Home Tense and Aspect in African Languages

Project Director:  Silvester Ron Simango , Rhodes University , South Africa

The goal of this research project is to provide an in-depth investigation into the tense/aspect systems of African languages which will ultimately shed more light on the tense and aspectual properties of the languages and provide a basis for distinguishing between the two phenomena.  From a purely descriptive point of view, TAM systems in African languages have not been systematically studied and more importantly, the temporal boundaries between the various tense forms have not been clearly established. 

Africanists, and more specifically Bantuists have in the past pointed to the robustness tense systems found in African languages.  Bamileke, for example, is said to have at least ten different tense forms (Anderson, 1983); iciBemba is also said have tenses that number into double figures (Chung and Timberlake, 1985); and ciCewa is said to have at least eight tenses (Mtenje, 1987). The categories that have been posited to characterize the tense systems in these languages include: ‘simple past’, ‘‘recent past’, ‘remote past’, ‘present’, ‘habitual’, ‘immediate future’ and ‘remote future’. However, the temporal boundaries between, say, the different types of ‘past’ have not been clearly defined in the literature. 

A relatively recent study by Simango (2003) seems to suggest that there may well be far fewer tense types in these languages than has previously been thought and that certain tense forms that have been posited can be accounted for in terms of the aspectual properties of the language in question.  This line of inquiry has revealed that ciCewa also makes the same kind of past tense divisions as ciNsenga and that iciBemba distinguishes between hodiernal, hesternal, and pre-hesternal past tense forms.  Other languages such as Sotho and Swati seem to have only one form of past but have two ways of expressing pastness on the basis of factors considered here. 

Of course additional factors may also be at play in determining what forms are appropriate for conveying information that relates time of event to time of utterance, and the proposed study would hopefully reveal what these are.  Using some version of the Afranaph questionnaire or some other appropriate tools the study seeks to reveal how different African languages cluster temporal relations by the use of tense marking and to document how different tense forms in different languages convey different meanings in different languages.

Those interested in serving as native-speaker linguist consultants for this project should begin by consulting the Tense and Aspect Questionnaire (TAQ), which can be viewed and downloaded below or on the Become a consultant page. Those who decide to participate should then follow the instructions on the Become a consultant page, where details concerning how to participate (and remuneration) are provided. If you do decide to become a consultant, be sure to send a consent form which can be downloaded on that page.

TAQ [pdf] [doc]

The following languages have TA data entered in the database so far:


Anderson, Stephen C. 1983.  Tone and morpheme rules in Bamileke-Ngyemboon.  Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Chung, Sandra, & Alan Timberlake. 1985. Tense, aspect and mood.  In Shopen, T. (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description vol III: Grammatical categories and the lexicon.  Cambridge:
     Cambridge University Press.
Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miti, Lazarus. 2001. A linguistic analysis of ciNsenga.  Cape Town: CASAS.
Simango, Silvester Ron. 2003. Reanalysing past tense categories in Bantu. 
     Malilime: Malawian Journal of Linguistics 3: 67-84.