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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