Words Give Time a Shape

Photo by SUNBEAM PHOTOGRAPHY on Unsplash

Imagine a world without a standard definition of time. Isn’t it then surprising that time is merely an invention of man? Time is a socially constructed concept that holds together many of our systems of meaning. We use time to understand where humans came from and how they come to die. We also use time to model our understanding of the laws that govern our physical and quantum world.

Time does not just give our words meaning – in fact, time can change their meaning too. Like time, language is considered a stable, shared, and universal set of symbols. But language is constantly evolving and adapting to the social and cultural environments in which it is used. Digital libraries of historical texts and Google Books have greatly facilitated computational investigations of language change over decades. Computational linguists can now measure how word meanings have drifted in the same language over time. It is interesting to see how the word “follow” has taken on new meanings in a social media age. Even an “apple” might be something you “plug” in, and a “mouse” is found on nearly every workstation.

However, language has played tricks on time too. Anthropologists have reported how different cultures have different constructions of time. Some follow a wheel structure when they talk about time. So they may have the same word for tomorrow as yesterday. They mark each part of their day as a quarter of a wheel. Other cultures follow the sun and explain the passage of time as a physical journey into the west. Neuroscientists have examined how these language differences carry over into how we understand the world around us and how we solve physical or mental problems. Despite the many technological tools we have at our disposal, our concept of time is still the key to understanding and responding to the world around us.

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