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When 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow' are the same word

Date Released: Thu, 17 February 2011 15:52 +0200

Different languages have vastly different ways of dividing up the scale of time, using tenses and time words such as 'yesterday' and 'today'.  In a Departmental Research Seminar, on Tuesday 15 February, Ron Simango explained the workings of a language which has a particularly interesting way of handling time, ciNsenga.

Ron started off the seminar explaining that his interest in this topic was piqued when he mentioned in a conversation to a friend that in ciNsenga the same word, mailo, means both 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow'. Similarly, the word mazo can mean either 'the day before yesterday' or 'the day after tomorrow'. His friend asked him the obvious question: "How do you not get confused between yesterday and tomorrow when you use the word in a sentence?"

On thinking about it, Ron realized that the answer to this question was all in the tense of the sentence. Languages from the Bantu language family (that is, most of the languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa) are known for their strong and complicated systems of tenses. CiNsenga has four different ways of expressing past events. For instance, you can translate the sentence "Khuzwayo sharpened the spear" in four ways:

1. Khuzwayo wanola mkondo. This means that Khuzwayo sharpened the spear today and the spear is still sharp.
2. Khuzwayo enola mkondo. This means that he sharpened the spear yesterday and the spear is still sharp.
3. Khuzwayo enze wanola mkondo. This means that he sharpened the spear today and it is not sharp anymore.
4. Khuzwayo enze enola mkondo. this means that he sharpened the spear yesterday and it is not sharp anymore.

This has some interesting consequences for other sentences. There is one particular way of saying "John went to Port Elizabeth" that means that he is still in Port Elizabeth, and another that means he is no longer there. If the first way of saying this is used when John is not in Port Elizabeth, then the speaker could be accused of lying! However, some verbs for actions which are not so easily reversible, such as "died", can only be said two ways. Ron concludes that there are at least two past tenses in ciNsenga: a hodiernal (same-day) past tense and a non-hodiernal past tense. The same thing is true of the future tense.