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…