and all.

  8. Karen said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    Ah, well, Russian too has time expressions that mean "ago" or "from now" and only context tells them apart. I doubt that either pagan Slavic or Orthodox theology agrees with Hindi…

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Another relevant question is how many of the Pakistani cricket team are native speakers of Urdu. According to sources quoted here, Urdu is the native language of only about 7% of the country's population.

  10. language hat said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    Hmm, apparently they've totally revamped Teach Yourself Urdu; in my 1999 edition the future conjugation is on page 131 (and uses a different example verb). Anyway, nice demolition job, and I'm mindboggled by the commenter who apparently has no problem with journalists making things up. Sheesh.

    Ah, well, Russian too has time expressions that mean "ago" or "from now" and only context tells them apart.

    I trust you're not implying that Russian doesn't have a future; it has not one but two of them.

  11. Kutsuwamushi said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    I'm going to give this guy the benefit of a doubt and assume that he read this factoid somewhere. I've seen other languages that treat future events in an unfamiliar way described as "having no future tense" in non-academic writing lots of times. I think the simplest explanation is that he read this somewhere and felt no reason to doubt it because he doesn't have the education in linguistics to know how poor popular writing about language really is.

    It's annoying, but I think that this particular journalist might be less personally negligent and more handicapped by the fact there's such a large amount of crap written about language, and relatively few people who study it.

    (And I don't see it as too nitpicky to point out mistakes like this either, because that's how these myths propagate. And they often unfortunately tie into an attitude that these other, foreign people are so totally different from us!!! … which can be hurtful.)

  12. Matthew Wilson said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    Heh, I read that in the paper and thought, "that sounds like the kind of thing Language Log would tell us isn't true".

  13. Nat said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    I trust you're not implying that Russian doesn't have a future; it has not one but two of them.

    If you read the whole (two sentences!) comment and the immediatly preceding post it's responding to, then it's perfectly clear what she's implying.

  14. bulbul said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    I think the simplest explanation is that he read this somewhere and felt no reason to doubt it
    The problem is that he apparently did not feel any reason to VERIFY it. These days, you don't even need to lift your butt, just type urdu + grammar in the search engine of your choice or go directly to Wikipedia.

    that's a tough one. We could starthere and go by place of birth, but how far would that get us …

    [(myl) Well, the first three guys in the first column of that list (Abdul Razzak, Azhar Ali, Imran Farhat) were born in Lahore, which probably means their native language is Punjabi; the fourth guy (Khalid Latif) was born in Karachi, which I gather means that there's roughly a 50% chance that he's an Urdu native speaker; the next guy (Mohammad Asif) is another Punjabi (from Sheikhupura); then there's Mohammad Yousuf from Lahore, etc. Scanning through the listed birthplaces of the rest of the team, it looks to me as if the majority of them are probably native speakers of Punjabi.]

    in 2000 edition, it's chapter 5, pages 97-98.

  15. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Brearley's only really a part-time journalist, better known for being one of England's most successful captains (a pinnacle being the legendary Ashes 3rd Test at Headingley in 1981) and latterly a psychoanalyst, management consultant and speaker.

    Still, his academic background (Cambridge undergraduate and postgraduate, which he apparently figured important enough to lead to a 2-year gap in his professional cricket career in his late 20s) might make you think he would check his facts more assiduously than some other sportsmen-turned-journos. Not to mention that he first went to Pakistan as long ago as 1966 as MCC U-25 captain.

  16. dw said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Ironically, one could make a better (though not very good) argument that there is no _present_ tense in Hindi-Urdu: what was historically the present tense has today become the subjunctive; and in order to express a present meaning, one must use periphrastic forms of the verb "to be" along with aspectually marked participles.

    I wonder what cricketing wisdom Mike Brearley could take from that?

  17. David J. Peterson said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    Wow, Geoff, thanks so much for providing us with that fascinating information about lead and vanadium! I had no idea vanadium exploded on contact with water–I should be more careful with mine. You should write a book on metallurgy!

    In playful seriousness, though, linguists should set out to start writing popular news articles about subjects like metallurgy, computer hardware, heart surgery, etc., inserting "true" facts here and there as a way of exacting revenge on the world. For example, did you know that the heart stops pumping blood during REM sleep? (That's to keep it fresh.)

  18. aqilluqqaaq said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    I trust you're not implying that Russian doesn't have a future; it has not one but two of them.

    In the spirit of

    It is English that does not have a future tense

    the point about Russian is moot. For instance:

    “It appears that Russian is no exception to the general rule and has no ‘future tense’ endings, since the only forms that have any claim to the title of ‘future tense’ are the combination of буду and an imperfective infinitive, which does not constitute a ‘tense’ and which in any case also expresses determination or intention.”

    (Miller, J., ‘‘Future Tense’ in Russian.’ Russian Linguistics, Vol. 1, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 255-270.

  19. Faldone said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    It seems to me a little disingenuous to say that a language doesn't have a certain tense just because it handles it periphrastically rather than inflectionally. Does English have a past perfect only in some strong verbs?

  20. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    the post-weekend corruption story that has broken in Britain about members of the Pakistan team planning to fail deliberately at certain times by advance arrangement with betters who want to place money on their failures

    The Lemonade, as it was sometimes called in poolhalls years ago.

  21. John Lawler said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    It's not disingenuous (hmm… is it ingenuous?); it's a necessity. Tense is a term reserved for morphological inflection; if one included all periphrastic constructions, there would be hundreds of "tenses", not to mention "voices", "moods", and "aspects", in any analytic language. A sample of a few such in English can be seen at http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/aue/tense.html#tenselist

  22. Xmun said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    It has no future tense: I've heard the same thing said of Hebrew, by a man who actually knows it (he's an Old Testament scholar). Any comments?

  23. James said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    My rebuff is much like Scott's (and equally serious). GKP is just being prescriptivist about the expression "is no future tense in Urdu", which Brearly plainly intends to mean "are two future tenses in Urdu". Why shouldn't he use it that way? Who died and made you garbanzo?

  24. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    > I'm going to give this guy the benefit of a doubt and assume that he read this factoid somewhere.

    For some reason I EXPECT journalists to fact-check whatever factoids they “read somewhere” before committing them to the press. It might have to do with the way they keep telling me they’re much more reliable than bloggers, because bloggers will just spread baseless hearsay.

  25. John Thayer Jensen said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    Years ago – BW (Before Web) – a writer on theology, who was acquainted with me, trying to argue for a cyclical view of history on the part of pagan religions (whatever that meant) vs a future-oriented, eschatological view on the part of Christianity, said, in a newsletter, that "African languages have no future tenses."


    I wrote with quotes out of a variety of grammars citing futures for a number of African languages (all Bantu as I recall) – and pointing out that whilst English has a periphrastic future, it doesn't even have a future tense if, by that, he meant a morphological one.

    He didn't respond – but he didn't repeat the claim :-)


  26. Francisco Almeida said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    A bit of trivia following a previous post: Portuguese and Spanish preserve many traces of the period of muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in the lower middle ages. Among these is the word 'oxalá', which is of course but a slight romanisation of the jaculatory 'inshallah'. Perhaps for symmetry, a straight 'se Deus quiser' (if God wills) was also much favoured in everyday talk until quite recently. All this trusting in Providence was powerless, however, in preventing the development of nothing less than three future tenses in Portuguese. It is certainly for better expiating such impiety that speakers have a choice of five different tenses in which they may regret the past.

  27. bulbul said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:50 pm


    It has no future tense: I've heard the same thing said of Hebrew
    Well, one could equally say that Hebrew (at least the Old Testament variety) has no tenses at all, but only aspects – incomplete (prefixal conjugation or imperfect) and complete (suffixal conjugation or perfect).
    With Modern Hebrew things are a wee bit more complicated, because the imperfect tends to be used to express future actions while the present participle (CoCeC) is used where present tense (either simple or continuous) would be used in English.

  28. bulbul said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:13 pm


    trying to argue for a cyclical view of history on the part of pagan religions (whatever that meant)
    Sounds an awful lot like Eliade's concept of eternal return. Eliade concluded that the first the Jewish and then the Christian religion broke the cycle and transcended "the horizon of archetypes and repetition" and that Christianity is a religion of "modern man and historical man … who simultaneously discovered personal freedom and continuous time (in place of cyclical time)". Make of it what you will, but I've known people to use this in their defense of Christianity.
    Anyhow, it sounds quite funny – people whose language doesn't have tenses actually invented linear time.

    He didn't respond – but he didn't repeat the claim :-)
    Victory at last! Well done, sir.

  29. Emma V. said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    On the topic of language supposedly changing how we think has anyone read this article?

  30. eRic 0nez said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    I seem to be the only person who took that toss-away comment as jocular and/or poetic… a sort of tongue-in-cheek invocation of the "words for snow" trope, such as the type you might hear like, "New Yorkers have no word for 'courteous'" or "There's no word in Jamaican for 'hurry'" or something like that.

    Maybe he was just peddling linguistic ignorance, though.

    And now I'm actually really curious as to what languages get used among the Pakistani team, if it's English or Urdu or Punjabi and how competant most team members are in the first two.

  31. John Cowan said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    The Urdu future ending is in fact a grammaticalized version of the perfective participle of the word for go; in effect, Urdu has a gonna-future.

  32. George said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    Even had he been correct about the absence of a future tense, the implication is that an Urdu speaker could not express a thought about the future (or worse yet, even think about it).

    This is even more absurd, IMO, than the easily confirmed error, in the age of Wikipedia, about Urdu grammar.

  33. Sharl said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    Does Islam predate Urdu?

  34. Bloix said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    This isn't about language. It's about Islam. You can print any bigoted, racist, pig-ignorant thing you want about Muslims. Evidence not required.

  35. Debbie said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Why not remove the bee in our bonnet with a letter to the editor of The Observer?

  36. John Lawler said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    Yes, Islam predates Urdu by about a thousand years. Greatly simplified, Urdu is the Muslim dialect of Hindustani, written with Arabic characters and with borrowings from Arabic and Persian; while Hindi is the Hindu dialect, written in Devanagari, with borrowings from Sanskrit. In Pakistan, Urdu is spoken largely by migrants from India during partition, including many of the professional class. Latest figures about Pakistani languages I have are:

    Numbers of speakers of larger languages in Pakistan
    Language 2008 Spkrs 1998 Spkrs Pctage Area
    1 Punjabi 76,367,360 58,433,431 44.15% Punjab
    2 Pashto 26,692,890 20,408,621 15.42% NWFP
    3 Sindhi 24,410,910 18,661,571 14.1% Sindh
    4 Seraiki 18,019,610 13,936,594 10.53% S. Punjab
    5 Urdu 13,120,540 10,019,576 7.57% Karachi
    6 Balochi 6,204,840 4,724,871 3.57% Balochistan
    7 Others 8,083,850 6,167,515 4.66%
    Total 172,900,000 132,352,279 100%

  37. hahn said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    Oh come on, don't act as if people are *especially* prone to make up "facts" and be generally wrong or bad at their jobs when it comes to *your* field. As empiricists, surely we can bother to check this out somehow. My hypothesis: people are sloppy thinkers and uninformed pontificators whether it has to do with linguistics, or medicine (homeopathy?), or politics (birth certificates?) or business or whatever.

  38. Jonathan said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    Given Brearley's association with Pakistan through cricket, don't you think the chances are that he was told this factoid by a native-speaker, like S.W. above? That's not like "reading it somewhere", in that most people wouldn't question it at all.

  39. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:16 am

    Dan Lufkin: no past tense for the verb "go"

    what, you don't use "goed"?

    how this affects my appreciation of the interrelation of time and locomotion

    well, in the past it always made *me* move.


  40. Jayarava said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:39 am

    This really made me smile. There's one big Pakistani cricket story this week. Hint… it's about corruption, but not of Urdu grammar.

  41. michael farris said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    "For example, did you know that the heart stops pumping blood during REM sleep? (That's to keep it fresh.)"

    I'm appalled at such a shoddy interpretation. The truth is that the the blood goes into reverse direction during REM sleep (and keeps going in that direction until the next REM sleep period). True the heart has to stop for a moment as it changes gears, but the reverse direction is the important part.
    This is why REM sleep is so important, a regular change in the direction of the blood flow keeps the humours in balance. It is also important to match the directional flow of blood in transfusions.

  42. Paul said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    Apparently Urdu has no word for "popping crease"

  43. PaulB said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:34 am

    "What is the strange nature of linguistic subject matter that makes journalists and writers of all sorts to mouth off about it without a care, announcing random falsehoods as fact?"

    Notwithstanding the metallurgical example, journalists write utter rubbish about every subject. The tosh about language is particularly likely to be noticed by linguists.

    Newspapers are only tomorrow's chip-wrappings.

  44. the other Mark P said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:22 am

    Apparently Urdu has no word for "popping crease"

    That got a laugh out of me, but I imagine it has left the US, Canadian and European readers scratching their heads.

  45. Leo said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:43 am

    Brearley could have checked his facts with Giles Clarke, chairman of the England & Wales Cricket Board and apparently an Urdu-speaker.

  46. Paul said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    Apparently Urdu has no word for "popping crease"

    That got a laugh out of me, but I imagine it has left the US, Canadian and European readers scratching their heads.

    I did check that <\cricket joke> appeared in the comment preview, but had forgotten that the comment preview doesn't necessarily show what will appear in the comments :-(

    Anyway, if it raised a laugh I think that counts as six and out ;-)

  47. Faldone said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 7:07 am

    Apparently Urdu has no word for "popping crease"

    That got a laugh out of me, but I imagine it has left the US, Canadian and European readers scratching their heads.

    It got a laugh out of this US reader. But note: English has no word for "popping crease" either.

  48. Joe said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    This "terrible journalism" seems to me a specific class known as "sports writing" which tends to be hyperbolic, aphoristic, contradictory, and highly prejudicial. It tends to be indifferent to facts unrelated to the sport at hand–cricket in this case–where much of the fact checking is devoted to. I'm not a cricket fan but it's funny to me that this style of writing is not specific to writing in other sports.

  49. SeekTruthFromFacts said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    If you read the website 'Get Religion', you'll see that other specialists think their field is misinterpreted by the mainstream media too.

    It's also worth noting that employing fact-checkers is part of a North American tradition of journalism? The Observer has probably never had a 'Research Department', although it has had sub-editors responsible for proof-reading.

  50. Flintoff's gusset said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    It's also worth noting that employing fact-checkers is part of a North American tradition of journalism? The Observer has probably never had a 'Research Department', although it has had sub-editors responsible for proof-reading.

    Does this mean we can throw our hands up in despair about Prof Pullum neglecting to check the facts over whether or not The Observer has fact-checkers??

  51. Michael said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    strictly speaking: Hebrew has no present tense. And please — no political innuendoes!

  52. Chris Brew said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    As cricket journalism the article is actually sensible, though not half as good as what you get from Mike Atherton, another Cambridge-educated FEC, who is a proper full-time journalist. Brearley buries a tendentious claim about fatalistic Islamic attitudes to the future inside a bogus linguistic point, then extends the trick, mentioning past and future over and over again, which, to my ears gives his otherwise OK article a brittle patina of cleverness. A robust sub-editor would have scrawled "literary" on the article and demanded a rewrite.

    FEC could stand for "former England captain", or for "F****** educated C***". Atherton's Lancashire teammates wrote it on his locker when he arrived in the dressing room (in that case the "former" would have been "future", and would have reflected a general suspicion of the officer classes).

  53. Levi Montgomery said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Two question, one serious and one not:

    First (the not-serious one): How does one arrange to throw one's game tomorrow if one does not discuss the future as though one knows it?

    Second (and much more to the point): For those of us who don't have access to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, could you perhaps point to another discussion of the statement that English has no future tense? Since we do, in fact, have ways of discussing the future, and since we do, in fact, seldom confuse ourselves about the difference between what we did yesterday and what we're going to to tomorrow, I assume this argument is something like "We use the same form of the verb, and adjust it with other words, and that's not a tense, per se." Still, it would be nice to know.

  54. Picky said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Sub-editors are generally responsible not for proof reading but for copy editing.

  55. Jon W said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    @Levi Montgomery: Yup, that's the argument; you've got it. Japanese is even more notable in this regard, in that it doesn't even use auxiliaries like "will" to distinguish present and future action. (Caveat: the present continuous -te imasu form can't be used to describe future action. But the key point is that the simple imasu form that describes future action works as well to describe present action; you have to rely on context for the difference.)

  56. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Levi Montgomery: another discussion of the statement that English has no future tense

    John Lawler, a linguist who comments here, has this, which I found quite helpful.

  57. Not My Leg said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    What I find surprising is not the assertion the Urdu has no future tense, it's not as if unsupportable claims about language are anything new, but that the author implies that Urdu speakers are incapable of talking about the future. It may be correct to say that English has no future tense, but it would be silly to say that English speakers therefore cannot discuss the future.

    It makes me wonder, is there any language that actually has this characteristic; that it is incapable of being used to discuss the future? It seems too absurd an assertion to possibly be correct. Such a language would be of such limited use that it would almost certainly quickly evolve to include a method of discussing the future, no?

  58. Alex said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Urdu has many more than 70 million speakers, though I presume you mean "native speakers." That itself is something that would be nearly impossible to quantify even without the huge political stakes. Your Lahori players probably grew up speaking Punjabi and Urdu without distinguishing between them, and all of your players are just as likely to use English as their main vehicle of communication.
    @S.W. The polite imperative you describe is different from the future tense described here.

  59. TDS said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Arabic, it seems*, does have a future tense. So it appears at least some Muslims do "presume to know what the future holds."

    *I learned this this morning from Google. I don't speak a word of Arabic myself. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

  60. Sadat said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    Of course Urdu has a future tense: Hum karenge (I will do, polite); Main karoonga (I will do, informal). Etc. In fact, unlike English, where I do, and I did, but I will do (so another word is needed to denote the future), in Urdu (as in Hindi), you simply conjugate the word.

    And to the commenter wondering whether the cricketers in question speak Urdu – it may not be their mother tongue, but it would be hard to grow up in Pakistan and have had at least a primary-school education and not speak any Urdu. Plus any reading and writing they do would likely be mostly in Urdu. I don't know if you get how this works in countries like India and Pakistan – almost everyone, at least everyone who doesn't live in an isolated village, is at least bilingual, and often trilingual. Of course, if the language in question had been Sindhi or Pushto, you would have been right to wonder if they spoke it, since you tend to speak the non-official language only if it's your mother tongue or you learnt it as an extra language at school. So in my case I speak Bengali because it's my mother tongue, Hindi because I'm from Delhi and had to take it in school, and English because I had to take it in school (though presumably I'd have picked it up otherwise, too).

    And finally, I work for a British magazine, and of course there's a fact-checking department. Incidentally, I've found egregious errors of fact and consistency in the New York Times, which prides itself on its fact-checking: but telling them gets a load of pomposity back.

    And finally, I was glad to see the original post. That article was utter drivel from an Englishman who thinks, in true English style, that he knows everything about the rest of the world and sees fit to pronounce on it without ever entertaining the idea that he may be making an utter fool of himself.

  61. Levi Montgomery said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Thank you, Jon and Groki! I shall assume, then, that not having a "present tense" isn't much of an obstacle to discussing the future. :)

  62. Samuel Baldwin said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    Islam aside, I think a lot of this linguistic nonsense stems from people thinking that "linguist" ≡ "polyglot". I've met many an English Lit. major who thinks they have an unparalled grasp on English as a whole, as well as believing prescriptivism is essential for comprehension.

  63. Picky said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:19 am

    Oh dear, Sadat, so it's not just Brearley but all us English who have curious views about Urdu? Goodness!

  64. trisha scott said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    Mike Brearley may (or may not) speak urdu but "he was an ideal student when he learnt Gujarati for four years from eminent Ahmedabad-based poet and activist, Saroop Dhruv." – his wife is Gujarati. See http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/Teaching-Mike-Skipper-and-ideal-student-/articleshow/3446722.cms

    [(myl) He has less excuse than we thought, then, for being so badly mistaken about the nature of Urdu and the native language(s) of the Pakistani cricket squad.]

  65. Mark Liberman said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    With respect to English-lanugage proficiency on the current Pakistani cricket team, this article says of Salman Butt that he "is one of the few younger players in the team confident when speaking English".

    The same article says of Mohammad Aamer (elsewhere spelled Amir) that

    The 18-year-old left-arm seamer has risen rapidly through the ranks after being spotted aged 11 and moving from his remote village of Gujjar Khan to a sports academy in Rawalpindi.

    This means, I think, that his native language is Punjabi, and that his Urdu is probably not especially fluent. (See here for more discussion of his case.)

    The point here is just that if the tense and aspect system of any language is influencing how these players think about time, it's probably not Urdu. So to sum up:

    1) The neo-Whorfian idea that that thought (in this case about time) is limited by language (here the tense and aspect system) is at least exaggerated and probably entirely wrong;
    2) The assertion that Urdu has no future tense is in any case completely false;
    3) Point 2) is apparently not relevant to the Pakistani cricket squad in any case, since few of them are native speakers of Urdu.

    Overall, then, Brearly's little trope was wrong about language and thought, wrong about the nature of Urdu, and wrong about the native language of the members of the Pakistani cricket team.

  66. Rohan Dharwadkar said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Sadat said: Of course Urdu has a future tense: Hum karenge (I will do, polite); Main karoonga (I will do, informal).

    As a Hindi speaker myself, I can't quite say I agree with Sadat's interpretation of the sociolinguistic implications of 'Hum karenge'. I think that at least in present-day Hindi and Urdu, 'Hum karenge' for 'I will do' sounds more pompous than polite. I can almost hear the sniggers that would ensue from somebody's uttering of this locution; I think its use in this sense is best left to Mughal Emperors in films and poetry. The days of this being a conveyor of politeness are, in my opinion, moribund, if not already long gone.

  67. Picky said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    And, according to the Times of India, far from Brearley being an immodest bigmouth, as Sadat implies, he was actually not only a sincere student but also an unassuming gentleman who would wander the streets eating delicacies made of potato. So there!

  68. bulbul said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:10 pm


    Arabic, it seems*, does have a future tense.
    For Classical Arabic (and before that), the system is very much like that of Hebrew, except in Arabic, there are dedicated future action markers (one prefix and one particle, the former possibly derived from the latter).

    So it appears at least some Muslims do "presume to know what the future holds."
    Like all of us, believers or not, they can make a guess and hope they are right, or not, as the case may be, knowing they have very little control over future events. It's just that their religion demands that they acknowledge it in their speech.

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