By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re going to look at the direction of time and see if the word arrow can point the way!
“Time flies like an arrow”. We all know that’s not literally true, but it’s easily understood by any English speaker. It’s a way of talking about an abstract (time) in terms of something more concrete (place). Why do we push meetings back, look forward to tomorrow, fall behind schedule, wait a long time, and take a short break?. These ways of understanding the world, known as spatio-temporal metaphors, are introduced to us so early that they seem completely natural and objective truths, but in fact they’re different from culture to culture, and looking at them closely can open up all sorts of fascinating avenues to explore.
The phrase time’s arrow was coined by English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington in 1928 to describe the asymmetry of time, always flowing from the past to the future, though the similar phrase arrow of time had already been used in 1917 colloquially to refer to the ever-flowing nature of time. Eddington had noted that at the microscopic level processes could be time-symmetric operating in either direction without breaking any physical laws, but at the macroscopic level things operated in one direction only, toward the future. For Eddington this was the result of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics: the total entropy of a closed system never decreases over time, or to put it another way a closed system always moves from order to disorder. Why this asymmetry exists, and why it doesn’t on the microscopic level, is still an unsolved question in physics. This arrow of time can be seen in many areas of science, including psychology. We perceive time in only one direction. We know the past, not the future. So the cognitive arrow of time, and the language we use to describe it, points in one direction. However, as we’ll see, that direction is variable. And since we’re using an arrow, something that points a direction in space, as a metaphor to describe which way time points, we should first have a look at the word arrow, and the arrow as a physical object, and see how it became a symbol, and eventually a metaphor used in both thought and language to construct our understanding of time.
The word arrow comes from Old English forms earh and arwe (which may have been influenced in form by Old Norse), which go back to Proto-Germanic *arkhwo and Proto-Indo-European *arku-. The curious thing about the root *arku- is that it seems to have meant bow and/or arrow. In the Germanic languages, like English, it produced words with the sense “arrow”, but in Latin it produced arcus meaning “bow”, which came down through French and into English giving us archer and archery, but also arc and arch because of the bow-like shape these words describe. The word bow, on the other hand, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *bheug- “to bend” because of its curved shape. The Latin word for arrow is sagitta, of unknown origin, possibly from a pre-Latin Mediterranean language, from which we get the word Sagittarius, the zodiac constellation representing a centaur with a bow and arrow. But we’ll come back to this word and astrology and other forms of predicting the future.
The bow and arrow is a very ancient technology. The earliest archaeological evidence of the arrow, which may or may not have been shot from a bow, was found in the Sibudu cave, located in what is now South Africa, in which were also found a number of other technological firsts, such as the earliest bed, the earliest needle, and the earliest compound glue. This arrow dates to about 64,000 years ago, but the earliest conclusive evidence of an arrow meant to be shot from a bow, shown by the groove in its base, dates to about 10,000 years ago. The technology spread worldwide (except perhaps Australia) and was widely used for both hunting and warfare. In terms of archery in warfare in the western tradition, it can be found in Greek mythology (Herakles and Odysseus are both associated with the bow, and it appears in Homeric battles), but by the later classical period, when formation fighting was predominant, archery in warfare fell out of use in many Greek cities, and was even associated with foreignness (for instance the Persians used archers). Initially archery wasn’t really a part of Roman warfare either, but later in the history of the Empire, the Romans gradually used auxiliary archers drawn from parts of the empire that did have a history of archery in warfare. And it could be said that one of the factors of the collapse of the western empire was the threat posed by the devastatingly effective mounted archers of the Huns. During the European middle ages archers became important on the battlefield but there was a class distinction: the nobility were knights, heavily armoured mounted cavalry, because maintaining the equipment for this, including the horse, was very expensive, and all the famous stories of chivalry involved the noble class of the knights, whereas the archers were of the lower classes (Robin Hood and his gang were outlaws so their weapon was appropriately the bow and arrow). But eventually the archers won the day, being the decisive factors in battles between the English and the French such as the Battle of Crécy and the Battle of Agincourt, made famous in Shakespeare’s Henry V, with the English longbow marking the beginning of the end of the age of chivalry.
Of course archery too became obsolete as firearms were developed, and this is only the briefest of historical accounts of the bow and arrow, which could also have included for instance archery in Asia or the Americas or anywhere else in the world. And there are places named arrow, companies named arrow, and vehicles named arrow, such as the ship Arrow which was detained in 1856 sparking the Arrow War between Britain and China, better known as the Second Opium War, and the Avro Arrow fighter jet prototype which was designed by a Canadian company in the 1950’s but ordered destroyed by the Canadian government in favour of US-designed fighters amid much controversy and even conspiracy theories. But we’re going to leave these aside and take aim at the arrow as symbol, specifically a typographical symbol.
As a symbol the arrow shape mimicked the shape of a real arrow, a shaft with a triangular arrowhead at one end and the fletching (the feathery stabilizing fins) at the other, but gradually over time the shape became abstracted and streamlined. There were of course precursors to the arrow symbol that served the same role of pointing to something, such as picture of a footprint next to a woman’s face carved into the pavement in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus in the first century CE: follow the direction of the footprint and you’ll find the local brothel. Moving on from feet, if fingers are more your thing, medieval manuscripts are the place to look. The image of a pointing finger, called a manicule from Latin manus “hand”, was frequently used in manuscripts to mark or divide sections in the text, a practise that dates back to the 12th century. Similarly the Portuguese cartographer Pedro Reinel seems to have established the use of the fleur-de-lis on the compass rose pointing the cardinal directions, north, south, east, west.
But the arrow as a typographical symbol really only dates back to the 18th century. For instance in 1737, the French engineer and pioneer of hydraulics Bernard Forest de Bélidor published a treatise called Hydraulic Architecture which included technical diagrams with arrows to indicate the flow of water in the machines. Interestingly, one of Bélidor’s other claims to fame was that he worked for a while on calculating the arc, that is the curvature, of the earth, and the word arc as we’ve seen is related to arrow. Similarly the German illustrator and engraver Friedrich Bernhard Werner began to use arrows to indicate the direction of the flow of rivers in his maps and illustrations.
And over time as the arrow symbol became more abstracted it could be put to more and more uses. In the 19th century English cartographer Emil Reich used triangular arrowheads along curved lines to show the movement of troops on maps of battles that accompanied John Richard Green’s A Short History of the English People. And in the 20th century arrows began to be used in logic and mathematical notation, such as German mathematician David Hilbert’s 1922 introduction of the arrow to indicate logical implication, and a decade later Albrecht Becker’s use of the double-headed arrow to indicate logical equivalence. And in 1976 mathematician Donald Knuth introduced up-arrow notation for indicating very large numbers. And in linguistics, angle brackets or the greater-than and less-than symbols can be used as arrows to indicate etymological relationships indicating that a word or sound developed into another over time.
And of course in this very video I’ve used the famed red arrow in the thumbnail, which popular You Tube belief has it will increase the views of the video (we’ll see if it works). So ultimately the arrow can be used as a symbol to indicate or point to something, to show direction, or to represent some other type of relationship that at least metaphorically has some sense of directionality to it. So let’s pause for a moment and consider the words symbol and metaphor.
Symbol comes, through Latin, from Greek symbolon “sign or token”. The word originally came to English with a religious context meaning “creed or religious belief” as the Creed was a “mark” distinguishing Christians from pagans, only gaining its modern senses of something that stands for something else in the late 16th century and of a written character in the beginning of the 17th. The Greek word is made up of two elements, syn “together” and bole “a throwing”, from the verb ballein “to throw”. So a symbol is literally “a throwing of things together”, which thus came to mean a “comparison” and therefore a “sign of whether something is genuine” or “outward sign”. This idea of comparison is even more evident in the related word parable, which comes from Greek parabole “juxtaposition or comparison”, literally a “throwing beside”. And fittingly for our purposes, Greek ballein is related to the Greek word belos, which means “arrow”. And from Greek belos we get the English word belomancy, which is a form of divination or fortunetelling using arrows. This was a common practise in a number of ancient civilizations including the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Arabs and the Scythians, and could be performed in a number of ways, such as tying possible answers to a given question to arrows and seeing which one flew the farthest. And this of course brings us back to fortunetelling again and that astrological symbol Sagittarius, so let’s take a quick look at the word fortune as all our arrows converge on the target. Fortune comes from Latin fortuna meaning “chance, fate, good luck”, which was also personified as Fortuna the goddess of fate with her Wheel of Fortune. The word fortuna is derived from another Latin word, fors meaning “chance or luck”, which seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European root *bher- “to carry”, a root which also gives us the English verb to bear and the Latin verb ferre “to carry”. So how then did a root meaning “to carry” produce a word meaning “chance or fate”? Well if this etymology is correct it would be from the notion of “that which is brought”, so then fortune would literally mean “what fate brings”. And interestingly, that same Proto-Indo-European root also came into Greek as pherein “to carry or bear” which when combined with meta meaning “over or across”, leads to the verb metapherein “to transfer or carry over”, especially in the rhetorical sense of transferring a word to a new sense, and the noun metaphora “transference”. So in a sense, the word metaphor is a metaphor, from physically carrying something across to metaphorically carrying over a meaning. And a metaphor is another type of comparison like a symbol. So finally let’s now return to the spatio-temporal metaphors I mentioned in the beginning, and see how languages talk about time by comparing it to space.
Because the important thing to realise here is that metaphor is not just a literary technique, but is in fact a way of thinking. This was an idea most famously pioneered by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By. We use metaphor to map understanding from one more concrete domain of experience onto another more abstract domain. It’s how we get around the problem of thinking about, and speaking about, abstractions. For instance we borrow from the concrete experience of space to think and speak about time. What’s particularly interesting about this is that different cultures and languages use different spatial metaphors to think and talk about time, a fact that in recent years has been explored by cognitive scientists and linguists, such as Lera Boroditsky. And as it turns out, that arrow of time can be pointed in a number of different directions.
For instance, if you were given a set of pictures that showed different temporal states, like say a whole apple, an apple with a bite out of it, a half-eaten apple, and an apple core, and were told to put them in order, if you’re an English speaker you’ll probably line them up in front of you from left to right. But if you’re an Arabic speaker you’ll probably lay them out right to left, so in this case it seems that writing direction influences the direction of that arrow of time, and this seems to hold true for many other languages as well. These metaphors may even begin before literacy, given that even pre-literate children are aware that the story in a picture book progresses from left to right as they are read to. But they don’t necessarily map onto other types of temporal thinking, or the language we use to describe them—for instance, we would never say that Friday is to the left of Saturday. Instead, in that sort of situation, in English we use a front-back metaphor when speaking of time: the past lies behind us and the future lies ahead, we think back on our past and look forward to the future: Friday is before Saturday.
But the arrow can also point vertically, as Boroditsky found. In Mandarin, the past can be viewed as up and the future as down. So for instance the “up month” is “last month” and the “down month” is “next month”. And when given the same task of ordering pictures, Mandarin speakers were much more likely to arrange them in a vertical column in front of them.
Now all of these left-right, front-back, and up-down arrangements are relative to the body of the person using the metaphor. So in English when we talk about the future being ahead of us and the past behind, we’re using the sagittal plane, from that Latin word sagitta meaning “arrow”. But there are in fact other ways of arranging that arrow without reference to the body, as Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby discovered. In the languages of Pormpuraaw Australia, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, body-relative spatial words aren’t used but instead the cardinal directions, north, south, east, west. You wouldn’t, for instance refer to your right leg but to your north leg. People who speak these languages have to always remain oriented in absolute space in order to use their language. And what’s more, this carries over into their temporal reasoning as well. When given that same task with the pictures, they would always arrange them east to west, mirroring the course of the sun in the sky, so a row running left to right if they were facing north, or a column top to bottom if facing east. And there seem to be a variety of other shapes and spatial arrangements for time as well, such as concentric, near and far, up and down hill, and so forth.
Now in English as we’ve seen, we're accustomed to talking about time in the sagittal axis, back to front relative to our bodies, with the future in front of us and the past behind. But this also isn’t the only direction that arrow can point. There are some languages that locate the past in front and the future behind, due to the fact that we know what has already happened, but can't "see" the future. This has long been suggested of Ancient Greek, with the word opiso meaning “backward” in reference to space but “in the future” in reference to time. A similar claim has been made of the Madagascar language Malagasy (according to Øyvind Dahl), and other languages as well. While there has been some criticism of these claims, Núñez and Sweetser very convincingly demonstrated that this is the case in the South American language Aymara. The nice thing about their research is that they draw not only on linguistic evidence of this metaphor, but gestural evidence as well.
And there is one last issue relating to our spatio-temporal arrangements: how movement is used to think about the passage of time. One can think either of time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, as in "the holidays are approaching", or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path, as in "we're rapidly coming to the end of the year". In English, both of these metaphors are available, though this isn't necessarily true in all languages. And it turns out, you draw on spatial reasoning actively, so that if you are already predisposed to thinking of yourself moving in space, by say going on a journey, you are more likely to think of yourself moving through time. This sort of thing can affect how we interpret ambiguous phrases such as the sentence "let's move Wednesday's meeting back two days". Does this mean the meeting is now on Monday or Friday? It depends on whether you are thinking from a time-moving perspective or an ego-moving perspective.
And as a final treat, I’ll give you a very brief sampling of my own ongoing research on spatio-temporal metaphor in Old English. The full story is much more complex than this, but for now I’ll just focus on a few words meaning past, present, and future, specifically forðgewiten, andweard, and toweard. Let’s start with the word toweard which in terms of physical space can mean “facing, approaching” or “towards, forwards” but when referring to time means “future”, so the toweard tid is future time, or in grammatical terms the “future tense” (though as we know, English doesn’t really have one of those!). The word is made up of the elements to which means more or less what to does today, and weard which means something like “turned toward” coming ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *wert- “to turn”. We still have that element in modern English words like northward, and of course the word toward itself. The word andweard means “physically present” or “opposite, facing” and in reference to time means “the present”. Literally it breaks down in to the elements and or ond meaning “against, opposite” and that same weard meaning “turned”. And finally forðgewiten is the past participle of the verb forðgewitan “to go forward or depart”, with gewitan on its own meaning “depart”. That prefix forð means basically what you would expect from Modern English, “forth” or “forward”, so the directionality of forðgewiten is perhaps the opposite of what we might have expected for a word referring to the past. Forð on its own can be used in temporal senses as well, referring in those cases to a future time, much like we would say henceforth in Modern English, or in compounds, such as forðweard literally “forth-turned” used to mean “onward in time, henceforth, or in the future” and forðgesceaft literally “forth-creation” used to mean “future state or condition”. Putting it all to together then, the future (toweard) is approaching or turned toward time, the present (andweard) is physically present or turned against time, and the past (forðgewiten) is the departing time. And what this suggests is that the metaphor being used, in these words at least, is one of arriving, being present, and departing. There are of course a number of other spatial words used metaphorically to refer to time in Old English, but this gives an idea of what is going on with some of the main ones. What’s important to note here is that the basic words used to refer to the three times in Old English are different from those in Modern English which are borrowed from French, ultimately from Latin, and are thus not native Germanic words. So this raises some questions: do spatio-temporal metaphors change over time as language changes, and if so how and why?
Well, I don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but as time goes by along that forward-pointing arrow, I hope to learn more — and I’ll report back!
So,when you think about the future, where is it? And are you moving toward it, or is it moving toward you? Let me know in the comments, and tell me what language or languages you speak and how they handle time.
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