The language where the pronouns have tenses — Wolof

We have different ways of expressing the idea of something happening now, something happening in the past, and something that is going to happen at some point in the future. For languages like Mandarin Chinese, there are no conjugations — as the way Mandarin Chinese works does not support conjugations for the most part. There is not really a system of tense in languages like this; instead, time markers are added for context, or in some contexts, the tense is sort of implied and can be interpreted.

Then there is the case of verb conjugations, where many languages we are familiar with would probably use. You may have recalled memorising the past tense of irregular verbs like “to forsake” in school (the correct answer for the simple past tense is “forsook”), or pouring through huge verb tables when learning languages like Arabic or French. This is the system where the endings (or other parts like vowels, or the entire thing in some irregular verbs) of a verb’s root or stem are altered to express an action that has happened in the past, or will occur in the future. This is verb conjugation by tense.

But there are some languages that take it a step further. Take Wolof, for example. It is a Niger-Congo language spoken predominantly in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, with a total of around 5.5 million native speakers, and an undetermined number of non-native speakers.

The way Wolof verbs work is, shall we say, very different from our preconceptions. Verbs are unchangeable stems that cannot be conjugated. And so, if a Wolof speaker wishes to express something that occurred in the past, what would they do?

They conjugate the pronoun.

Temporal pronouns are the term for such conjugated pronouns, because pronouns are altered to fit the tense. With it, comes several additional linguistic terms to get used to. The “situative” is sort of the present tense as we know it. The “terminative” could be split into the perfect and future forms, which expresses the past tense for action verbs or present tense for static verbs, and the future tense respectively. The “objective” has a perfect form, which emphasises the object of the clause, and the imperfect form, which indicates a habitual or future action and also emphasises the object of the clause. Similarly, the “subjective” places emphasis on the subject of the clause, while the “processive” places the emphasis on the verb, or the state condition of the sentence. When ordering these temporal pronouns with verbs in Wolof, it must be noted that sometimes the verb follows certain temporal pronouns, while in other cases, the verb precedes them. I have not really learnt Wolof before, and so I am unaware of certain patterns in verbs that use either ordering pattern.

This is not the only abnormality, however. The way Wolof treats tenses is rather secondary in comparison to this thing known as the aspect, particularly from the subject’s perspective. What are these aspects, you might ask? Well, these might have already been mentioned in the paragraph above, since aspects sort of take importance over the tense. Most importantly would be the distinction between the perfect (finished) and the imperfect (ongoing) regardless of the time in which this action takes place. Other aspects would include if the action is done regularly (or habitually), certainty of the action, and which element of the clause the speaker would like to emphasise. Given the relative importance of the aspect over tense in Wolof, some might suggest that the term aspect pronoun would be more appropriate, but as you know, the term temporal pronoun stuck.

However, a speaker could also express a past action by adding the suffix -(w)oon to the verb, even though the temporal pronoun is still used in the sentence.

So with all that being said, it is probably a good idea to illustrate this concept with some examples. The word dem means the verb “to go”, and it cannot be conjugated. If you want to say “I am going now”, the temporal pronoun for “I / me, here and now” is maa ngi, and so in Wolof, that phrase is translated as Maa ngi dem. What if you want to say “I will go soon”? Well, the temporal pronoun for “I am soon / I will soon / I will be soon” is dinaa, and so that phrase is translated as Dinaa dem.

Now, to add more aspects to the mix. If you want to express something that you have already or definitely done, the temporal pronoun for “I already / definitely” is naa. And hence the sentence “I already went to Dakar” in Wolof is Demoon naa Ndakaaru, with the -oon suffix used to further express (maybe emphasise as well?) this past action.

So this has been a little dive into what is a linguistic anomaly, where tenses are expressed not by changing the verb. but by changing the pronoun. It is a rather interesting pattern, and one that makes Wolof special among its other language cousins.

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