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Category: Gaelic

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

How do we talk about time? This may seem a simple question with a simple answer; we are all human, surely we all experience time the same way? That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that all languages organise the time in the same way. This is arguably most apparent when it comes to talking about the days either side of the present day. We all live on earth and so therefore all experience a day-night cycle; all can understand how one day follows after another. However, the words we use to locate events in this cycle can vary wildly in their construction.

Let’s take a look at two languages, Scottish Gaelic and Sylheti, and see how their systems compare with that of English. All three of these languages belong to the same family, Indo-European, so it might be assumed that they show many similarities. And yet each still exhibits significant variation in how they talk about time.

Firstly, Scottish Gaelic. Like English, it distinguishes between ‘yesterday’, ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’. The terms each show a consistent structure with a frozen prefix a(n)- with three morphologically opaque roots; an-dè, an-diugh and a-màireach respectively. Furthermore none of the Gaelic terms has any connection with the normal word for ‘day’, latha/là. Compare English, where yester-day and to-day both feature the word ‘day’, while to-day and to-morrow both feature a frozen prefix to- (historically a demonstrative). Additionally, there are also single terms for ‘last night’ as well as ‘tonight’ with a-raoir and a-nochd respectively, again with no immediately apparent connection with the normal term for ‘night’ oidhche. On the other hand, there is no single term for ‘tomorrow night’ so the compound expression oidhche a-màireach is used instead. There are also additional terms for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and ‘the day before yesterday’, an-earar and a bhòn-dè respectively, while the latter has a counterpart in a bhòn-raoir for ‘the night before last’. English is also reported to have had similar terms in the form of ereyesterday and overmorrow, though these have fallen out of usage in the modern day.

Gaelic is also in another respect slightly more regular than English in how it refers to parts of the day. While in English we have a split between ‘this morning’ and ‘yesterday morning’, Gaelic instead uses madainn an-diugh and madainn an-dè, where the former literally translates to ‘today morning’.

But all this is not really that surprising. All that really distinguishes Scottish Gaelic from English in this respect is which time categories are given single indivisible terms rather than compositional expressions; the fundamental organisation of the system is still broadly similar to English. To see a far more radically different system of organising time words, we will now turn to Sylheti, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in north-eastern Bangladesh by around 9-10 million and by perhaps a further 1 million in diaspora, including by most of the British Bangladeshi community.

Here, instead of distinguishing between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, we instead find a single term xail(ku), contrasting with aiz(ku) meaning ‘today’ (the -ku is a suffix which can optionally appear on a lot of ‘time’ words, such as onku ‘now’ or bianku ‘(this) morning’). The two senses of ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ can be distinguished by combining them with goto ‘past’ and agami ‘future’, but just as commonly instead the distinction is solely marked by whether the verb is in the past or future tense, e.g. xailku ami amar bondu dexsi ‘I saw my friend yesterday’ vs. xailku ami amar bondu dexmu ‘I will see my friend tomorrow’.

This is not an isolated instance in the language, either, but in fact represents a consistent trend. So in the same manner foru can be either ‘the day before yesterday’ or ‘the day after tomorrow’ depending on context and toʃu the same but at one day further removed.

Table of day and night terms in english, Gaelic and Sylheti respectively
Visualising the systems

Nor is Sylheti unique in using this kind of system; it is also found in many parts of New Guinea, for example. Yimas, a language of northern New Guinea, also uses the same term ŋarŋ for both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, urakrŋ for ‘two days removed’ and so on, all the way up to manmaɲcŋ for ‘five days removed’. Once again whether the reference is to the past or future is carried by the choice of tense on the verb, though Yimas has a far more complex system than that seen in Sylheti, for instance distinguishing a near past -na(n) from a more remote past -ntuk~ntut.

Sylheti also has more fine grained distinctions for parts of the day than either English or Scottish Gaelic. For example, if one wishes to say ‘in the morning’ one must decide whether one is talking about the early morning (ʃoxal) or the mid to late morning (bian). Additionally, while forms such as ‘yesterday/tomorrow afternoon’, ‘the night before last/after next’ and ‘yesteray/tomorrow morning’ use compound expressions (xail madan, foru rait and xail bian/ʃoxal respextively), to express ‘this morning/this afternoon/tonight’ the word for the part of the day (perhaps with the oblique suffix -e or a time suffix -ku) is sufficient by itself, for example amra ʃoxale Sylheʈ aisi ‘We arrived in Sylhet this morning’ or ami raitku dua xotram ‘I am praying tonight’ (with rait ‘night’).

This is just one small part of the temporal vocabulary, and only looking at representatives from a single family, and yet already we see great variation in how time is organised and discussed. It is not so much that these groups have fundamentally different conceptions of time, as these languages share a common ancestor and are only separated by a few thousand years. Instead, it is a testament to the fluidity of time itself, resulting in the words used to refer to it easily shifting in meaning and being reorganised over generations.

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

‘How cool is that?’ in German, literally ‘how horny is that then?’

One reason why translation is so difficult – and why computer translations are sometimes unreliable – is that languages are more than just different lists of names for the same universal inventory of concepts. There is rarely a perfect one-to-one equivalence between expressions in different languages: the French word mouton corresponds sometimes to English sheep, and at other times to the animal’s meat, where English uses a separate word lamb or mutton.

This was one of the great insights of Ferdinand de Saussure, arguably the father of modern linguistics. It applies not only in the domain of lexical semantics (word meaning), but also to the categories which languages organise their grammars around. In English, we systematically use a different form of nouns and verbs depending on whether we are referring to a single entity or multiple entities. The way we express this distinction varies: sometimes we make the plural by adding a suffix to the singular (as with hands, oxen), sometimes we change the vowel (foot/feet) and occasionally we don’t mark the distinction on a noun at all, as with sheep (despite the best efforts of this change.org petition to change the singular to ‘shoop’). Still, we can often tell whether someone is talking about one or more sheep by the form of the agreeing verb: compare ‘the sheep are chasing a ball’ to ‘the sheep is chasing a ball’.

Some languages make more fine-grained number distinctions. The English word sheep could be translated as ovca, ovci or ovce in Slovenian, depending on whether you’re talking about one, two, or three or more animals, respectively. Linguists call this extra category between singular and plural the dual. The difference between dual and plural doesn’t show up just in nouns, but also in adjectives and verbs which agree with nouns. So to translate the sentence ‘the beautiful sheep are chasing a ball’, you need to ascertain whether there are two or more sheep, not just to translate sheep, but also beautiful and chase.

Lepi ovci lovita žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball
Lepe ovce lovijo žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball

According to some, having a dual number makes Slovenian especially suited for lovers (could this explain the Slovenian tourist board’s decision to title their latest campaign I feel sLOVEnia?). But putting such speculations aside, it’s hard to see what the point of a dual could be. We rarely need to specify whether we are talking about two or more than two entities, and on the rare occasions we do need to make this information explicit, we can easily do so by using the numeral two.

This might be part of the reason why many languages, including English, have lost the dual number. Both English and Slovenian ultimately inherited their dual from Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of many of the languages of Europe and India. Proto-Indo-European made a distinction between dual and plural number in its nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, but most of the modern languages descended from it have abandoned this three-way system in favour of a simpler opposition between singular and plural. Today, the dual survives only in two Indo-European languages, Slovenian and Sorbian, both from the Slavic subfamily.

In English the loss of the dual was a slow process, taking place over thousands of years. By the time the predecessor of English had split off from the other Germanic languages, the plural had replaced the dual everywhere except the first and second-person pronouns we and you, and verbs which agreed with them. By the earliest written English texts, it had lost the dual forms of verbs altogether, but still retained distinct pronouns for ‘we two’ and ‘you two’. By the 15th century, these were replaced by the plural forms, bringing the dual’s final demise.

Grammatical categories do not always disappear without a trace – in some languages the dual has left clues of its earlier existence, even though no functional distinction between dual and plural remains. Like English, German lost its dual, but in some Southern German dialects the dual pronoun enk (cognate with Old English inc, ‘to you two’) has survi­ved instead of the old plural form. In modern dialects of Arabic, plural forms of nouns have generally replaced duals, except in a few words mostly referring to things that usually exist in pairs, like idēn ‘hands’, where the old dual form has survived as the new plural instead. Other languages show vestiges of the dual only in certain syntactic environments. For example, Scottish Gaelic has preserved old dual forms of certain nouns only after the numeral ‘two’: compare aon chas ‘one foot’, dà chois ‘two feet’, trì casan ‘three feet’, casan ‘feet’.

Although duals seem to be on the way out in Indo-European languages, it isn’t hard to find healthy examples in other language families (despite what the Slovenian tourist board might say). Some languages have even more complicated number systems: Larike, one of the languages spoken in Indonesia, has a trial in addition to a dual, which is used for talking about exactly three items. And Lihir, one of the many languages of Papua New Guinea, has a paucal number in addition to both dual and trial, which refers to more than three but not many items. This system of five number categories (singular/dual/trial/paucal/plural) is one of the largest so far discovered. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum are languages which don’t make any number distinction in nouns, like English sheep.