About Time

The Language of Time

Time is seen as part of the fundamental grammar of the world. Yet there is little evidence proving it actually exists. With the help of quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, this episode seeks to mop up some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding time — exploring the theories and hypotheses shaping our current scientific understanding of it.

This episode in brief

The spatial language of time

Many cultures use the graphical model of space to understand time. It gives us an imaginary axis for ordering events, a direction and a movement, as well as a container for mapping it passage. But within this metaphor, there are some pretty interesting differences in how the world’s languages conceptualize time. This section explores examples from Western European and Scandinavian languages to Mandarin Chinese, Aymara, and the aboriginal language of the Pormpuraaw community in Australia.

Event-based time

While countable “clock time” seems like second-nature for the West, in some cultures it doesn’t exist. Using the the Amazonian Amondawa community as a starting point, this section considers languages without words for “time”, who instead use events to index and talk about time. Linguist Vera da Silva Sinha draws insights from her latest research on three Brazilian tribes — the Huni Kuĩ, Awetý and Kamaiurá — who don’t count age, celebrate birthdays or use spatial metaphors to speak about time.

Languages without tense

English – like most European languages – is a tensed language. By giving verbs different tenses, we can directly express the basic time of an event; whether past, present or future. But many languages do not use tense at all. This section explores how “tenseless” languages like Mandarin Chinese use aspect to indicate time, as well as the conceptual limitations our own three-tensed grammar imposes on how we communicate time.

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