Volume 42, No.2 - Summer 1996
Editor of this issue: Robert A. Vitas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1996 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


University of Rochester

When I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania I had a very good friend, Eric R. Eric was the son of Viennese parents, a very precocious and sharp young man. He would never calmly accept the various language vagaries or inconsistencies.

For example, he could not accept the so-called reconstructed, or asterisked forms used as a methodological tool in historical linguistics. He would claim that we should not tamper with the unrecorded, the unknown.

One day, in one of the advanced linguistic seminars, we were discussing the development of the various grammatical tenses (i.e., the present, the various past tenses, the future tenses, etc.)

As it is commonly known, in some modern Indo-European languages, there is no formal (or, real) future tense. But all these languages can express the idea of the future quite well — by using other tenses, or by using some modal, modifying verb, future adverbs, and similar constructions.

On the other hand, in languages in which there is a formal/real future tense, there are cases where this formal future tense is used to describe an action of the past.

Such a case in the use of the formal/real future tense exists in Lithuanian — to express a certain sudden, unexpected past action.

My friend and colleague Eric did not believe this, even though, as a native speaker of Lithuanian, I assured everyone in the seminar that it's true, and even wrote several examples on the blackboard. My friend Eric claimed that no language could be so obtuse, so vague, so out of whack.

I lost contact with Eric many years ago. I suppose, he never came to believe the possibility of the future tense being used to express the action in the past.

But it is true: there is such a case in Lithuanian where the real formal future tense is used to express an action that, in the real world, had happened in the past. This action almost always is somewhat sudden, unexpected, unusual, unforeseen.

Some people might wonder why this grammatical "trick", as it were, was necessary. Some languages have, for example, the dual, others — none; there are languages which have no gender, and no participles of a certain kind. And no language is truly logical and precise. E.g., in most languages one can say, "He took the bigger half..." Now, logically, if it's bigger, then it's no longer a half... However, people say it all the time.

Thus, we finally come to practical examples:

(1) Mes ėjome per mišką, ir kad užrėks pelėda, mes net išsigandome.
    "We were walking through the forest, and all of a sudden the owl screeched, we even got scared."

N.B. užrėks is formally a future tense and literally it means "will screech", but here the meaning is past.

(2) Lijo ramus lietus, bet staiga kad trenks perkūnas...
    "It was raining quietly, but suddenly the thunder struck..." 

N.B. trenks is formally a future tense and literally it means "will strike", but the real meaning is past.

(3) Mes ėjome šaligatviu, ir jis man kad spirs į koją.
    "We were walking on the sidewalk and he just kicked me in the leg."

N.B. spirs literally means "will kick", but the real meaning is "kicked".

Some linguists believe this usage might have developed in the olden days when people loved to tell tall tales, legends; in other words, when the narrator wanted to impress, to shock his/her listeners who were, in those days, not only children, but, in many cases, the entire family.

I grew up on an old fashioned Lithuanian farm. In the long autumn and winter evenings, the whole family used to be in our huge farm kitchen. Women were at the spinning wheels (this was in the thirties), men making ropes and harness, and my brother and I trying to do our homework. My father was telling, in remembered detail, his adventures from his soldiering days in WW I (1914-1918), and I remember clearly he used these expressions (of the future for past) many a time.

And so this is the case of the unusual, of the strange use of the formal future tense to express an event which really took place in the past.

I would like to add that every language, ancient and modern, with a long literary tradition, or without any, has some unexpected, strange usage, most probably from the times, when, in pure oral tradition, the narrators of the various tales wanted to impress their listeners.

I sometimes wonder whether the writers of the sitcoms in our TV are doing something similar — to impress the TV viewers, and, more importantly, the various TV advertisement agencies.