What time is it?

Are you sure of that? You might be wrong. Check what time it is right now.

I am fascinated with language. It is the fundamental thing that underpins our entire society. And it doesn’t just underpin our entire social order. It turns out (and this has been proven again and again) that language underpins the way our brains work.

The idea that language precedes thought is not new, or radical, but is really interesting. It has been proven with colour (until we have the word ‘blue’, we can’t distinguish blue things from green things very well)  and sound (once we learn the name for a sound, we can hear it more clearly) and physical proximity (in Korean, there are different words for ‘close to’ and ‘quite close to’, so Korean-speakers can see more difference between those two states) and a myriad of other things. And I have found one that may or may not have been proven in experiment – if you change the language, you can change the way you think about time.

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning two new languages – German and Russian. They play a key part in this story, because in both of these languages, time is described in a slightly different way. Actually, there are two ways of saying the time in Russian – a Westernised 24-hour clock and a traditional ‘weird’ clock. For the purposes of proving my point, I’ll use the second one. I’m sure in experiment this would mean that my theory wouldn’t hold up, but hey. I’m sure there’s a languages out there where time is described only in the ‘weird’ way.

So let’s talk time.

In English, when we say that it’s 2:30, we say ‘half past two’. This seems completely natural to us – after all, we’ve been brought up using it.

But in German, to say 2:30, we say ‘halb drei’ – half to three. That’s how the Germans have been taught to say it their whole lives – my German teacher clearly has trouble saying ‘half past two’.

Now these two might not come as a particular surprise. Quite a few people speak German, and we can fairly say that everyone reading this will speak English [citation needed]. But the third example I have will probably not be as well-known.

As mentioned before, there are two ways to say ‘2:30’. You can say два тридцать (which is 30 minutes, 2 hours) or полтретього, which is half to three. The same as German, essentially. But the interesting stuff happens if you go ten minutes before this.

There are also two ways to say 2:20 – два двадцать, which is literally two thirty. Or there is the more long-winded двадцать минут третого. This means (rough translation) twenty minutes next-hour-is-three.

The idea that language precedes thought is properly called psycholinguistics, so I’ve dubbed this idea ‘temporal psycholinguistics’ – the way the language affects our perception of time. I haven’t had time to test this theory – my Russian teacher isn’t a native speaker, so I can’t ask her how she perceives time. But I think that this might hold a bit of water in an study. Not that I’ll actually try one. Or campaign to get one done.

There are lots of different cultures with different views of time to us – the most radical I could find was the Pirahã tribe from Brazil, who have no concept of the past. But there are several others. Australian aboriginals don’t perceive time as a linear passage but as circles, the Hopi tribe from Arizona only has two words to describe an event’s location on a timeline – ‘sooner’ or ‘later’. It was through these that I got hooked on chronemics, a field that looks at how our culture affects our non-verbal perception of time. And I found a really interesting thing on the Wikipedia page for chronemics, a subject that could probably be a full-length post all by itself.

Apparently there are two ways of looking at time in relation to life. You can be monochronic or polychronic. Monochronism is when you divide the day into chunks and dedicate each chunk to a certain task. This is how Western society operates – you are at work from 9 until 5 – filing the accountancy reports from 9 until 1, having lunch from 1 till 1:30, attending a meeting from 1:45 till 3 and so on. If a minute isn’t spent doing something in a monochronic society, that minute is wasted.

And then there is polychronism – apparently how most of the world operated until big Western companies started throwing their international weight around and making everyone work like them. Polychronism isn’t about getting tasks done on time, it’s about the task just getting done. Schedules are much more flexible on a polychronic system – you say ‘I’ll get there at 5’ but could get there 20 minutes either side of that. As long as what needs to be done gets done, everyone is happy. It’s not unusual to schedule several tasks to a given space of time – it is sometimes encouraged, because it means that it’s impossible to keep to a fixed schedule.

Now I know that monochronism seems like a much more sensible system – as someone with recent experience with the school system, I know how vital a good sense of time is. But then I thought about how I work when there isn’t a fixed deadline. I flit between tasks – do some of this until it gets boring, do something else for a bit, stop to listen to a podcast while stewing over both tasks, and then finish them both. My work life isn’t organised on a timeline but a time abacus, with events sliding around past each other and refitting themselves.

Here’s an example. I have a few major things to work on in life – this blog, work assignments, programming random things (which vary week by week) and developing a new version of the Risk board game (there will almost definitely be a future post on that one). When I have a spare hour, I don’t dedicate the whole hour to a single task. The hour-long process of writing this post, say, was probably spread over 3 or 4 hour-long work periods, and I must have checked other websites at least two dozen times in that period.

The point that I’m trying to make is that while we live in a monochronic society, our home lives work on a much more polychronic time scale. Although I wouldn’t suggest using a polychronic system to your boss. Everyone will end up late, procrastinating like hell and eating all over their computers. Take it from me.

I know that this post has been a bit all over the place. And with the above information, I can explain why that so often happens. I don’t hammer out an hour and a half of solid research and then start writing. I’ve probably done an hour and half of research, but i do it as I write. That’s how the article drifted from psycholinguistics to temporal psycholinguistics to chronemics to polychronism. As the focus of the research shifts, so does the subject.

As always, like and comment and follow and check back regularly for more buckets of stuff. And once again – click on this link and take a minute of your time to fill in the survey. We aren’t out of the slump yet. But with your help, we will be. And you – yes you, with the hat – can help guide the future of TowerOfBuckets.


3 thoughts on “What time is it?

  1. I, too, love language.
    I’ve found a lot of weird and wonderful things while comparing a multitude of languages together via their Swadesh Lists..
    Including: many languages use a word for ‘human being’ that directly derives from their word for ‘earth’, the numbers ‘six’ and ‘seven’ seem to be the most conserved numbers in language, and sometimes ‘six’ is derived from a word meaning ‘man, and ‘seven’ from a word meaning ‘heaven’, the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are the most conserved words in all of language (no other word even comes close), and that the phonetic changes of pronouns can help determine which languages are more closely related than others.
    Did you know that there’s a language spoken by a handful of natives in Australia, called Yanyuwa, where a man speaking to another man uses a different dialect than the one he uses when talking to a woman, which is a different dialect again to that which a woman uses to speak to another woman with, and that there is another dialect paradigm that is used depending on if one is speaking on the mainland of Australia or a nearby island that is used by these people? Interesting…


    • Wow – that’s a lot of stuff to look up because I have no idea what you’re talking about (don’t tell anyone)! And in regards to the second point, in Russian you use different adjectival conjugations for talking to men and women – it gets really confusing.


      • Neat.
        Also, there are probably more unique language families per square mile on Papua New Guinea than anywhere else on Earth.
        For a jungle-covered island, it’s ridiculous how many different languages are spoken there..


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