Saturday, February 11, 2017

How Our Concept of Time Is Embedded & Derived from Our Language

How Our Concept of Time Is Embedded & Derived from Our Language


For words are to thought what tools are to work; 
the product depends largely on the growth of the tools.
Will Durant, History of Civilization: Part 1

letters from the world's languages
Some letters from the world's written languages. This is the Wiktionary logo.

Words and language are the primary tools a culture uses to conceive of time and to manage, plan, and communicate time. Embedded in every language is a concept and a structure of time that is understood by each individual but that is also shared by the culture as a whole.

In each language, in virtually every sentence, a kind of time stamp or time code is implied, such as verb tenses which vary from culture to culture and language to language.

I do not think that we as a species would have the power to manage time -- which I believe is the key reason we humans have become the dominant species on the planet -- without these time tools. We are the only animal that can place a number of events in sequence both in the past and in the future. This is because we are the only animal that understands the concept of *when*: when in the past, when in the present, and when in the future. 

See my blog about the unique human sense of time
which has recorded 3000+ views and downloads:
Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

Language is a set of symbols invented by humans. Without these shared symbols, a tribe or group of people could not work with time because they could not plan or coordinate their activities. Without these shared symbols, we would be lost in time. Without this ability to navigate in time, our cultures, our civilizations, our inventions, our way of life would be impossible.

The key point is that language allows each one of us to manage time and also allows us collectively, in a coordinated manner, to navigate in time. 

New Year's Eve -- New York City, Times Square
New Year's Eve at Times Square in New York City. A collective celebration of time.

This blog is about the human experience of time. If we want to understand that experience, we need look no further than our language and how it is used -- e.g., the expressions -- to understand that our basic concept of time is part and parcel of the language we have all learned from an early age. 

But each language and culture has a different understanding of time. Perhaps through a study of time contained in all the world's languages we could gain an overall understanding of the human relation to time and how we can best work with time to insure the future survival of the human species.



In the next hundred years or so climate change will radically affect our planet, our cultures, our way of life and our survival. Understanding how we relate to this looming future involves our understanding of time and what we must do now to prevent even worse consequences in the future -- as well as planning for things that appear to be inevitable such as sea level rise.

For example, one of the very few universities that includes a Study of Time,
The Centre for Time at the University of Sydney in Sydney Australia, offered the following conference about the future of humanity:

An interdisciplinary conference on the relationships
between time, personal identity, and the future of humanity. 
Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa, Grindavik, Iceland: 6th-8th July, 2015

Despite being aware (and reminded on a frequent basis) of the difficult future we face (both as individuals and as whole, including future people) if we don’t curb our consumption, our numbers, our carbon footprints and so on, in general we tend to fall back into our old ways. This is despite the fact that the future people might include ourselves and our family and offspring. Why is this? Is it not deeply irrational? Why do we privilege the now (present selves) and discount the future (and future selves)? Of course, there has been much work conducted on impulse control, self-regulation, temporal discounting and on the identity over time of selves, but rarely are these approaches brought together in the study of the pressing problem of humanity’s future. Time is deeply entangled with the problem, and so this conference aims to bring together researchers from a diverse set of fields, all engaged in some way with our behaviour over time, our stance towards time, or the nature of time in the universe, to think of new ways of integrating knowledge both to get a better grasp on the sources of humanity’s projected problematic future, [ED: my emphasis] and to possibly serve up some initial strategies for resolution.


From the moment a child is born he or she hears words: that of the doctor, the mother, the father, the nurses, the brothers and sisters. Although the child cannot speak, it is surrounded by language. And when the infant starts to speak, this is seen as a major step in the child's growth. 

Book for teaching the alphabet to children
This French book was created to teach children the alphabet and the French language.

All your life you are immersed in words and speech. Language is so much a part of us, we forget that it is a uniquely human invention of symbols about things -- but also symbols that describe a shared imagined time structure. 

With language we can move back and forth in space and time such as the party we went to last week or will go to next week or talk about a place we know that is miles away. With the aid of language we can move in our minds forward and back instantly from home to office or to our vacation spot. I believe this virtual world each one of us has is in part a by-product of language. 

See my blog:
Virtual Human Meta-Time

We are all immersed in language, or perhaps more accurately, blanketed by language. Language gives us the power to talk in generalities, such as about trees in general. It allows us to engage in abstract thought. It gives us the power to share our thoughts and plan and coordinate our activities. Yet language also confines and limits us.
We do not realize what tremendous power the structure of an habitual language has. It is not an exaggeration to say that it enslaves us through the mechanism of s[emantic] r[eactions] and that the structure which a language exhibits, and impresses upon us unconsciously, is automatically projected upon the world around us.                                                         Korzybski (1930)           
If we want to understand obtain an overview of how the human animal understands time, then the various concepts and structures that are built into our many languages is a good place to start. While all of this could be a fascinating academic study -- it also has immense practical value such as how to plan for global climate change and how to prevent further damage as I said earlier. 


While language can be about things, generalities and ideas, it is always about time. Virtually every sentence you speak has a time stamp or a time code. Something did happen, is happening right now, will happen in the future.  Language is quite good at pinpointing events on a thread of time, a timeline, both past, present and future by specifying 'when'. 

Take this simple sentence:

When I finish this project this afternoon, I will be done for the day.

This is a ordinary sentence that no one would have trouble understanding, but embedded in it is a very sophisticated sense of time. 

Lets take it apart:

When: This is the key word -- as I have said we are the only animal on the planet that can work with different points in time.

When I finish this project this afternoon: This means that finishing this project is in the future

I will be done: This is the most intriguing phrase because it means that in the future, the future project now completed will be in the past

done for the day: The future project now done and in the past means that in the future when you have completed your task, your work for that day will be completed.

BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE: Now that we have parsed this sentence, there is one more aspect to it. This sentence was spoken to someone, lets say a colleague. What this means is that the colleague can now understand your moment in time and also plan and coordinate his or her activities based on what you communicated. 

No other animal on this planet can conceive of such a thought other than we humans.

Diagram of sections of the mind relating to concepts and language
This 1840 wood engraving showed the mind/brain with a number of compartments or sections, many of which were created by language.


The built in 'time code' is an essential part of our communication which has shaped our conceptualization of our world. It is now believed by some that this time code is basic to all languages.
Some linguists working on Universals of semantics, such as Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard, argue that there is a Natural Semantic Metalanguage that has a basic vocabulary of semantic primes including concepts such as TIME, WHEN, BEFORE, AFTER.  [ED: My emphasis]                                    
Thousands of languages have evolved for tens of thousands of years, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. Assuming that concepts of time were/are a part of all of these languages, this points to the importance of time in all human societies.

"There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken and signed around the world, and these languages have been evolving for at least tens of thousands of years, if not many more..." 

For example, a comprehensive study of creation stories and myths, such as Genesis in the Bible, concluded that all of them included an understanding of time -- and this understanding was conveyed in the language of the culture in the telling of the creation myth.
In addition to reveling or expressing essential elements of particular cultures, creation myths, when compared, reveal certain universal or semi-universal patterns or motifs. The first and most important of these is the fact that the creation myth always expresses the given culture's, and, by extension, the overall human place and role in time and space; in the world and the cosmos. [ED: bolding is my emphasis]                                                                         David A. Leeming, Creation Myths of the World - An Encyclopedia

Illustration from the Mexican Creation Myth
A page from a description of the Mexican creation mythology.


Although each language contains a concept of time, various societies and cultures which speak the same language may view time differently. 

Logo for the Elgin Watch Company in the USA, 100 years ago
Promotional logo of the Elgin National Watch Company in the United States 100 years ago. The logo combines Father Time (derived from the Greek God Chronos) holding an Elgin watch along with his traditional sythe and an hour glass at his feet. But for a modern touch an airplane floats in the sky.

Example from a trip to the Bahamas:
My wife and I took a trip to the Bahamas some years ago. When the locals asked us how long we were staying, we would say we are leaving on a plane in a few days. Always, when we said this, the locals corrected us and said "You HOPE you are leaving on a plane in a few days." So even though the Bahamians spoke English their understanding of time was quite different from the US concept.

In the modern world today there are a number of distinctly different ways of relating to time. See the following article for an explanation of different contemporary time relationships.
Linear, Flexible, and Cyclical Time: Analyzing Time in Cross-Cultural Communication, by Sana Reynolds, PhD, Association of Professional Communication Consultants 
In addition to conceiving of the flow of time differently, some cultures conceptualize time in an entirely unique manner. This is especially true with hunter-gatherer societies and indigenous cultures. For example, the "traditional Hopi way of experiencing time as tied closely to cycles of ritual and natural events, [ED:is quite different from] the Anglo-American concept of clock-time or school-time." In fact many cultures see time as cyclical (sunrise returns to sunrise, the seasons repeat each year) rather than linear as we do in the west. 
NOTE:This is not to suggest that the modern view or western view of time is superior -- but rather that time can be understood and shared within a society in a variety of ways. I suspect that the modern world could learn a lot from these less technological cultures.
For a totally different way of understanding time, consider the Lakota American Indians who lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

The nomadic Lakota believed that different areas of the Black Hills were connected with the sun's path as it moved through different constellations, which in turn indicated the time of year. Over a year's time the Indians moved around the Black Hills according to these beliefs. So the landscape of the Black Hills became, in a sense, their calendar and was a way of keeping track and in harmony with time and the seasons. The constellations, the different areas, the seasons all had names -- so their sense of time was shared and communicated via their language.

What makes their case particularly interesting, though, is the added dimension of timing. Cosmic harmony is preserved by being in the right place at the right time and performing the appropriate rites. The terrestrial world is connected to the spirit world both in space and time, and the key to this connection is the sky. Not only are places in the landscape associated with particular asterisms, but the time to be there is prescribed by reference to the sun’s passage through the stars.                                                                                                                Clive Ruggles, Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth


Languages not only work with time but also contain a metaphor for viewing time. In the west this concept tends to be spatial such as "back in time" or "the future is ahead of us."  

However, in the Stanford University study entitled How Languages Construct Time by Lera Boroditsky, time was seen quite differently in a number of ways across various cultures.

Across the studies cited here, people in different cultures or groups have been shown to differ in whether they think of time as stationary or moving, limited or open ended, as distance or quantity, horizontal or vertical, oriented from left to right, right to left, front to back, back to front or in cardinal space east to west.

This study went on to say:
The findings reviewed in the first four sections above demonstrate that the metaphors we use to talk about time [ED: meaning as part of our language] and other cultural factors have both immediate and long term consequences for how we conceptualize and reason about this fundamental domain of experience. How people conceptualize time appears to depend on how the languages they speak tend to talk about time, the current linguistic context (what language is being spoken) and also on the particular metaphors being used to talk about time in the moment.                                                                  

Lera Boroditsky, How Languages Construct Time


A current brain study implies that from the earliest development of speech, language contained an understanding of time. This study looked at regions of the brain that were activated when using language or tool-making and found that the regions were the same. This suggests that time was a crucial component for both language and tool-making because language was needed to conceptualize time and to communicate and coordinate with others. This understanding of time was crucial to tool-making since a tool was made for a specific purpose which required forethought. Making a tool required planning along with a number of skills that needed to be done in a certain order. And then in addition these finished tools needed to be available at the appropriate time such as for a hunt or for a harvest.

The study is entitled: Language and tool-making skills evolved at the same time

This study of brain activity has shown that: 
"The same brain activity is used for language production and making complex tools, supporting the theory that they evolved at the same time.
"Dr Georg Meyer, from the University Department of Experimental Psychology, said: "Our study found correlated blood-flow patterns in the first 10 seconds of undertaking both tasks. This suggests that both tasks depend on common brain areas and is consistent with theories that tool-use and language co-evolved and share common processing networks in the brain."
The study went on to say:
"Darwin was the first to suggest that tool-use and language may have co-evolved, because they both depend on complex planning [ED: e.g., a complex understanding of time] and the coordination of actions but until now there has been little evidence to support this."
See this report: Language and tool-making skills evolved at the same time 

In the late 1700s Benjamin Franklin put forward the key idea of man the toolmaker.
Man [is a] tool-making animal.
Quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, April 7, 1778 (1791).

While the idea of 'man the tool-maker' has been questioned recently because chimpanzees were found to use rudimentary tools and even crows use sticks as tools, the notion is still profound. While humans may not be the only animal that uses tools, I believe we are the only animal that makes tools that in turn are used to make primary tools such as a bow and arrow. Or to put it another way, we are the only animal that can plan and execute a complex process that requires many tools and materials to make the final tool and many steps which must be done in a certain order.

Basic stone age tools used to make other tools; these tools used to shape stone.
The caption of this photo reads: Tools Used In Shaping Stone
i.e., tools used to make other tools.
The photo is from the History of Inventions, by the United States National Museum.
Numbers 1,2,4,5 are tools from the Stone Age; the others are from the American Indian and Alaskan Eskimo indigenous cultures 100 years ago

The recent study cited above finds that the same areas of the brain are activated when using language or making tools. Since complex tool-making requires considerable thought about tools used to make tools, the use of various materials, and the order of steps in the process, it seems likely that language and its concept of time was an integral part of both making tools and passing that information on to succeeding generations.


Here is a description of one specialized tool used just for making an arrowhead. Making the arrow, the bow and bow string required many more tools, materials and steps.

"A billet is a specialized tool designed for making arrowheads. 
It is cylindrical and usually made from hard wood or antlers." 

Here is a recent article about a study at the University of Tuebingen as reported by the DailyMail in the UK.
Researchers from the University of Tuebingen say that...making the bow [ED: in Paleolithic times] took 22 raw materials and three semi-finished goods (binding materials and multi-component glue) as well as five production phases. Further steps were needed to make the complementary arrows, reports the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.Other primates such as chimps are able to use tools, but complex processes such as making bows are beyond them. 


"Time" is the most used noun in the English language according to the 
Concise Oxford English Dictionary --  which attests to its importance. I assume that it is also the most used noun in many other languages as well.

#1. A concept of time appears to be fundamental to all languages.

#2. It seems quite likely that our understanding of time and our ability to work with, manage, navigate and coordinate time comes in large part from language.

#3. In addition it seems likely that each society's particular understanding of time is a direct reflection of the specific language that is spoken -- and that the time structure/metaphors in each society have been created by that language.

#4. The conception of time will be different from language to language and culture to culture.

#5. If we want an overall understanding of how humans relate to time, a study of the world's languages is a good place to start.


When I was eighteen I saw the movie, The Miracle Worker. The story was about the blind, deaf and dumb Helen Keller who suddenly comprehended language after having lived in a kind of primeval darkness all of her life. 

In the key scene her tutor, who had been unable to find a way to communicate with Helen, splashed water on her hand while spelling out the word water on the other hand. All at once the intelligent Helen 'got it' and the world of words, the world where everything had a name, opened up for her. And it was one of those moments for me as a movie goer when chills ran down my spine -- to see a person step from an inner darkness into light. 

Here is what Helen said about that experience:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness...and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!

A few years ago, writing for this blog, I read what Helen had to say about time when she went from being wordless to knowing language. The following is from her 1908 autobiography The World I Live In.

(This is an edited composite of things she said)
Once I knew only darkness and stillness.
My inner life, then, [ED: before language] was...without past, present, or future.
It was not night—it was not day. .      .      .      .      . 
But vacancy absorbing space, 
And fixedness, without a place; 
There were no stars—no earth—no time—

When I read these words, I realized that before Helen understood language she had no sense of time. And after she understood what language was about, that every object had a name for example. But in addition she also understood the concept of time past, present and future -- and that each object existed in time.