On vocabulary and time.

On vocabulary and time.

As children learn to speak, they feel out gaps in their parents’ language. Words that ought to be there, but aren’t.

On a Friday afternoon, my five-year-old might say something like “Tomorrow at school I’ll finish drawing my Snakes Waam!” (This is a series of comic books she’s making in which a family of snakes prevent monsters from burning down our city.)

My daughter knows that there’s no school on Saturday – when she says “tomorrow,” she means the next day when I am at school.

Or, on a Monday morning, she might say: “Yesterday at school we got to visit the library!”

I wish that English had the words she’s grasping for!

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Different languages sway speakers toward different conceptions of the world. In English, we typically imagine that we’re facing the future: the world to come is before our eyes.

But, as David Kishik writes in The Book of Shem, “in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).” Or, as Laura Spiinny writes in “How Time Flies,” “q”ipuru, the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa [“behind / back”] and uru, the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of ‘some day behind one’s back.’

In these cultures, there’s an emphasis on the past as known – things that have happened can be seen, whereas the future is a mystery. There’s also, especially in biblical Hebrew, a sense that the progression of time is coupled with decline.

In Sanskrit, I believe the future is described as being ahead of people, but in ancient Vedic thought the progression of time leads toward inevitable decay. Time flows cyclically, but during each cycle the world becomes steadily worse until it is destroyed and reborn as good again.

Within these cultural frameworks, it’s certainly possible to feel optimistic about the future, but it’s more difficult.

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I found myself thinking about how our culture might shift if English had the words my daughter wants. A set of time words that were strictly relational: a “tomorrow” that could mean “the next time I’m in school” or “the next time that I see you.”

Perhaps this would help us to maintain a more fluid perspective on time. To see that psychological time flows unpredictably and unsteadily, not like the uniform ticking of clocks (stubborn little devices that have made many people’s interior lives feel worse).

As James Gleick writes in “The Toll of the Clock,” “When the first public sundial arrived in Rome some Romans cursed it.

The gods damn the man who first discovered the hours and – yes – who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits,” wrote Plautus.

People have been complaining about clocks ever since.

We each contain many braids of time. The hours we spend with different groupings of people are unique strands. Time together makes relationships, a link that’s distinct from each day’s journey of the sun.

Would we put more effort into maintaining our relationships if there was no other way for “tomorrow” to come?

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header image by Chris Campbell on flickr