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There is widespread consent among grammarians of Germanic languages that there is no future tense in those languages. The idea of futurity is either conveyed periphrastically (often with modal or semimodal verbs, as in English will/shall/be going to) or omitted altogether and expected to be inferred from the context.

That led me to think about the Russian language. We are taught in school that there are three tenses in Russian: past, present, and future. But it seems to me that Russian has the same problem with the future tense as the Germanic languages. However, I can’t find any authoritative sources to confirm this idea.

Russian doesn’t seem to have any morphological markers to denote a future tense. And if you look carefully at how a future tense is formed in Russian, you will see that we use present tense conjugation and we call it a future tense!

There are two ways to form a so-called future tense:

  1. Conjugate the auxiliary verb быть in present tense + infinitive form of imperfective verb:

    Я буд·у говорить

    Ты буд·ешь говорить

    Он/она буд·ет говорить

    Мы буд·ем говорить

    Вы буд·ете говорить

    Они буд·ут говорить

  2. Conjugate a perfective verb in present tense:

    Я скаж·у

    Ты скаж·ешь

    Он/она скаж·ет

    Мы скаж·ем

    Вы скаж·ете

    Они скаж·ут

In either case, we use present tense endings. For example, in the pair “я пишу — я напишу”, the only thing that’s different is the aspect.

So, wouldn’t it be more correct to say that we really have only two tenses (past and present) and two aspects (imperfective and perfective) in Russian?

  • The fact that the only difference is the aspect doesn't mean that Russian doesn't have future tense. It indeed have it. Future tense is indicated by the form of the verb. – Pavel Strakhov Jul 11 '13 at 9:13
  • @Riateche Can you please name these future forms of the verb? – stillenat Jul 11 '13 at 9:21
  • What is the background that led you to ask this question? I'd say скажу has a future tense ending. Perfective verbs have future and past tense endings. Why do you want to use the term "present tense ending" in a way that doesn't respect the aspect of the verb? It almost seems like you're trying to pick a fight with the Russian language. – KCd Jul 11 '13 at 22:49
  • For the purpose of teaching, to get students used to how perfective endings work, the future tense endings of a perfect verb may be called "present-tense endings" in order to make a connection with concepts the class understands already, but the logical role of those endings is really future tense. In a similar spirit one might define a continuous function in a math class as a function whose graph can be drawn without lifting the pencil off the paper, although that description is strictly speaking false (you can't draw a continuous nowhere differentiable function this way). – KCd Jul 11 '13 at 22:53
  • @KCd If you are comfortable with what you were taught in school, then of course it's your right to continue to believe it. But to me, and to many linguists, it makes more sense to view tense as a morphological feature. And from this viewpoint, Russian has a two-tense system (past and present (or non-past)). However, it is not the same as semantic time reference. We can still use grammatical present tense to refer to the future (and we do all the time). – stillenat Jul 12 '13 at 5:31
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Disclaimer: this is a debative answer, that challenges the assumptions made in the question, therefore, as of this writing, it is not intended to address the said question directly, but contains more information that a simple comment would warrant.

In my view, the question, as it was posed, commits one or more logical fallacies that prevent the adequate conclusion to be reached. First of all, as with any argument, we need to agree upon our definitions. What do we call a future tense? If we say that by “future tense” we mean “inflective future tense”, or “morphological future tense”, then, absolutely, the short answer to such question would be “No, contemporary Russian language does not have a future tense per se, and the grade school curriculum, as always, simplifies the matter much in the same way it simplifies other grammatical features of the language, as, for instance, it omits Locative case and labels its uses as exceptions”.

But then, why have those qualifications? Why have inflective or morphological future tense? Why specify simple versus complex or analytic versus synthetic future tense? If we agree that mostly synthetic Russian language uses analytical devices to indicate futurity, does it make its future tense less important or self-worthy than that of Latin? Thus, the question commits a bifurcation fallacy, commonly known as false dilemma.

Of course, we have linguists who argue that if the future tense is not a noble morphological kind, but a lowly analytical, then it’s not a future tense at all (which is the point of view your question implies). To which I say that if the trained grammarians cannot agree on that, what do you expect finding here?

What complicates matters, is that, if we focus on our Indo-European language cousins, some of those noble morphological future tenses have dubious bastard roots. Western Romance languages, such as French or Italian have that, but, at least according to Wikipedia article on future tense, these forms themselves originated from earlier analytical constructions:

Sound changes in Vulgar Latin made future forms difficult to distinguish from other verb forms (e.g., amabit “he will love” vs. amavit “he loved”), and the Latin simple future forms were gradually replaced by periphrastic structures involving the infinitive and an auxiliary verb, such as debere, venire, velle, and especially habere. All of the modern Romance languages have grammaticalized one of these periphrastic constructions for expressing the future tense; none of them has preserved the original Latin future.

As for examples you gave, who’s to say that those forms are the forms of present tense? Sure, they may look the same, but can you use words like буду or скажу and expect anyone to understand them as anything, but the future tense? Now, I am not a trained linguist, and it can indeed be a simple analytical combination of present tense and an aspect, but to give counter-argument to your argument on its own merit, in Russian declension system, for example, 1st Declension Genitive, and 3rd Declension Genitive, Dative and Prepositional cases all have the same ending и, but we do not lump them together simply because of one morphological unit that is the same. Clearly, the information extraneous to morphology, such as context, plays role across different grammatical categories.

Lastly, you had failed to mention so-called dual-aspect verbs, which can express futurity both analytically, and morphologically (via prefix). E.g.он будет ранить” and “он поранит” or “мы будем жениться” and “мы поженимся”.

  • The reason that some endings are the same in different cases is a totally different and urelated phenomenon known as syncretism. Historically, there was no present-future distinction to begin with, so it is absolutely ungrounded to believe that present tense endings could have merged with future tense endings in a similar fashion. – stillenat Jul 13 '13 at 16:08
  • logical answer. Could you add a tl;dr (summary) at the top: "Yes, there is. Though some particular incarnations that are present in Latin or other languages may be missing." – jfs Mar 14 '15 at 17:10
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I spent a couple of hours googling the Internet to find support for my observations.

I found an interesting book called Tense and Aspect in the Languages of Europe on Google Books that answered my question .

Here are some excerpts from it (highlights are mine):

One, which is relatively unproblematic to ascertain, is the absence of inflectional futures, which holds for all Germanic and Finno-Ugrian languages and for the majority of the Slavic ones; as well as for some more peripheral parts of Romance and for the non-Slavic languages in the Balkans. Another manifestation of a slightly more elusive kind is the tendency not to distinguish present and future time reference in any systematic way at all, be it inflectionally or periphrastically.

It also notes that different grammatical ways of conveying futurity found in the Slavic languages are a relatively recent invention:

Similarly, there seems to be no evidence of any grammaticalized future markings in Finno-Ugrian. Furthermore, the area may also originally included Slavic. The different FTR devices found in the Slavic languages are, like the Germanic and Finno-Ugrian ones, relatively recent, with one exception: the use of the Perfective Present for future time reference, which, according to standard descriptions, goes back to Old Church Slavonic. However, there is good reason to doubt that this was a trait of Common Slavic. It is not in general found in the modern South Slavic languages, and there is some evidence that the link between the Perfective Present and future time reference was at least not fully developed in Old Church Slavonic.


I'd like to expand on my above answer as there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and discontent in the comments about future tense in Russian.

I'd also like to mention that I'm not trying to impose my view on anyone who prefers to disagree with it. It is indeed a very debatable question that can be looked at from different angles. If you'd like to read more about what should be considered tense, I think there are great posts on ELU Whose tense is it, anyway? and When did periphrastic tenses stop being tenses?. The things discussed there can be applied to Russian as well.

I was asked in the comments to add more scientific sources to my answer so I will try to do it below.

Here's a nice write-up on the topic by Cyril Babaev:

The present tense had not quite simple usage. Besides its direct meaning as the present action, it could be meaning also future actions, because there was no simple future in Common Slavic. Usually Indo-European languages have some suffixes to mark the future tense: -s- is one of the most frequent of them, existing in Baltic and Hellenic languages, -f- is used in some Celtic tongues. But Slavs unified present and future, and any verb could be used in the forms pointed above and mean the future event.

He then goes on to say that in the absence of future tense, the aspects took on the role of expressing futurity:

Later Slavic languages, nevertheless, acquired a form of difference between future and present. The category of aspect (perfective and imperfective) possesses also the meaning of tense in Modern Slavic languages, and imperfective verbs which denote the action which is still taking place go for the real present tense (Russian daju - I am giving, from Common Slavic *dajo.), while perfective verbs denoting the final action usually mean the future (Russian dam - I will give, from Common Slavic *damï). Scientists came to a conclusion that there were not such a distinction in Common Slavic. Even Old Church Slavonic, which was spoken in 7-10 centuries AD, much later than the Common language, was just starting distinguishing aspects as present and future, and still mixed them.

As for the periphrastic "быть" type compound future, it arises from the lexical Common Slavic verb **byti* that means to be(come) and now it is used as an auxiliary verb to form future forms in most of the West and East Slavic languages. But "быть" is not the only verb that can be used to form compound future tense.

Currently, stati can be used as an alternative form of a future tense auxiliary in all East Slavic languages, as in the Russian example from a poem by Lermontov.

Stanu skazyvat’ ja skazku

begin(PRES.1SG) tell(INF) I story

“I will (begin to) tell a story” (Source: The Syntax of Compound Tenses in Slavic)

Plus, Balkan Slavic uses a descendant of the verb ‘to want’, instead of "to be". That's because

The nature of the future, necessarily uncertain and at varying distances ahead, means that the speaker may refer to future events with the modality either of probability (what the speaker expects to happen) or intent (what the speaker plans to make happen).

Thus, constructions like "Я намерен/хочу/должен делать что-либо" can all be used to express futurity.

I don't know about you, but I think it is a little unfair that we see "Я буду делать" as a special "future tense" form, but "Я стану делать" is not viewed as such. But I don't want to provoke another debate here.


Now the question is 'how come Russian grammars talk about future tense if it's not there?'

Well, I think that's because traditional grammars (also known as school grammar) are largely based on the principles of Latin grammar, not on current linguistic research in Russian. (This sentence was originally said about English, but I rephrased it for Russian, because I believe it gets the point across nicely).

  • Why emphasis on “relatively recent”? I have no problem with the statement as a likely fact, but emphasizing it to support your point is another logical fallacy: appeal to tradition (ad antiquitam). Moreover, one could just as easily say that development of grammaticalized inflection futures in Western Romance languages from the earlier analytical forms is also a relatively recent development. Especially, considering that the word relatively is a relative term. – theUg Jul 12 '13 at 21:07
  • That's because I was looking for an answer to my question while thinking about the Germanic languages. And one of their defining features compared with other Indo-European languages is the reduction of the various tense and aspect combinations of the Indo-European verbal system into only two: the present tense and the past tense (also called the preterite). (Wikipedia). So I was wondering if something similar happened to the Slavic languages. And it indeed seems to be the case. Future tense was never there to begin with. – stillenat Jul 13 '13 at 4:17
  • If you ask, most Russian language users who happen not to be linguists, will tell you without blink of an eye that daju/dam is the present/future pair. Only a linguist will mention imperfective/perfective distinction. You question would probably be easier to parse if you indicated давать/дать говорить/сказать infinitive pairs. Otherwise people just don't understand why you say "perfective" when it's clearly "future" =) I'm not a linguist. – Andrew Savinykh Mar 5 '15 at 10:06
  • In any case both your question and your answer are an entertaining read, thank you for both. – Andrew Savinykh Mar 5 '15 at 10:06
  • Ukrainians say they have non aspect based future. – Anixx Feb 2 at 8:58
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No, this is not an aspect, this is future tense.

The verb forms приду, буду etc cannot be used for present. They are just future forms. The present forms would be прихожу and есть respectively.

The endings might look similar for foreigners, but native speakers clearly distinguish the future forms of the verbs.

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Future tense in Russian can be indicated by the form of the verb.

Будущее время глагола может быть выражено двумя типами форм: простыми (синтетическими) и сложными (аналитическими). Формы будущего простого времени образуются от основы настоящего времени глаголов совершенного вида с помощью тех же окончаний лица и числа, что и при образовании форм настоящего времени: приду, придёшь, придёт, придём, придёте, придут; услышу, услышишь, услышит, услышим, услышите, услышат. Простые формы будущего времени иногда называют также формами наст.-буд. времени.

Формы будущего сложного времени образуются от глаголов несовершенного вида и представляют собой сочетание личных форм вспомогательного глагола быть с инфинитивом: буду писать, будешь писать, будет писать, будем писать, будете писать, будут писать.

Source (see more details there).

So in your example "Я скаж*у*" the verb скажу has the future tense. It can't be used in present.

  • I didn't say that Russian has no means of conveying the idea of futurity. It does, like all the other human languages, becuase we are all familiar with the consept of time and the future. But Russian doesn't have a (grammaticalized) future tense and relies on aspects and periphrasis to convey the meaining of futurity. – stillenat Jul 11 '13 at 9:35
  • Also, notice that the excerpt says с помощью тех же окончаний<...>, что и при образовании форм настоящего времени which means that there are no special future forms – stillenat Jul 11 '13 at 9:39
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    But present tense endings can be only used with perfective aspect verb that can never be used in present tense. The aspect and the ending clearly indicate that this is future tense. "скажу" is a special future form since it cannot be used in present or past. – Pavel Strakhov Jul 11 '13 at 9:50
  • Present tense endings can be used with imperfective verbs as well to mean the present tense. So the ending does not "clearly" indicate future by itself, the aspect + ending indicates future. So it's the combination of both that is at play. So neither the aspect, nor the endings are unique to the future tense forms. And it's not their main function to show future. Aspect has its own meaning. Present tense endings have their own meaning. Let's say they describe a "present-future continuum". – stillenat Jul 11 '13 at 10:03
  • That's exactly what I've said: "The aspect and the ending clearly indicate that this is future tense". But how does it mean that "there are no special future forms"? Perfective aspect + present tense endings make the special future form. – Pavel Strakhov Jul 11 '13 at 10:10
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It seems to me, that within the Russian aspect system there appears to be a clear morphological distinction between past and non-past formations. A perfective action can only be referenced as completed in the past or expected to have been completed in the future. Verb formations for both imperfective and perfective aspects have similar constructions. When first learning Russian, this formation process did not make any sense to me within my understanding of the English tense system. While working on a computer project based on a "single-stem" approach to the Russian verb system (ala Roman Jacobson, i.e., how to generate the forms брать and беру from a single idealized stem бЕрА with a set of ordered rules), I puzzled over the problem of the same formations (conjugations) for both present reference and future reference and decided, for the purposes of my project, to coalesce the perfective and imperfective formations under the terms "past" and "non-past." While this tactic does not resolve the issues presented in this discussion, pedagogically it might provide a more comprehensive insight into understanding the Russian verbal system from an English speakers perspective. After all, remember that the issue of aspect and tense might have some origins with the loss of the Common Slavic aorist tense.

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