The Language of Time

In the Western world, we tend to think of time as being something beyond human influence – marching ceaselessly onward as we struggle to keep up. We talk about ‘being on time’, ‘wasting time’, ‘not having any time.’ We sometimes personify it, depicting Time as a bearded old man with an hourglass. So strong is the conviction that time functions in this way, that every so often pop culture seduces and tantalises us with the prospect of controlling time. The films In Time, where people stop ageing at 25 and die at 26 unless they ‘earn’ time to live beyond that, and Click, where the protagonist has the power to pause, fast-forward and rewind time, may not go down as classics, but highlight the wider Western notion of time as independent of human action, hence the corresponding urge to conquer it.

We tend to think of time as being something beyond human influence – marching ceaselessly onward as we struggle to keep up.

It might seem true that this is how time works. After all, we know nothing different. But some people seem to speak in ways that don’t reflect this idea, with languages that provide a different way of talking about time. Perhaps the best-known example of a language that expresses notions of time very different from our own is that spoken by the Hopi people, native to Arizona. The Hopi language has been a source of great controversy since the 1930’s, when linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed that the Hopi language supported the idea that one’s language and world-view are intimately connected and often influence each other. Whilst disagreement flared over the precise nature of the way the Hopi language characterises time, it has become clear that it does so in a way that is distinctly different from the way we do.

The language of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe has been described as operating from the underlying principle that reality is only what one currently experiences.

This is not a peculiarity of the Hopi language either. The language of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe has been described as operating from the underlying principle that reality is only what one currently experiences, a claim that has attempted to explain the general apathy displayed by the Pirahã towards the past and future. A study of the Amondawa tribe (also from the Amazon) claims that their language does not contain the idea of abstract time as independent from human action.

For us in the West, the notion of time existing independently of us as humans is fundamental to our engagement with and understanding of the world. The fact that others, such as speakers of other languages, might not experience this as we do doesn’t mean that the western conception is wrong, or that we have any ability to change our conception of time. For instance, in societies that have an economic system that relies on the precise measurement of time (like ours), it is essential that the society’s language frames time as something that can be precisely measured.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t relate to those who talk about and experience time in ways we don’t. Fundamentally, all of us are affected by time in ways beyond our control. The ways we interpret and experience this can provide us with remarkable insight into both the nature of time and human existence. By remembering the variety of ways that time can be talked about, we can better understand the subjectivity of our standard model and perhaps even move beyond our limited conceptions, to explore others.

 

Author: Alex Bryan

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