Some Thoughts on Time and Language

Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born – the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.

(Aldous Huxley, 1894 – 1963)


One of the areas of language that causes me to pause is the expression of time in English. Time can be “advanced”, “moved back”. One can move appointments “up”, “back” or “further down”. Some local variations  of English clarify and distinguish “postpone”  (latin post + pōnere = place after) from “prepone” (latin pre +  pōnere = place before). This makes it easier to understand in which “direction” an appointment is being made.

A rather comical exchange with my doctor’s assistant today brought the disparity of how I think of time and how it is actually expressed in my current surroundings. The following is a partial transcript of my conversation:

Me: …Would it be possible to change my appointment at such a short notice?

Scheduler: We may be able to move it up

(I am imagining a later time as in a balloon moving further away as it rises)

Me: yes, please!

Scheduler: Would 08:00 a.m. work for you?

Me: That is early, I thought you said you would move it up.

Scheduler: yes, and I did. (no change in pitch)

Me: I wanted a later time, please.

Scheduler: Oh, you mean you want to move the appointment back, (speaking slowly as if talking to someone with some auditory processing disability).

Me: err […]yes, […] I think that is what I meant. (feeling confused)

I finally understood “moving up” is “grounded” in the physical act of crossing out a time slot in a planner and penciling it in higher up on the physical page. This act corresponds to an earlier time. This is now done electronically without a pencil but visually it is the same. Similarly moving an appointment back corresponds to the back of the planner which is further away and so “later” in time. I had to shift thinking of time in terms of a clock to a planner.

To make things more confusing we practice the quaint ceremony of changing clocks twice a year for absolutely no good reason. But I digress, when Daylight Saving Time takes effect clocks are moved “ahead” in Spring to indicate moving them from 1:59 a.m. to 03:00 a.m. (Confounding English…). In Fall/autumn clocks “fall back” (1:59 a.m. to 01:00 a.m.). The usage of the term “back” in English can mean both moving later in time or earlier in time.

In Hindi, there is only one word that is used for both yesterday and tomorrow “kal” (and one word for the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow “parso”). Context clarifies the usage. Time is therefore not seen as linear but as circular. In the literature of  Spatial and temporal language and cognition, this similarity between American English usage of the word “back” and /kal/ does not appear to have been explored…









6 Comments Add yours

  1. puzzleblume says:

    Language produces imagintions, and my impression is, that the brain works the more with unforseen imaginations, if it is not working with the first language, because it is more alert to get the sense, and so it finds its sometimes surreal ways like playing with expressions and key words while dreaming.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ich stelle mir vor, dass Worte wie Autos mit getöntem Glas sind. Unsere Gedanken sind die Passagiere in diesen Worten. Man kann die Idee aus dem Blick auf das Auto machen, aber niemals wirklich sagen, ob sie richtig sind oder nicht. Das Wunder der Sprache ist, dass wir trotz der Beschränkungen der Worte unsere Gedanken teilen können!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Apologies for the terrible translation!


  4. Mein deutsch ist wirklich schlecht


    1. puzzleblume says:

      Gar nicht, dein Deutsch ist sehr gut, weil dieser sehr gut nachvollziehbare Vergleich mit den Fahrzeugen, ja sogar besser: den Autos (Auto = selbst-… = in Träumen meistens das agierende Selbst) hervorragend formuliert ist und noch dazu von mir nicht nur verstanden, sondern auch als Idee geteilt werden kann.
      Ich glaube, es kommt auch nicht nur darauf an, ob man eine Sprache gut oder lückenhaft beherrscht, sondern ob das Gegenüber einen verstehen will. Die Kooperation entscheidet über das Verständnis.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ich Glaube ich verstehen Besser als ich schreibe. Manchmal das macht keinnen Sinn.


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