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…
“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.”