The agglutinative language I'm most familiar with is Hungarian, and the way Hungarian handles TAM is, I think, incredibly boring: separate T-A-M markers with no allomorphs that just get concatenated together. Need to make a verb past-tense? Just slap on the past tense suffix (of which there is only one allomorph, -t)! Need to also make it conditional? Just slap on the conditional mood suffix too (of which there are technically two allomorphs but only because of vowel harmony, -ne and -na)!

This strikes me, I guess, as "morphology on autopilot", and since the lack of allomorphy makes verb endings all basically resemble each other morphophologically (Hungarian nouns, arguably, suffer worse from this), I think this makes Hungarian sound tediously repetitious. I am always looking for new ways to make my languages not work like Hungarian does.

One alternative is to encode inflection non-concatenatively, and the go-to example of non-concatenative verb morphology is the Semitic triconsonantal root system - e.g. in Akkadian iparras "he decides" vs. iprus "he decided", which segment indicates past-tense? - But you don't actually have to ditch concatenation to get the kind of effect I want. Compare Georgian:

  • ვაშენებ vasheneb "I am building", present indicative

  • ვაშენებ avasheneb "I will build", future indicative

  • ვაშენე avashene "I built", past aorist

  • მეშენებინა ameshenebina "I have built", past perfect

The stem here is -შენ- -shen-; You can see the present and future have a suffix -eb that the aorist doesn't have (the "thematic suffix"), but that can't be a "nonpast tense suffix", because the past perfect also has it. And by contrast the past aorist and past perfect have a prefix a- that the present doesn't have (the "preverb"), but that can't be a "past tense suffix", because the future also has it. So these affixes are necessary to produce different TAM encodings, but they don't apparently have any specific TAM meaning in and of themselves.*

That's really what I'm after: non-decomposable inflection. Inflection whose meaning isn't simply the sum of its parts.

There are a few methods I know of to accomplish this for TAM marking:

  • the aforementioned Semitic triconsonantal root system, AKA vowel apophony on steroids

  • the aforementioned Kartvelian "combinatory" model

  • Indo-European-style fused subject-TAM: not decomposable into separate tense, aspect, and mood affixes when they're all marked simultaneously with the same verb ending

  • separate stems for different TAM: most languages do this at least a little for especially common, suppletive verbs, but e.g. Sumerian systematically distinguishes hamtu (aorist past?) from maru (everything else?) by stem alteration. I would also compare e.g. French ét-ait "he was being" vs. ser-ait "he would be", where the normally TAM-indicating endings are identical and TAM is in that case communicated by the stem itself.

  • I don't know if any natlang does this, but one idea I had was basically direct-inverse tense: every verb is inherently either past or nonpast, and is marked not for tense per se, but for whether or not the actual tense matches the expected tense.

Two alternative approaches I'm aware of that, in my opinion, don't really solve the problem of decomposability, but instead just move it somewhere else:

  • Nominal TAM: moving TAM marking onto nouns instead of verbs. This is sort of interesting but doesn't fundamentally change what encodes TAM, only where TAM is encoded.

  • Basque periphrasis: most non-present tenses are rendered periphrastically, with one of a couple different auxiliaries + one of a couple different participial forms. Changing the tense of the auxiliary changes the tense of the compound verb. Often this can be decomposed as the auxiliary giving the tense, and the participle giving the aspect.

It strikes me that this question could be asked about other verb categories too, not just TAM - maybe evidentiality, transitivity, persons involved, etc. - but at the moment I'm mostly trying to figure out an interesting TAM marking scheme for a language in a different family from my other families that kind of have all the options covered already. If I've already done Kartvelian-esque verbs, if I've already done Indo-European-esque verbs, and I want to try something new... what else can I do to spice up TAM marking? What other natlangs should I look to for inspiration?

* (They're both thought AFAICT to originate as aspect markers - preverbs marking perfectivity, thematic suffixes marking lexical aspect(?), but synchronically that's not what either one is functioning as)

  • For some more suggestions on inflecting languages, see the comments below this question in Linguistics: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/36972/9781
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Aug 29, 2023 at 8:27
  • your direct-inverse strategy isn't too dissimilar from how PIE verbs of a given aspect are derived from roots (if we take the view that roots did in fact have a defined aktionsart, rather than believing that this is simply an issue of survivorship). Root verbs have the same aspect as the root, and to get a different aspect you had to alter the stem (through things like ablaut, suffixes, or the nasal infix)
    – Tristan
    Aug 30, 2023 at 12:28


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