Magazine article The Spectator

We Need a New Language to Describe Time, Preferably without Spatial Metaphors

Magazine article The Spectator

We Need a New Language to Describe Time, Preferably without Spatial Metaphors

Article excerpt

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'. …

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