Nasa / Space

Time travel and English don't mix

Time travel is one concept that the English doesn't handle well, according to Edmond Woychowsky. Read his thoughts on the matter.

As languages go, English, especially the American dialect, is something of a hodgepodge. Unlike French, for example, there is no ministry tasked with the job of keeping the language pure of foreign influence. While some buckaroos might kvetch about this deficit, in a way, I believe that it's an advantage because it allows the language to change and allows its speakers to grok new concepts rather quickly. There is, however, one concept that the English language doesn't handle very well: time travel.

Although major strides have been made in the last few decades, the majority of the problems with time travel and the English language remain. Here are two examples of progress.

Jack L. Chalker coined the terms nightsider and nightsided in his novel Downtiming the Night Side. For those of you unfamiliar with those terms, a nightsider is a time traveler who, through a change in the time line, has no origin. Nightsided refers to becoming a nightsider through the actions of themselves or another. For instance, stop yourself from travelling into the past by destroying your time machine before you departure, and you've just nightsided yourself.

In his 1632 series, Eric Flint solves the problem of how to differentiate between the people of Grantville West Virginia from the year 1999 from the people of Europe of 1631. Respectively, the terms used are uptimers and downtimers, which is quite a useful distinction, provided that there are only two groups. Add a third group, and the result would be something along the lines of downtimers, midtimers, and uptimers, which is workable. However, anything beyond three groups would become increasingly complex to the point of being unworkable.

In spite of advances like the aforementioned, problems with the English language where time travel is concerned still exist. Consider for a moment that at the age of 30 you are thrown back in time to 100 years before your birth and then asked your date of birth. Not wanting to lie, should you reply that you were born on a specific date or that you will be born on a specific date? With the former response, you're using your frame of reference, forcing the listener to adjust; with the latter response, you're accommodating the listener, forcing yourself to adjust.

Another issue that English would have to deal with is the subject of future events. First, assume that time is immutable so that events cannot be altered; this results in the accommodation issue previously described. However, if events are not immutable and can be changed, then things begin to get really hairy. The time traveler's unique knowledge would become increasingly useless and were and will be would become intermixed with might and maybe. Without an agreed upon frame of reference, it would be impossible to convey any information of possible future events.

The problems of language conveyed here only scratch the surface of some of the issues that could arise in English from time travel. Since English is a rather dynamic language and we've got time before a time machine is invented (although not as much as we'll have after a time machine is invented), I'm interested in suggestions on how to get past these issues.

38 comments
antonio2toledo
antonio2toledo

Just imagine time travelling 30 years ahead, arriving at New York. Would anybody speaking today's English understand what the New York citizens will be saying?

jruby
jruby

We've solved this problem about 45 years from now. (think about it....)

Inforyde
Inforyde

What is this? A mental exercise?

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

There is no known natural language which does not evolve with time. We do have a language which would be able to handle the concepts of time travel displacement. It is called mathematics. We will use mathematics to communicate with the first non-human intelligence we ever meet - I am personally convinced if we don't kill them all off the members of the ceteans' first phrase will be "What the F is wrong with your species?" but I digress. I don't think time travel within the same universe is possible and I heavily favor David Deutsch of Oxford University's theory of mutiple quantum universes. You avoid paradoxes as you can never return to your universe in this model, but one which is very similiar. And with recent evidence from both the quantum and astro physics worlds finding more evidence of potential multiple universes, I think the time is ripe for a new show called "TIme Tunnel Sliders."

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

Douglas Adams covered all this in hilarious detail, adding verb tenses like He willen haven killed his grandfather.

Kam Guerra
Kam Guerra

I wonder about Nathen Bedford Forrest's reaction to being asked "Whizzle do you wizzle my nizzle - fo shizzle - I'm outtizzle hizzle"

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You make it sound like these problems are exclusive to English. I acknowledge my language skills are limited to U.S. English and enough Spanish to get drunk and start a fight (usually in that order). However, I question whether any language has structures to handle time travel discussions adequately. How does French handle tenses for someone describing their birth 70 years in the future?

Vineet369
Vineet369

First of let me tell you that English is not my First language. I come from India, and speak Hindi. Now, if I translate the aforementioned sentences, I too find myself under the confinement of language and the inability to describe the situation, in coordination of what we have learned in the grammar books. Its simple. We divide the sentences in 3 tenses... Past, Present and the Future. And everything we speak or write is in accordance with these 3 sets of tense. So, of course, if the situation demands us to speak of one tense, when we are living in the other, the language is bound to be a spoil sport. In the end, I think its not the limitation of language itself, but another, one of the innumerable things that Time travel seizes to explain. Just like the situation of being Nightsided!

grayarti
grayarti

Hello all, anyone who's really interested in this subject MUST have read a few of Robert A. Heinlein's books!... surely!

chris.leeworthy
chris.leeworthy

Most English speakers today don't understand what New York citizens say! ;-D

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Nobody understands what New Yorkers are saying now. Heck, even if you understand the words Bloomberg is saying, his communications themselves are totally incomprehensible.

RipVan
RipVan

Reminds me of the Futurama Uranus joke!

grax
grax

Yes, of course it is. All human experience is such. I didn't see this article until the day before tomorrow and, whilst the responses are interesting, it's all a bit of a leg-pull. English not suitable as a language for time travellers? Nonsense. Time travel was invented by an English writer - H.G.Wells. It worked for him. It also worked for Douglas Adams, as mentioned. Have you actually read all five books of the trilogy? As for Canadian French (Je peux parler fran?ais.) and American English: Do you not realise that they are colonial dialects of modern languages? Colonial peoples hang on to those things that are most important to them. So, whilst British English, and to a lesser extent, French, have moved on and changed much more than their friends across the water. Just appreciate that you over there are all talking in the past! Just as English in its many forms has adapted, so will it continue. That doesn't mean you can afford to use poor grammar, bad spelling and inaccurate punctuation. Mercifully most of the respondents to this thread are literate. Did you enjoy the weekend to come?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Time tunnel Sliders would of course star the Burger King, Jack in the Box, and Guy Fieri. :^0

C-3PO
C-3PO

I don't know of it was the author, or the editor that posted the hook in the e-mail I received, but speaking of English, did anyone catch the English Grammar error there? "Time travel is one concept that the English doesn't handle well, according to Edmond Woychowsky. Read his thoughts on the matter." or was "the English doesn't" supposed to be a play on time as well? English will... or does it?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Forrest's reaction would likely have been the same as any of his contemporaries: total incomprehension. For that matter, it's my reaction too.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

The comments on French go back to the rant over the English term "e-mail" poluting French. It doesn't take any real smarts to realize that people won't want a decade or more for a word, they'll either make their own or pirate one from another language. As for other languages, I'd wonder why any language that predates the concept of time travel could handle time travel well. To some that could be considered proof of that time travel is possible.

zefficace
zefficace

I'm a francophone, and French is my daily language both at home and at work. I can tell you that French is no more equiped to handle time travel then english. Although French has institutions that oversee its evolution, I doubt it has any advantage for time travel. Most of what has been said in this article apply to French as well. It is the limitations of language to be somewhat time specific. Many French words have gone out of use, and many added over time. When new circumstances arise, there will always be a period of awkward adapatation. Time travel, when and if it happens, will require the development of an adapted vocabulary which we do not yet posess, no matter what the language. And French will need to rely on its institutions to state the standards! A nice puzzle to solve anyway.

pwadethompson
pwadethompson

This reminds me of a line from the movie PRIME: Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later today.

RipVan
RipVan

Be careful. In some time periods, speaking modern English will get you burned at the stake or tortured as some kind of devil. Just listen a lot and don't talk! They solved that problem in "Timeline." Better talk to those scientists. (And use the ones from the book, NOT the movie.)

inouyde
inouyde

... or is this a weird article for an information technology site? Oh, and don't buy the most recent time traveling software. Wait for the service pack or you might end up traveling into the mouth of a dinosaur. Good times.

Olivier-
Olivier-

Seeing the title of the paper I thought I was going to learn about things that differentiate English from other languages when talking about time travel and was thouroughly disappointed that it was only a remark about how the language you use is inappropriate, but without any reference to any other language. A better title would have used 'language' instead of 'English' or, if you want to be cautious and really think that there is a human language out there that copes with time travel, 'our language'. Don't you think?

zefficace
zefficace

I wouldn't go so far as to say "e-mail" is pollution, but the French language has decided upon "courriel" as a proper word. Just as "chatting" is "clavardage". They do sound made up anyway!

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

That's exactly what I mean. By the way, now I need to add PRIME to my "to be watched" list. Thanks.

chris.leeworthy
chris.leeworthy

Time Travelling service pack 1 will be ready for release August 5th 2320. You will be able to download it two weeks last Tuesday ;-)

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

There are a lot of science fiction topics covered at TechRepublic. This article arose from random synaptic firings and it has definite geek slant. As for the bug with the latest time travel software, don't step on any butterflies. Oh, by the way, your luggage is in the 12th century, sorry.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

The specific word isn't the problem, the length of time to select the word is. If they don?t improve the throughput a technological revolution, akin to the rise of steam power, would overwhelm them. There could literally be hundreds of new terms; even handled concurrently the backlog could be fifty or more years. That kind of delay could render a language irrelevant.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]Oh, by the way, your luggage is in the 12th century, sorry. [/i] Mine's in an alternate time line that my machine won't grok.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

"Time Enough for Love" and "The Number of the Beast" had many new time-travel vocabulary words. Somewhen - Anywhen - Everywhen Interesting to ponder. Thanks, RAH.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Of course I'm not entirely certain I want to be a character in someone's books. Authors are among the most sadistic people in the multiverse.

melias
melias

For those of you who don't know, she is an AI from 'Number of the Beast'. And it ties in nicely with this thread.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

If I ever gain the ability to write one article as interesting and funny as that one, I will die one happy man. Jay got a gift!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

USAA won't touch them, the property taxes would bankrupt me, and the damn thing won't clear the drive-up window at Burger King. I'd sell it and use the proceeds to get a couple of Roombas.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

They may be stupid, but you still want one, don't ya?

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