the concept of time in different cultures


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the concept of time in different cultures

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tammikuu 31, 2009, 1:21 am

Before I came to Costa Rica, I thought the Spanish word "ahora" (equivalent of "now" in English) conveys something that is urgent, because in English, "now" really means "now." Well, as I found out, the Costa Ricans have three levels of "now." There is "ahora" (which really means later), ahorita (which means now but in a little bit), and "ya" (which means NOW).

As for the Vietnamese language, we only have two levels of "now" : 1) "ba^y gio*`" (now, but not immediately) and 2) "ngay ba^y gio*`" (NOW).

I wonder if the different levels of "now" relate to how Vietnamese and Latino cultures view time. For example, in Costa Rica, there is "tico time," which pokes fun at how Costa Ricans are not very punctual. Similarly, Vietnamese people have the expression "gio*` da^y thun" (literally: rubber band time) to show the elasticity of Vietnamese time. If the invitation says to come at 8:00, people would show up at 8:45 or even 9:00.

tammikuu 31, 2009, 8:35 am

Indonesia has the idea of rubber band time as well, it's called "jam karet" there. So it might be general for South East Asia.

helmikuu 1, 2009, 7:30 am

From your explanation I don't see how that concept of time is any different...

So Spanish has ahora, ahorita and ya... while English has later, in a bit and now...

looks like the perception of time is quite the same to me...

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 1, 2009, 11:53 am

Hi Vampir,

I apologize for not being specific with my explanation. The Spanish words ahora, ahorita, and ya are translated into English as the generalized "now." If I were to say "Ahorita vengo" it could be interpreted as "I am coming in the next hour, the next few hours, or even not at all," although it would be translated as "I am coming now."

Similarly, "Ahora vengo" is supposed to be "I am coming now" but it means the action can happen today or another day.

As for ya, it can mean right now or later, depending on the context. For example, "Tienes que hacerlo ya" (You have to do it now) or "Ya lo hare'" (I will get it done).

I forgot to mention "ahora mismo" which means "now," but is used in a more formal context.

helmikuu 2, 2009, 7:52 am


I don't know any Spanish... but this is interesting...

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 2, 2009, 10:09 am

In his book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John H. McWhorter devotes a chapter to the idea that language might have a profound effect on the worldviews of the people who speak it. The canonical expression of this idea is Whorf's argument that because the language of the Hopi Indians does not include conjugations to mark future tense verbs, they must have vastly different conceptions of time from what Westerners do.

McWhorter points out that the Hopi can still talk about the future even without a future tense, like by inserting a word meaning "tomorrow" into the sentence.

So, in English, we don't have "ahora," "ahorita," or "ya," but we can express the same ideas fairly elegantly with "soon," "now," and "right now," and with the help of context.

I'm just not sure that the existence of different words for these concepts in Costa Rican Spanish is evidence of a different conception of time among Costa Rican Spanish speakers. I think it's much more plausible that the existence of these words just reflects that a language can respond to its needs in a number of ways: maybe by conscripting new words into the vocabulary, or maybe by putting existing modifiers on existing words. Either way, I don't see (from this) any concept that can be expressed in Costa Rican Spanish that can't be expressed in English.

Take your example, that "Ahorita vengo" would be rendered in English as "I am coming now." Any translator who translates the Spanish in that way has either been misled by his lexicon, or else is just lazy. If "Ahorita vengo" means what you describe it to mean, then the proper English translation is something like "I might come later."

tammikuu 2, 2010, 11:15 am

There's more to treatment of "time" in different cultures than just what words are used. Punctuality is much more important in Germany and Switzerland, where things tend to happen as scheduled, than in Latin countries I have visited, where it is so approximate(i.e. late) that it is totally unpredictable for a person who tries to follow a posted schedule and expects others to at least make an attempt to do so. Sicilians make Americans look incredibly punctual, and we aren't, necessarily.

tammikuu 2, 2010, 11:48 am

I think it is very true that Costa Ricans have a less definite sense of time, and that correlates with their less defined words for time. As pointed about above, ya and ahora can both mean "before", "right now this minute", or "sometime in the future". From my experience living in Costa Rica, most people there do not need that time frame defined more specifically. I can't think of any word for time in English that is similarly flexible, nor would it be a useful word in most English society.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 2, 2010, 4:25 pm

I think Latin has no exact equivalent of "right now" or "NOW!" (re-inforcing a just-given command). I think Iʻve seen "iam nunc" which would be the closest to that. (And iam, the less immediate of "iam" and/or "nunc" became "ya" in Spanish, which has been discussed here). "Nunc" did not survive into the Romance Languages.
"Ya" has retained some of its Latin sense of "already". "Iam" has entered French only with a prefix, as "deja". Latin had diminutives, but I donʻt think they were used in time expressions as in Spanish "ahorita".

In classical and biblical Greek, a command given in the present tense would be comparatively rare: it would mean "do it regularly, or keep doing it." An ordinary command to "do it now" would be given in the aorist (past) tense. A word like "now" or "ya" was not usually included in the command. You were ordered not just to do it now, but, literally, to "have already done it"! This was a normal, casual, way of talking, and didnʻt necessarily carry the implication of "NOW" (with raised voice).
In Athens in 1978, I heard a waiter order (in English) a tourist to "left" (not leave) her luggage at American Express, not carry it into the restaurant. So he may still have had the time sense that the old classical commands implied.

tammikuu 2, 2010, 3:36 pm

7> Would you think this might have to do with the difference in climates? Germany and Switzerland are colder climates and the Latin countries are considerably warmer. It might be a consideration, or at the very least, a wonderful excuse.

toukokuu 1, 2010, 10:53 pm

Oooh, there's an old story about an Irish speaker and a SPanish speaker who were comparing notes. The Spanish speaker did his rap about "ahora" and "orita" and so on, at which point the Irish speaker was asked about whether there was anything in his language which was comparable.

He thought a bit, and then said "No, I don't think we have anything in our language that expresses that degree of urgency"

tammikuu 26, 2012, 9:57 pm

Complicating matters, these Spanish words have different meanings in different countries. In Mexico, "ahora" means "now", "ahorita" means something like "in a bit/while", and "ahora mismo" is used for "right now". I feel like "ya" usually means "already", but if it's emphatically yelled ("!YA!") it could certainly be translated "NOW!", "THIS INSTANT!", etc. Though it's usually been my experience in Mexico that when people's names are called from afar, and they reply "¡ya voy!" ("Coming!"), while the literal translation ("I'm going now/already") would imply that they're on the move, the actual tendency is to sit there for a little bit continuing to do whatever they were doing before.

After traveling in Mexico for 3 months, I had gotten very used to "ahorita" implying some time in the near future (maybe in a minute, maybe in an hour, maybe before the day ends), but that messed me up once I crossed over to Guatemala where it seemed to be synonymous with "ahora mismo" ("right now").

In both of these countries, however, it was rare to meet somebody who actually cared about punctuality, and to avoid frustration, I usually resorted to showing up at least 15 minutes later than agreed meeting times, and bringing reading material for the remaining time I would have to wait, haha.

tammikuu 27, 2012, 6:37 am

In the English language, there is the word presently that can mean "at once", "now", "soon" or "then" in different dialects and contexts. I imagine a Vietnamese linguist could use that to demonstrate that the Anglophone sense of time is infinitely elastic, or that people in the North of England are more punctual than those in the South...

I'm sure the correlation of "punctuality" to "history of industrialisation" in a particular region is much stronger than that to language. When you've been ruled by factory hooters and railway timetables for a couple of centuries, you start arriving at parties on time too...