Bikol and Tagalog as Tenseless Languages, Part 1

It is often mentioned in older grammar outlines of both Bikol and Tagalog that these languages have tenses. Shown below are the conjugation of two verbs in Bikol and Tagalog following these descriptions.

Tagalog Bikol
English Gloss “to hear”
Past narinig nadaŋog
Present naririnig nadadaŋog
Future maririnig madadaŋog
Imperative marinig madaŋog
Base Word dinig daŋog
Tagalog Bikol
English Gloss “to insert”
Past isiniksik чisinuksuk
Present isinisiksik чisinusuksuk
Future isisiksik чisusuksuk
Imperative isiksik чisuksuk
Base Word siksik suksuk

Even Jason Lobel, in his book “An Satuyang Tataramon” published in 2000, mentioned in page 86 that Bikol has 4 tenses: past, present, future and infinitive/imperative. The Wikipedia entry as April 10, 2009 for Tagalog makes a slight improvement by saying that Tagalog verbs do not conjugate for tense. It says there that there are 4 aspects: infinitive/imperative, perfective, imperfective and contemplative. I think both these descriptions are incorrect because (1) neither infinitive nor imperative are tenses, and (2) neither infinitive, imperative or contemplative are aspects. Aspect is what both these languages have and not tense.

A better explanation is given by Paul Kroeger in his book, “Analyzing Grammar, An Introduction” published in 2005. On pages, 162-163, he said and I will quote at length:

“To conclude our discussion of aspect, let us consider some tense-aspect combinations in Tagalog. Each Tagalog verb has three basic finite forms which are often referred to as past tense, present tense, and future tense. But this labelling is misleading. The “present tense” form could be used as a past progressive (“She was singing the Ave Maria when I arrived”) as well as a present progressive (“She is singing the Ave Maria”) or present habitual (“She sings the Ave Maria beautifully”). Similarly, the Tagalog “past tense” form can be used like the English simple past (“She sang”), present perfect (“She has sung”), or past perfect (“She had sung”).

These three forms involve two different affixes: (1) a nasal infix -in- (realized as initial /n/ in active voice formations beginning with mag-); and (2) reduplication (see chapter 16). The infinitival form of the verb lacks both of these, though it is marked for voice. Some examples of these forms are shown in (38): 6


Infinitive “Past” “Present” “Future” English Gloss
bigy-an b[in]igay-an b[in]i-bigy-an bi-bigy-an “to be given”
mag-luto nag-luto nag-lu-luto mag-lu-luto “to cook”
gawa-in g[in]awa g[in]a-gawa ga-gawa-in “to be made, done”

A number of authors have pointed out that this four-way contrast can be analyzed in terms of two fundamental distinctions. The infix -in- marks action as having been begun, which corresponds nicely to the contrast between REALIS vs. IRREALIS tense. CV reduplication marks actions as being non-completed; verbs which lacks this reduplication are in COMPLETIVE aspect, while the reduplicated forms are NON-COMPLETIVE.

The following table shows how these two categories combine to produce the forms in (38). The “past tense forms are those which are both begun and completed, i.e. realis tense and completive aspect. The “present tense” forms are those which are begun but not yet completed, i.e. realis tense and non-completive aspect. The “future tense” forms are those which are neither begun nor completed, i.e. irrealis tense and non-completive aspect. Of course, something which is not begun cannot be completed, so the combination of irrealis tense and completive aspect should be impossible. In fact, this combination, which corresponds to the morphologically unmarked form, is used for “tenseless” categories such as infinitives and imperatives.


Realis (-in) Irrealis (Ø)
Non-completive (REDUP) Present Future
Completive (Ø) Past (Infinitive)

Although Paul Kroeger’s description is better in that it recognizes these as the interplay of 2 distinctions, its not entirely correct as well: (1) Realis and Irrealis are not tenses, (2) the -in- infix does not actually mark action whether its been started, and (3) the aspectual distinction conveyed by reduplication and its absence is not between uncompleted and completed, respectively, thus the terms completive and non-completive are misleading aspect labels here. Talmy Givon, in her book, “Syntax, An Introduction” published in 2001, gives a better explanation of -in- or n- (Kroeger’s nasal infix -in-) as modal distinction, and is quoted in pages 359-360 as follows:

“Austronesian is one language family in which most irrealis clauses share a morphological marker, and can be then further marked for other distinctions, as can also realis clauses. Indeed, the realis-irrealis modal distinction is the major dichotomy in the Austronesian T-A-M system, and all other tense or aspect distinction are secondary elaborations added to it. This pattern may be illustrated with data from Bikol (Philippine), interpreted here as a nominative language.

The main distinction in Bikol verbal prefixes, which conflate grammatical voice and modality, is between realis and irrealis. Both the perfective/past and the progressive/present share the realis prefix nag-. The progressive is then further marked by first-syllable reduplication. Realis subordination clauses display the same nag- prefix as realis main clauses. Thus (M. Factora, i.p.c.):

(37) a. Perfective/past

nag-bakál ‘ang-lalake nin-libro
R/AGT-buy NOM-man ACC-book
‘the man bought a book’

b. Progressive/present

nag-ba-bakál ‘ang-lalake nin-libro
R/AGT-RED-buy NOM-man ACC-book
‘the man is buying a book’

c. Complement of implicative modality-verb

na-tapus ‘ang-lalake na nag-bakál [1] nin-libro
R/PAT-finish NOM-man SUB R/AGT-buy ACC-book
‘the man finished buying a book’

d. Complement of implicative manipulation-verb

nag-pirit ‘ang-lalake sa-babaye na nag-bakál [2] nin-libro
R/AGT-make NOM-man DAT-woman SUB R/AGT-buy ACC-book
‘the man forced the woman to buy a book’

e. Complement of factive cognition-verb

aram kang-lalake na nag-bakál ‘ang-babaye nin-libro
know OBV-man SUB R/AGT-buy NOM-woman ACC-book
‘the man knows that the woman bought a book’

f. Realis Adv-clause

kang nag-digdi ako, nag-karigos ako
when R/AGT-come I R/AGT-swim I
When I came (here), I took a swim’.

In contrast, most irrealis clauses share the prefix mag-. Thus compare:

(38) a. Future

mag-bakál [3] ‘ang-lalake nin-libro
IRR/AGT-buy NOM-man ACC-book
‘the man will buy a book’

b. Subjunctive-imperative (polite)

mag-bakál ka nin-libro
IRR/AGT-buy you ACC-book
‘Buy a book!’

c. Hortative

mag-ba-ra-kal kita manga-libro [4]
IRR/AGT-buy-PL we ACC/PL-book
‘Lets (all) buy books!”

d. Non-implicative modality-verb complement

muya na mag-ba-kal ‘ang-lalake nin-libro
want SUB IRR/AGT-buy NOM-man ACC-book
‘the man wants to buy a book’

e. Non-implicative manipulation-verb complement

nag-sabi ‘ang-lalake sa-babaye na mag-bakal nin-libro
R/AGT-tell NOM-man DAT-woman SUB IRR/AGT-buy ACC-book
‘the man told the woman to buy a book’

f. Non-factive cognition-verb complement

na-‘isip kang-lalake na mag-bakal ‘ang-babaye nin-libro
DAT-think OBV-man SUB IRR/AGT-buy NOM-woman ACC-book
‘the man thought that the woman bought a book’

g. Irrealis Adv-Clause

kung mag-digdi [5] ako, mag-karigos [3] ako
if IRR/AGT-come I IRR/AGT-swim I
If I come (here), I’ll take a swim.

A fairly similar grammatical distribution of a single irrealis marker, also covering the habitual, has been described in another Austronesian language, Fijian (Dixon, 1988). A similarly wide distribution of a single irrealis marker, also covering negative clauses, has been reported for Caddo and Northern Iroquois languages (Chafe 1995). Finally, the entire Mixtecan family in Mexico displays a similar wide distribution of a sigle irrealis prefix, also covering the negative clauses (Bradley and Hollenbach (eds 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992).”

Although I do not agree with her that Bikol is a nominative language, by and large, her description is quite correct. There are a few typographical errors (see the notes I provided below) which I think are mainly due to an oversight.

I will post my own description of Bikol Mood and Aspect in the following days.


[1]  I think the proper verb form here is mag-bakál (IRR/AGT-buy) if the English gloss is to stay. Otherwise, the gloss should read as “the man who bought a book finished…”

[2]  Same here. The proper verb form here is mag-bakál (IRR/AGT-buy) if the English gloss is to stay. Otherwise, the gloss should read as “the man forced the woman who bought a book…”

[3]  The proper verb form form here is “ma-bakál” (IRR/AGT-buy) if the English gloss is to stay. Otherwise, the gloss should read as “the man to buy a book..”

[4]  The right phrase should be “nin-manga-libro” (ACC/PL-book).

[5]  For the same reason stated in note#3, the proper verb form form here is “ma-digdi” (IRR/AGT-come) and “ma-karigos” (IRR/AGT-swim) if the English gloss is to stay. Otherwise, the gloss wouldn’t make any sense “If I to come (here), I to swim..” as the sentence is using a non-finite form for what should be a finite form slot.


2 Responses to “Bikol and Tagalog as Tenseless Languages, Part 1”

  1. Steve Says:

    this is all so confusing and will lose anyone trying to learn the language(tagalog) so I believe it is better to just teach it as it is spoken on the streets,instead of all this history(which becomes quickly distracting to the learner).
    Put up a web site,(similar to that of Kalyespeak and add voice(and explanations) (as to how, when, and why, each word is used) Keeping it simple so as to not lose the subject .

  2. vagabonddrifter Says:

    Hi Steve.

    I can understand why you’ve been confused since I haven’t posted yet what I think are the more apt descriptions of Tagalog and Bikol. I’ve prepared a draft already but I’ve been busy lately to review and make sure its not hastily done.

    Well, I am actually not intending to teach Tagalog. Its not a language I am very fond of as it is eclipsed by Bikol in richness, and I normally go for languages that are more complex. Right now, I am very interested in Bikol, Itbayaten, Amis, Tongan, and Javanese among the Austronesian languages.

    I just put Tagalog there so people who speak, undestand or study it would have an idea of how Bikol contrasts with it, though of course I want to be as accurate as possible in describing both. My aim is to create a conlang, and having an accurate description of Bikol grammar is just a preparation for my conlang. This conlang is mainly a mix of Austronesian, Salishan and Australian language characteristics.

    Sorry to disappoint you if your looking for Tagalog materials. But you can check out my blog later if I’ve posted any grammar descriptions relating to Tagalog. Or since you’ve mentioned voice/focus, which I suppose is the more complex part of Philippine-type languages’ syntax like Tagalog, I will post something but I am not in a hurry to do so as my work and other hobbies eat a large part of my time. I’ve seen quite a few websites with good Tagalog materials, so maybe you can check those out. If you have any queries about Tagalog grammar, usage, etc, post it anywhere in my blog (preferrably the most relevant post/page) and I will endeavor to help you by posting the relevant topic. Dios mabalos asin magayagaya na pag-aadal!

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