How we con­ceive and ex­press the ex­is­tence of time is in­trin­si­cally re­lated to the words we have for that pur­pose. Take some time to con­sider…

Plaza Watch International - - Time Words - WORDS JOSH SIMS IL­LUS­TRA­TION FILIPPA brage

“Yet, clearly, liv­ing in time as we do, there is a need to give la­bels to these pe­ri­ods of time, in­finites­i­mally big and small and ev­ery­thing in be­tween.”

Cast your mind back 15 years – that’s 15 units each of 365 days – to the year 2000 AD. With all that the flip­ping of the first digit from 1 to 2 brought in terms of vi­sions of a bold, hy­gien­i­cally-white fu­ture – how close we all felt we were to Arthur C. Clarke’s im­pos­si­bly dis­tant 2001 – it also brought a new word into many of our vo­cab­u­lar­ies: mil­len­nium.

Of course, most of us live to see a new decade, some of us to see a new cen­tury – but not many get to see the turn­ing of the cal­en­dar to give a whole new thou­sand year stretch. Small won­der ‘mil­len­nium’ had, un­til then, lit­tle use for most of us, out­side of the study of his­tory. But soon, with all the talk of the fear­ful ‘mil­len­nium bug’, which would tip our com­put­erised world into melt­down, there was an­other kind of mil­len­nium bug at play: the word it­self proved in­fec­tious. Songs, books, mon­u­ments, even giant Ferris wheels, all sud­denly took the name, such was the seem­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the word.

Per­haps it was the sheer size of its sug­ges­tion – ten big cen­turies – that cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion, that cap­tured what the imag­i­na­tion of­ten finds so hard to grasp: we have small words for vast stretches of time – era, aeon, epoch – but typ­i­cally find it hard to truly ap­pre­ci­ate just how vast those stretches of time are. Be­ing told the uni­verse is some 13.8 bil­lion years old is at once im­pres­sive and yet also mun­dane: that 13.8 doesn’t seem so old; the bil­lions we can’t even be­gin to com­pre­hend on the hu­man scale at which we in­evitably op­er­ate day to day (that is, one unit of 24 hours). In­deed, we can’t even agree, glob­ally, on what a bil­lion is – and that hardly seems to mat­ter.

toss the Coin: ever faster com­puter pro­cess­ing speeds are grad­u­ally in­tro­duc­ing us into a world in which time is split ever more fi­nitely too – into nano-sec­onds (bil­lionths of a se­cond), and onto pi­cosec­onds, fem­tosec­onds, at­tosec­onds, zep­tosec­onds and yoc­tosec­onds (one sep­til­lionth of a se­cond, that’s one tril­lion-tril­lionth). The chances are these are un­fa­mil­iar words – but they may not be to your grand­chil­dren.

Yet, clearly, liv­ing in time as we do, there is a need to give la­bels to these pe­ri­ods of time, in­finites­i­mally big and small and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, both to al­low ease of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and as a neat means of pack­ag­ing com­plex ideas – the words al­low us to think about things we can nei­ther see nor touch. Some words are grounded in solid math­e­mat­ics, oth­ers in more flex­i­ble cul­ture – the western world’s use of AD and BC, af­ter all, shapes our place in time ac­cord­ing to its dis­tance from the sup­posed birthyear of a Mid­dle Eastern sage-cum-rev­o­lu­tion­ary, a sys­tem sug­gested by Diony­sius Ex­iguus, a 6th cen­tury monk who clearly wanted to im­pose some or­der on the world.

But then, as Kofi An­nan, the for­mer United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral, once noted, “the Chris­tian cal­en­dar no longer be­longs ex­clu­sively to Chris­tians. Peo­ple of all faiths [and, he might have added, none] have taken to us­ing it sim­ply as a mat­ter of con­ve­nience. Some shared way of reck­on­ing time is a ne­ces­sity” – and that is true as much when think­ing big about time as think­ing of it on a day to day ba­sis. If noth­ing else, it makes sure we’re all at an­other dull meet­ing on the same day and at the same time: an agree­ment on what time words mean is es­sen­tial to the smooth run­ning of so­ci­ety and the in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tions that make it.

yet lan­guage’s time con­ven­tions are more con­tro­ver­sial than you might imagine. The English lan­guage ex­pert Ken­neth Wil­son has noted that if you get rid of AD/BC – as many have pro­posed – then per­haps we might well re­place the num­ber­ing sys­tem al­to­gether, as the French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cal­en­dar did for a while, even re­plac­ing the seven-day week, with its con­nec­tions to Gen­e­sis, with a ten-day week. As­tro­bi­ol­o­gist Dun­can Steel – a man used to deal­ing with big words for big num­bers – has added that, if we re­place AD/BC, we should re­ject all as­pects of the dat­ing sys­tem, since the ter­mi­nol­ogy all has con-

nec­tions to ei­ther pa­gan, astro­log­i­cal, Jewish or Chris­tian be­liefs. Adios time of day, days of the week and months of the year...

Lan­guage, in fact, shapes our very per­cep­tion of time at a more pro­found, psy­cho­log­i­cal level too, a psychology that sug­gests in fact that we can best use lan­guage to com­pre­hend time pre­cisely when it is an ana­log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of some­thing more ex­pe­ri­enced-based, even at some dis­tance – like the move­ment of heav­enly bod­ies.

Cer­tainly we need the words: ‘time’ is the most fre­quently used noun in the English lan­guage (its equiv­a­lent is true in many other lan­guages too), with other tem­po­ral words, the likes of ‘day’ and ‘year’, also in the top ten. And, since we rep­re­sent time through space – ei­ther via ar­ti­facts like graphs, hour­glasses or, yes, clocks and watches – it is small won­der that when it comes to think­ing about time through lan­guage, we rely so much on words that ex­press space too, the likes of ‘long’, ‘short’, ‘for­ward’ and ‘back’.

But, as the work of Lera Borodit­sky, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive science at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Diego, has un­der­lined, dif­fer­ent lan­guages ex­plore time via space in dif­fer­ent ways – in English, we might talk about the fu­ture as if it lies ahead of us; in Man­darin Chi­nese it would be be­low us; in Ay­mara it is be­hind us, its speak­ers even ges­tur­ing in front of them when speak­ing of the past.

Tests con­ducted by Borodit­sky re­veal that a Man­darin speaker is more likely to think of time gen­er­ally as be­ing along a ver­ti­cal axis – they will likely ar­range im­ages of a se­quence of events in that for­mat too – while English speak­ers will do so hor­i­zon­tally. Bi-lin­gual peo­ple would ar­range time one way or the other ac­cord­ing to which of the two lan­guages the test was con­ducted in. Lin­guis­tic anal­y­sis has even shown that dif­fer­ent uses of time metaphors mean that while an English mono­lin­gual speaker thinks of them­selves as mov­ing along a time-line, Man­darin mono­lin­guals think of time as mov­ing past a sta­tion­ary self.

Writ­ing di­rec­tion also shapes the per­ceived di­rec­tion of time: those who write from left to right per­ceive time as pro­ceed­ing from left to right; and the op­po­site – as with He­brew or Ara­bic – ap­plies too. Lan­guage even shapes our per­cep­tion of the du­ra­tion of time. English speak­ers tend to talk about the du­ra­tion of time in terms of lin­ear dis­tance – a ‘long’ time – whereas Greek speak­ers, for in­stance, talk about it in terms of amount – ‘poli ora’ or ‘much time’.

Time, per­haps, to let go of our lan­guages’ at­tempts to wres­tle time, to con­trol it. Go to the Ama­zon of Brazil and find the peo­ple of Pi­raha her­itage and you will dis­cover that they have no con­cept of time be­yond the present. While how our abil­ity to think at all is shaped by our lan­guage re­mains a con­tro­ver­sial and in­con­clu­sive de­bate, it is worth not­ing that they sim­ply have no word for the con­cept of ‘fu­ture’, nor, for that mat­ter, for the ‘past’. In­trigu­ingly, as a re­sult they have no cul­ture of telling sto­ries. That may be a small price for the re­laxed, ‘carpe diem’ life­style they con­se­quently have. The Pi­raha are not alone ei­ther: the lan­guage of the Hopi In­dian tribe has no verb tenses, re­sult­ing in a se­verely limited – or won­der­fully free­ing – con­cep­tion of time. They have just two time words, one for ‘sooner’ and an­other for ‘later’.

Nei­ther peo­ples would likely be hur­ry­ing to get some­where too fast, un­like our own ev­er­speed­ier way of life.

small Won­der We in mod­ern in­dus­tri­alised cul­tures have such deeply-em­bed­ded metaphors to fur­ther shape our per­cep­tion of time: in the west, ‘time is money’ has en­cour­aged us to think of time as some­thing that is ‘in­vested’ or ‘spent’ well or badly, that we ‘put aside’ or ‘bor­row’, that we ‘lose’ or use ‘prof­itably’. Time has no such lin­guis­ti­cally-de­fined value as a com­mod­ity in other lan­guages – and maybe their so­ci­eties ben­e­fit as a re­sult.

Might, in­deed, the les­son that lies within the lin­guis­tic rich­ness sur­round­ing mat­ters of time ac­tu­ally be that we are far too in­ter­ested in it for our own good, that we should per­haps di­vest our­selves of a few time words? Time, af­ter all, ac­cord­ing to Ed­ward Hall, the pi­o­neer of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, is a pow­er­ful enough lan­guage all of its own. “Time talks,” he wrote po­et­i­cally in his The Voices of Time. “It speaks more plainly than words. The mes­sage it con­veys comes through loud and clear. Be­cause it is ma­nip­u­lated less con­sciously, it is sub­ject to less dis­tor­tion than the spo­ken lan­guage. It can shout the truth where words lie.”

“Writ­ing di­rec­tion also shapes the per­ceived di­rec­tion of time: those who write from left to right per­ceive time as pro­ceed­ing from left to right; and the op­po­site.” “Go to the Ama­zon of Brazil and find the peo­ple of Pi­raha her­itage and you will dis­cover that they have no con­cept of time be­yond the present.”

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