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Matthew Parris

Another Voice

We need a new language to describe time, preferably without spatial metaphors

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

Very long flights — flights like mine, to and from Australia, for instance — offer such an opportunity to think that you can tease a thought almost to the point of madness. What follows may read like that, and if you don’t wish to perform mental gymnastics on a nerdish pinhead until you’re intellectually giddy, quit now. But I’ve been turning over in my mind a recurrent problem in human reasoning that in real life irritates and trips us all, leading to endless misunderstandings — and I may have cracked it.

It’s the problem of time zones, and putting clocks ‘forward’ and ‘back’, and whether it’s ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ in Australia, and all the associated mental difficulty we encounter in putting into language clear to each other and to ourselves the way time is changed according to zone and season.

The short answer is that it isn’t. Time cannot be changed. Einstein and Relativity notwithstanding, for ordinary human purposes time — real time — doesn’t and cannot alter from one place to another. There is one time all over the globe and always has been, and we half know this and are half thinking, in this God’s-eye way, that now is now at the same time for me in England and you in Australia; and in a universal sense — in real time — nobody can be ahead of or behind anybody else.

But our human calibrations change, and we ‘move’ dates and engagements, and move through time zones, and we have never developed the language to describe this process without confusion. Because we can’t say it clearly we can’t think it clearly, and keep muddling ourselves up.


What follows is hardly definitive, but a start at least. I’ve identified two major reasons for the muddle.

The first thing to say is that there’s no muddle at all in the sense that the subject is inherently perplexing or deep. It’s inherently simple. We’re in a pickle not about the fundamentals, but about the verbal pincers with which we try to pick them up: about terms and metaphors. We are in the same situation as the schoolchild in a pickle about understanding electricity via that physics teacher’s favourite, the ‘water analogy’. At first plumbing helps as a metaphor, but finally tangles the child’s mind; because a live wire with an alternating current isn’t the same kind of thing as a hosepipe.

We have an analogy for time, too, and it’s embedded deep in our language. We use — intermittently but reflexively — a spatial analogy. We ‘go forward’ in time; or ‘back’ in time; clocks ‘move forward’ (later); we ‘think back’ (earlier); time ‘moves on’; we ‘advance’ dates and meetings — or ‘put them back’. We remark that Sydney is 11 hours ‘ahead of us’ or New York five hours ‘behind’.

But the passage of time is quite unlike travel across space. For a start we go backward into the future in the important sense that we can only see what’s past or ‘behind’ us. Nor has our language decided whether it is we who are ‘moving’ — or time itself. We may speak of ‘a time to come’, of the ‘arrival’ of the ‘new millennium’; of the ‘days gone by’ or the ‘coming week’; we may exclaim that for a moment time ‘stood still’ — as though time’s characteristic is to move. Then we switch metaphor to a scene in which time is immobile and it is we who move, and talk about ‘going back’ to an earlier age, or describe our own journey ‘through’ time — my favourite Blairism being ‘fast-forwarding into the future at an ever-increasing rate’.

But when we say Sydney is ‘ahead of us’ we have to effect a mental disjunction with that whole framework, for we don’t mean that Sydney is further ‘into’ the future, only that certain things (like their sunrises) are happening before their equivalents (our sunrises) happen here. But in the sense that the Sydney sunrise occurs at the same moment all over the world, Sydney is not ‘ahead’ of us at all.

And then we get our language into a knot over diary engagements, for to ‘put a meeting back’ is actually to move it (spatially) forward in our diary, while to ‘bring it forward’ is to bring it (in our diary) back towards us. When, however, you ‘put your clock forward’ you do a tiny spatial jump forward in your day-planner, and it becomes later than before, the sun rising (by your clock) later too. But have you ‘gained’ or ‘lost’ an hour? In fact you’ve lost it, and that is how we should talk — contradicting the spatial analogy, where to gain ground is to advance. There is widespread public confusion over whether that extra hour in bed as the clocks ‘go back’ is an hour ‘gained’ or ‘lost’.

So the spatial analogy is messing up the logic of language, thus messing up our minds. But now comes what I identify as the second reason for our muddle: my reasoning anticipated by what I said about ‘real time’, in which the Sydney sunrise occurs at the same time all over the world, as opposed to localised calibrations of time, which are essentially arbitrary. And the problem here is, indeed, the sun itself, whose zenith — ‘noon’ — human beings have made central to their calibration of the time of day, and therefore central to the way we think about time.

If the clock goes ‘back’ then sunrise, noon and sunset are advanced. If Sydney time is 11 hours ‘ahead’ of our English time, then their dawns and dusks are ‘advanced’ relative to ours. They’ve already happened. But words like ‘ahead’ and ‘advance’ have deep connotations in our minds with earliness or promptitude; so unconsciously we are fighting the instinctive idea that if the sun has already risen (or set) in Sydney, then they have (sort of) got there first; their birds have caught their worms before ours; they are ‘earlier’ than us. But in fact what it means to say Sydney is ‘ahead’ of us is that it is later in their local time than in ours. Time-zone time makes it ‘later’ in the place where the day has (in real time) broken earlier. But not in the sense of Sydney clocks showing an earlier time than ours, for they show a later one.

Enough. We could do with a new language of time: one which uses different terms for real time (time as a dimension) and zonal calibrations of the localised day. And probably one which avoids spatial metaphor altogether.

But your brain must be close to boiling, so I’ll stop — before I get going on my next theory, which is that our curious inability to accept that we will not exist after we die (though we have no trouble in accepting that we did not exist before we were born) may result from nothing more than that we have no passive verb for dying — it’s something we do rather than is done to us — and no active verb for being born. If we borned (sic), people might ask what we did before that.


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