Inuktitut Project

Tense and Aspect


What is tense?

Tense refers to the time of an action in comparison with the time that the speaker utters the sentence. For example, if I say "I am eating" in English, it expresses present tense, meaning that my eating is happening at the same time that I am speaking. On the other hand, if I say "I ate," it expresses past tense, meaning that my eating happened before the time I am speaking. Similarly, if I say "I will eat," it expresses that my eating will take place after I am speaking. So tenses are usually divided into present, past, and future. Let's examine how tense works in Inuttitut. In the following discussion, we will only look at main clause verbs, i.e., verbs that are in either indicative/participial or interrogative mood. Later we will look at other verb moods.

Present Tense

Present tense indicates that an action is taking place at the same time as the speaker is making the utterance.

Present tense in Inuttitut depends to some degree on the class of verb which is used. With activity verbs, verbs that describe actions that take place over a period of time, there is no need of a marker to indicate the present tense. Only the verb base and the verb ending are necessary.

nigivunga  'I am eating.'  
sinijuk 'He/she is sleeping.'
Kuviasuvugut 'We are happy.'

In contrast, with single action verbs, verbs that describes actions that are performed all at once, we have to add the postbase -liC- 'is X-ing' to indicate that the action is taking place at the same time as the speaking, i.e., is present tense.

tikijuk 'He/she arrived (just now).' i.e., the action is over.
tikilittuk 'He/she is arriving.' i.e., the action is still going on.

Here we see that when the ending –juk is added to the single action verb tikik, it means that the action has just taken place, and is translated into English as past tense. If we want to describe the action as happening at the present moment, we must add the postbase –liC-.

aullajuk 'He/she just left.'
aullalittuk 'He/she is leaving.'

katajuk 'He/she/it just fell (dropped).' 
pualuit katalittut 'The mitts are falling.'

Remember that the C in -liC- indicates that there is a consonant, with another consonant often following. In the third person (he/she/it/they), the two consonants are /tt/, but in the first (I) or second (you) persons, we normally see /kK/.

tikilikKunga 'I am arriving.'
sâttaulikKusi 'You (pl.) are drifting (away).'

Many, but not all, tense postbases end in C.

When you add the postbase -liC- to an activity verb, it emphasizes that the action is happening right now. In other words, even though you don't need it for the present tense for these verbs, you can add it in for emphasis.

nigilikKunga 'I am eating now'  

Like French, Inuttitut uses a present postbase to express an action that started in the past but is still ongoing.

maggonik jârinnik Inuttut ilinnialikKugut
'For two years we have been studying Inuttitut.'

In this example, there is no past postbase, only –liC-.

Past Tense

Past tense tells us that the action took place before the time when the person is speaking. In Inuttitut, there are a number of markers to express this, each one giving a different meaning.

  1. -kKau- 'earlier today'

    This past tense marker is used to give the information that the action happened sometime earlier today, perhaps just five minutes ago or perhaps in the morning. It can mean the action happened in the afternoon if you are talking in the evening. It should not be used if the action happened before today, e.g., yesterday, last year, etc.

    nigikKauvunga 'I ate (earlier today).'  
    tikikKauvunga 'I arrived (earlier today).' 
    aullaKaujut 'They left (earlier today).'

    Note there that because –kKau- starts with two consonants, one will disappear when it immediately follows a syllable with two consonants [see Law of the Double Consonants]. At the same time, because it starts with two consonants, it can trigger the Law of the Double Consonants.

    nigikKaungilanga 'I didn't eat (earlier today).' (single consonant ng)
    nigingngilanga 'I am not eating.' (double consonant ngng)

  2. -lauC-  'before today'

    -lauC- is used to refer to an action that took place sometime in the past before today. It can be yesterday or ten years ago.

    inolilaukKunga Nainimi.   'I was born in Nain.'
    inolilaungngilanga Nainimi 'I was not born in Nain.'
    ippasak tikilaukKunga 'I arrived yesterday.'
    ippasâni tingijok aullalauttuk 'The day before yesterday the plane left.'

    Because –lauC- ends in a consonant, it will often be followed by /kK/ or /tt/ (see –liC- above).

  3. -tainnaC- 'just (past)'

    -tainnaC- is another postbase that is used to describe an action that took place in the past. This one refers to an event that has just happened.

    tikitainnatuk 'He has just arrived'
    nigitainnatuk 'He has just eaten'
    aKiattutainnaKunga 'I've just gotten very full'

    It also ends in C, but we cannot see it because the /nn/ in -tainnaC- always deletes the C when it is followed by another consonant [see Law of the Double Consonants].

  4. -sima- 'have X-ed'

    The postbase –sima- conveys the meaning that the action took place in the past and is now over.

    nigisimavunga 'I have eaten.'
    tikisimajuk   'She has arrived. ' 

    In the last example, which involves a single action verb, the –sima- gives the meaning 'already.'

  5. -lautsima-  'have ever'

    This postbase describes an event that occurred in the past as a fact about the person who performed the action.

    nikkumik nigilautsimajuk 'He has eaten dried meat.'  [has tried it]
    Nainimit aullasimalautsimavise?   'Have you ever left Nain?'

Future Tense

Future tense indicates that the action will take place after the person speaks. There are a number of future tense markers in Inuttitut.

  1. -niaC-   'will (today)'

    This tense is used to express a future action that will happen shortly, usually the same day as the speaker is making the utterance.

    angutiga tikiniattuk ullumi 'My husband is arriving today.'
    tikittauniakKutit  'It will arrive for you (today).'
    aullaniakKunga siagu 'I will leave later (today).'
    angutiga tikiniangngituk ullumi 'My husband is not arriving today.'

    In this last example we see that the double consonant in the negation marker –ngngiC-, which is right after the verb, deletes the final consonant of –niaC-.

  2. -C- 'will (after today)'

    This postbase tells us that the action or state is in the far future, i.e., later than today.

    KailâkKunga Kauppat   'I will come tomorrow.'
    niuvipvilialâkKutit  Kautsâpat 'You [sing.] will go to the store the day after tomorrow.'
    mikijolâttuk  'It will be small.'
    silalulâkKuk 'It will rain (in the future).'
    silalungngilak   'It won't rain.'

    Again we see that –lâC- will be followed by /kK/ or /tt/ except when another postbase deletes its final consonant, as in the last example.

  3. -langa-  'will (sometime today)'

    This postbase is also used to refer to an event that will take place sometime later in the day. It is mostly used in the Hebron dialect.

    sinilangavunga 'I'm going to sleep'

Dependent uses of tense postbases

When tense is used with non-main clause verb structures, things are sometimes a little different.

For example, we said above that –niaC- is only used for actions taking place later today. In dependent verb structures, however, we see that –niaC- can refer to any time in the future.

aullaniangngituagutta 'If/as long as we don't leave, …….'
niginiangngituaguma 'If/as long as I don't eat, ……'

Note that these verbs also contain the time adverbial -tua-, which means 'as long as' when it occurs in an if-clause.