Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

Clocks Around the World: How Other Languages Tell Time

When we start learning a language, we soon find ourselves practicing how to ask for the time. This can feel like a pointless exercise today, when each glance at our phone tells us the hour and minute with precision, but it can be justified as a practical way of getting the language’s numbers down in a familiar context. Yet not every culture’s way of time-telling is equally familiar: in Tanzania, for example, so near the equator that “the sun rises around the same time every morning, six in the local time zone,” and “everyone’s up and starting their day at seven. With such a reliable standard time-keeper, that winds up being 1:00 Swahili time.”

“Swahili time” is just one of the concepts introduced by Youtuber Joshua Rudder, creator of the channel Nativlang, in the video above.

He also touches on the medieval six-hour clocks of Italy; the Thai time-tellers who “count the hours from one to six, four times a day”; the ancient Egyptian method of letting the length of hours themselves expand and contract with the amount of daylight; the Nahua division of dividing the “daylight day” into four parts and the night into seven; the bewilderingly many Hindustani units of time, from the aayan, ruthu, and masa to the lava, renu, and truti, by which point you get down to “divisions of microseconds.”

To a natively English-speaking Westerner, few of these systems may feel particularly intuitive. But most of us, from whichever culture we may hail, will see a certain sense in the Japanese way of allowing late nights to “stretch to twenty-five o’clock, twenty-nine o’clock, all the way up to thirty. Maybe you feel like if you’re up past midnight, it’s not tomorrow yet, not really, and you haven’t even gone to bed.” Hence this extended clock, whose last six hours “overlap with what will have been the technical start of your twenty-four hour day when you wake up tomorrow” — but, with any luck, don’t overlap onto any early-morning language classes.

Related content:

How Clocks Changed Humanity Forever, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Older: What the Research Says

An Animated Alan Watts Waxes Philosophical About Time in The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the 1970s “Sesame Street for Grown-Ups”

The Rarest Sounds Across All Human Languages: Learn What They Are, and How to Say Them

Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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