Lesson 6: Time and Space: basic Lojban "tenses"
By this time, you may have been wondering what had happened to all the tenses. After all, a large part of learning a language is learning
tenses, and figuring out which one you ought to be using. English, for
example, has about a dozen tenses (depending on what you count as a tense) and some languages have more. Use the wrong one and you're, well, wrong. In addition, there are a load of words and phrases like "before", "in a while", "some time ago" and so on.
Lojban deals with time quite differently. Like some other languages
(e.g. Chinese), tense is not compulsory. All the bridi we've looked
at so far have had no particular time attached to them, and this is
perfectly acceptable, in fact it is normal. Saying ''mi klama ti
de'i la redjed.'' is good Lojban, even if out of context we don't know
if it means I'm coming here next Monday, or I came here last Monday. In most cases, sentences don't happen out of context, and the context is usually enough to tell us if we're talking about the past, present or future. Putting a past tense in just because the same sentence in English would be in the past tense is rather malglico.
Time with sumti
There are times, though, when you want to say things about time, and
Lojban has more than enough cmavo for this. Let's say that Zhang
left the bar at 10 o'clock and Susan arrived at 11 (thus missing her
date). The most precise way is to use times, as in the last lesson:
la jang. cliva le barja ti'u la jaucac. .i la la suzyn. klama le barja ti'u la reicac.
However, if the actual times are not important, we can say:
- ba lenu la jang. cliva kei la suzyn. klama le barja
- After Zhang left, Susan came into the bar.
- pu lenu la suzyn. klama le barja kei la jang. cliva
- Before Susan came into the bar, Zhang left. or more naturally, When Susan came into the bar, Zhang had already left. (this, by the way, is another case of context meaning you don't have to put everything in—we haven't said that the place Zhang leaves is the bar, we just understand it from the context)
What are these ba's, pu's and kei's? As you probably guessed, ba is "after" (from the gismu for "future" or "later", balvi) and pu is "before" (from the gismu for "past" or "earlier", purci). kei is a Lojban terminator~
~not a killer android, but a way of showing where a phrase finishes, a bit like closing brackets or parentheses. We saw this in Lesson 5 when we were talking about dates and times. kei is necessary here to keep the time phrase separate from the rest of the bridi~~it's like the comma in the English sentence. In fact all sumti (other than cmene) and selbri have terminators, but usually we can leave them out, just like we leave out the cu separator when we don't need it. Just out of interest, the last sentence with all terminators and separators included would read:
''.i pu le nu la suzyn. cu klama le barja ku vau kei ku la jang. cu
cliva vau ''
This is why we don't use terminators unless we really need them! A
criticism I've heard of Lojban is that all these terminators are "unnatural", and when I started learning the language I too had my
doubts about them. In fact terminators are just a more specific way of representing a pause in speech or a piece of punctuation in
writing—most of the time you don't need them, but it's very useful to have them available when you do. There are very specific rules for when a terminator can and can't be omitted, but in practice it comes
If we only want to say that Susan came to the bar later, and Zhang's
leaving is unimportant or understood, we can then say:
baku la suzyn. klama le barja
baku means "afterwards" or "later". The ku is necessary to
separate the ba from la suzyn. (you can also say it as two
separate words, ba ku—it makes no difference). Similarly, "Zhang
left earlier" or "Zhang had left" would be:
puku la jang. cliva
arrives just as Zhang is leaving. We can then say:
caku la suzyn. klama le barja:At that moment, Susan came. Which is
an easier way to say
ca lenu la jang. cliva le barja kei la suzyn. klama le barja
(note the difference between ku and kei here: ku separates
the ca from the rest of the sentence, while kei terminates an
event). ca also comes from a gismu, in this case cabna,
which means "now" or "simultaneous with", so another way to say the same thing would be
- lenu la jang. cliva le barja cu cabna lenu la suzyn. klama la barja
- The event of Zhang leaving the bar is simultaneous with the event of Susan coming to the bar.
We now have three "time words": pu (before), ca (at, while) and
ba (after). We can modify these with another three, zi, za and zu (series of cmavo often take an -i, -a, -u pattern, if they don't follow the AEIOU sequence).
These mean a short, medium and long time distance. So puzi is "a
short time ago," puza is "a while ago" and puzu is "a long time ago". How long "long" is depends on what we're talking about—if the subject is archeology, puzu could be thousands of years; if you've
missed your train it could be a matter of minutes.
Let's say this time the unlucky Susan missed Zhang by only a few
minutes. We could then say:
bazi lenu la jang. cliva ku la suzyn. klama le barja
or as two bridi,
la jang. cliva le barja .i caziku la suzyn. klama
Translate the following. Don't forget your nu's and ku's!
- Juliette went to Paris a while ago.
- A long time ago, I read "Camille."
- Ivan just left.
- Yoshiko kissed Jorge just after Pierre came into the room.
- Tracy was sad just a minute ago. But Mike is happy now. Vocabulary: room -kumfa; badri~
~sad; gleki - happy;ku'i~~but, however (bet you'd forgotten that one!).
Time and selbri
What we've looked at so far is similar to (but not quite the same as)
English words like "before", "after" and so on. However, we can use
exactly the same cmavo with selbri to give effects which are
similar (but not identical) to English tenses. Actually this is easier,
but I left it till later to avoid the danger of malglico!
Basically, any time cmavo can go before a selbri and put the
whole bridi into that time. So
la jang. pu cliva le barja
means "Zhang before-leave the bar," or "Zhang left the bar." We can do the same thing with zi/za/zu, so la jang. puza cliva le barja
means "Zhang left the bar a while ago."
Another group of cmavo which can be used here is ze'i/ze'a/ze'u.
Just as zi/ze/zu indicate a short, medium or long time from the present (or whatever other time we happen to be talking about), these
cmavo indicate short, medium or long times for the action or state
we are talking about. So mi ze'u bajra means "I run for a long
time." again, we can put these together, so mi puzaze'u bajra means
"A while ago, I ran for a long time." A few more examples ...
- oi.uinai le mi zdani puzi se darxi lo lindi
- Oh no! My house has just been struck by lightning! (Every language course has to have a few of these ridiculously artificial examples!) Note that if you have a tense before the selbri you don't need cu—zdani cannot run into puzi.
- la bil. ze'u pinxe loi birje
- Bill drinks beer for a long time.
- mi bazize'a xabju la djakartas.
- Pretty soon I'm going to live in Jakarta for a while.
- la natos. baze'u gunta la belgrad.
- NATO will attack Belgrade for a long time.
Note that this does not mean that NATO is not attacking Belgrade now (it is at the time I'm writing this). In Lojban, if we say that something
is true at a particular time, it doesn't mean that it is not true at any other time. There are ways to say that NATO will continue to attack, but that comes later (sorry, I know I keep saying that things will come later, but you wouldn't really want to have to learn everything at once—it would be like an English course teaching "will go" and "will have been going" in the same lesson). A complete explanation of time cmavo can be found in Chapter 10 of The Complete Lojban Language.
This is where things start getting strange. In Lojban, space can be a
"tense" just as much as time. This is because there is no difference
between what traditional grammar calls "prepositions" and tenses. As
we've seen, English, like many languages, treats a word like "earlier"
and the past tense ending "-ed" as two totally separate things, while in Lojban they're the same. Space words like "in" or "near" are
prepositions in English, and can never be tenses, but in Lojban we treat them just like time words (or if you prefer, you can say that Lojban treats time as a dimension, as in Einstein's physics).
Remember the word ti? This is part of a series ti, ta, tu, meaning roughly "this", "that" and "that over there." If we're talking about places rather than things, we say vi, va, vu, meaning roughly "here", "there" and "yonder" or "way over there". Again, this is determined by the thing you're talking about. If you're telling a doctor where you feel pain, ti might be the end of your toe, while if you're talking about astronomy, ti could be the solar system. We can therefore say
- viku mi gunka
- Here, I work. or, more naturally, "I work here."
We've seen that puku means "before something" (as in ''pu lenu la
zhang. cliva kei). Similarly, vi ku'' means "at the location of
something", and we can expand it in the same way to say what the
"something" is, e.g.
- vi la paris. mi gunka
- In Paris, I work.
- vu le mi zdani mi gunka
- A long way from my home, I work
- va lenu la KEnedis. se catra kei mi gunka
- A medium distance from here Kennedy was killed, I work.
Note the kei—if it wasn't there, catra would run into mi, so the listener might start interpreting the sentence as "A medium distance from where Kennedy was killed by me ..."
Just like the time cmavo, place cmavo can be attached to selbri. For example, instead of saying viku mi gunka, you can say mi vi gunka—"I here-work." Again, this sounds odd in English, but one of the purposes of Lojban is to encourage you to say things in different ways, which may lead to being able to say different things. Lojban expands the mind (warning: unproven Lojban propaganda!).
If we combine place vi etc. with fa'a, they become more productive. fa'a is a place cmavo meaning "towards", so fa'avi is "here" as direction, as in "come here". For example:
- la bil. fa'avi bajra
- Bill towards-this-place runs Bill runs here.
Note that the more natural translation is ambiguous, since it could also
translate la bil. vi bajra, meaning that this is where Bill runs, not where he runs to. This may pass unnoticed by native English speakers, but speakers of languages which are more precise about direction find it extremely vague (Turkish, for example, has at least three words to translate "here"). There is a whole class of cmavo that work like fa'a (called FAhA type cmavo, unsurprisingly). These include to'o (away from), zu'a (to the left of), ri'u (to the right of), ne'i (within) and so on (again, all the space cmavo are explained in Chapter 10 of The Complete Lojban Language).
We can also combine time and space. For example, mi vipuzu gunka
means "I here-past-long-time-distance work", or "I used to work here a long time ago." A common expression with ku is puzuvuku,
meaning "long ago and far away"—a standard way to begin a fairy story or legend!
Getting back to daily speech, these time and space cmavo are very
useful for questions. ca ma is "simultaneous with what?", or in other words, "when?" (a simpler alternative to ti'u or di'e). Similarly, vi ma means "at the location of what?", or "where?"
Translate the following.
- le do zdani vi ma
- la bil. puzevi zutse
- le cipni puzifa'ava vofli
- la tcarlz.daruin. puva xabju
- mi bafa'avu cadzuVocabulary:zutse~
In this lesson we have covered the following:
- Time cmavo: pu, ca, and ba.
- Time intervals: zi, za and zu.
- Duration: ze'i, ze'a and ze'u.
- Location: vi, va and vu There are many more cmavo to describe time and space, but they are only there if you need them. In fact, unless you want to be specific about time or space, you don't even need the ones in this lesson. Remember the golden rule of Lojban grammar: If you don't need it, don't use it! Lojban grammar is your servant, not your master.
Answers to exercises
- puzaku la juLIET. cliva la paris.
- puzuku mi tcidu la kaMIL.
- puziku la ivan. cliva le kumfa
- puzi lenu la pi,ER. klama le kumfa ku la .iocikos. cinba xorxes.
- puziku la treisis. badri .i ku'i caku la maik. gleiki
- Where is your house?
- Bill was sitting here a while ago.
- The bird just flew away. [literally the bird flew a short time ago
to a medium distance from here]
- Charles Darwin lived near here. [note that we don't need zu to specify that he lived near here a long time ago, we assume that the person we're talking to knows who Darwin was, and therefore knows that he lived over a century ago. In fact, you could even miss out the pu, but I left it in to avoid confusion—maybe my friend thinks I'm talking about a different person with the same name, or that I'm somehow speaking metaphorically about the spirit of Darwin.]
- I will walk far away. [again note the English has two meanings, since it could also mean that I will walk in some distant place]