Let’s make a language – Part 16a: Time (Intro)

Time may be relative, or an illusion, or even on our side. However you think of it, it’s an important part of any culture. And culture is reflected in language, so every language is going to have ways of talking about time. Unlike many of the possible semantic categories, time is so vital that it’s often reflected directly in the grammar, as verb tense. But this part of the series will focus on how time affects a language’s lexicon. And to do that, we must first look at the calendar.


Humans have been recording time for thousands upon thousands of years. After hunting and preparing food, some of the oldest tools we’ve found are instruments for recording the passage of time. This obsession has continued to the present day, where we’re treated to stories of new atomic clocks so precise and so accurate that they’ll only lose a second or two throughout the rest of our planet’s lifetime.

But let’s go back to those earlier days, because that’s when language was born. Our distant ancestors didn’t have atomic clocks or wristwatches or anything of the sort. They did, however, have the sun and the moon. Those celestial bodies aren’t perfect timekeepers, but they’re good enough for coarse measurement. Later, as civilizations arose, better methods of marking time became a necessity. “Better” in this sense means more accuracy (kept time is closer to “real” time) and precision (counting in smaller and smaller divisions).

The bigger units are mostly astronomical in nature. A day is the time it takes the Earth to rotate once on its axis. (Later, we figured out the difference between solar and sidereal days.) It doesn’t take much to realize that a day has two major components, day and night—some languages have different words for the two senses of day, but many don’t. The boundary periods can also be important: in English, we have dawn and dusk, plus the collective twilight. We’ve divided the two halves into finer portions: morning, afternoon, evening, etc. And a couple of times, noon and midnight, get special mention.

The month, as its name suggests, is loosely based on the orbit of the moon or, to put it in “ancient” terms, its phases. It averages a little over 30 days for us in the West, but other calendars do things differently. And the moon brings its own host of vocabulary. It waxes and wanes, and it can appear as new or full, crescent or gibbous.

Longer periods of time are based (unwittingly, at first) on the Earth’s orbit. The seasons come about from a planet’s tilt. We’re used to four of these, winter, summer, spring, and fall or autumn, but some cultures divide things differently. In the tropics, the temperature difference between the seasons isn’t so great, and rainfall is the deciding factor, so a culture in that region might speak of wet and dry seasons instead. Likewise, the monsoon is regular enough that places where it appears might consider it its own season. And non-tropical cultures will undoubtedly mark the equinoxes and solstices.

One full orbit of a planet around its star is a year, of course, and that also marks a full circuit of the seasons. Longer periods of time usually come from derivation. For decimal-based cultures, something akin to the decade, century, and millennium will likely appear. Non-decimal languages would instead develop similar terms for a dozen years, a gross, or whatever is appropriate. In addition, a few terms for larger amounts of time are based on the human body, such as generation and lifetime, while others (era, epoch) are historical in nature.

Switching to the other side of the coin, it wasn’t too hard to divide the day into hours. The specific number of them is culture-dependent, and this is a case where decimal numbers failed. Subdividing the hours was harder; talking minutes and seconds as anything other than theoretical requires the technology to measure them. But those terms are old enough to show that theory was around long before practicality. Our modern intervals of milliseconds and smaller come from the metric system, but moment and instant have a longer history, and heartbeat stands as a “legacy” unit of time.

The order of things

The units of time are important for precision, but just as useful are the nebulous terms of relative time. We can speak of the past, present, and future, for instance, and other cultures (especially if their languages have different tense systems) will have their own scheme. Something close to aspect also enters the vocabulary. Things or states can be temporary or permanent. They can begin and end, pause and continue. Some actions occur at regular intervals.

When something happens relative to when it should is another rich area of vocabulary. Someone can be early or late or, more rarely, on time (also prompt or timely). We can hurry to catch up with time, or we can wait if we’re ahead.

Mixing relative and absolute time also creates more possibilities for words. An event can take place today or tomorrow, but it also could have been yesterday. Or we can be more specific: phrases such as this morning and last night could be represented as a single lexeme in some languages.

Naming the calendar

The week is an outlier, and its vague definition illustrates that fact. It’s seven days for us, but that’s not a constant throughout history or the world. Anything between about four and ten days has been a “week” somewhere and at some point. It’s purely cultural, and it probably originated as a way to organize markets and the like.

With so few “moving parts”, it’s a simple thing to give each day of the week its own name. We did, after all. In English, we’ve got one named after the sun, another after the moon, four for Germanic gods of ages past, and somehow Saturn found his way in there. Other languages do things differently, though. The Romance theme is Roman gods, obviously, with a shout-out to Christianity on Sundays. Some cultures instead use a rather boring scheme of “first-day”, “second-day”, and so on. Still others can be more pragmatic, naming, for example, the market day as a compound meaning “market-day”.

Months can also have their own names. Our Western list is a mess, mixing in gods (January), emperors (July and August), and numbers (October, misnumbered because of a quirk of history). But that’s evolution for you. Tempting as it is to go all agglutinative here, other forces may intervene.

Specific days of the year can also get their own names: the holidays. These are highly sensitive to cultural aspects, especially religion. Some of them, though, become important enough to be lexicalized. Today, we talk of valentines in February and Easter eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys, and Christmas trees. Those are all noun-noun compounds that have become fixed in form and meaning over time, and they wouldn’t mean anything outside the context of our Western calendar.

Other units of time probably won’t be named, unless the culture has a reason for doing so. We have a few phrases like wee hours, witching hour, and leap year, but those are transparent compounds. We also give numerical or descriptive names to decades, centuries, and other periods: the Nineties, the 20th Century, the Middle Ages. These, however, aren’t lexical.

Making time

In a conlang, you’ll most likely want to start with the “relative” time terms, like before and future. Those are easy, and they cover enough ground to give your language a good amount of “meat” in its vocabulary. Some of them may even suggest themselves from the grammatical elements, such as tense and aspect markers or prepositions. Or you could go the other way, deriving new terms from the basic words of time. That’s how English got before, to name one example.

The “absolute” words are harder, because you need to develop at least a rudimentary outline of a culture. You need to understand the people who speak your language. Obviously, an auxlang has the easiest time here, since it will just copy the sensibilities of its “host” cultures. Artlangs need a bit more care. (If they’re on alien worlds, then they need a lot more care, but that’s a different post.) Remember who you’re dealing with, too. Ancient herders aren’t going to have a word for “nanosecond”, and a far-future spacefaring race might not use, say, weeks.

Finally, don’t forget that many words that seemingly have no connection to the passage of time are, in fact, derived from temporal terms. It’s thanks to time that we have words like tide, daisy, periodical, perennial, and menstrual, among many others.

Into the future

Next time (pardon the pun), we’ll be looking at how Isian speaks about time. Then, it’s Ardari’s turn. Beyond that, the future is less certain. But time and tide wait for no man, so we’ll get to them eventually.

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