23 Aug 2011

Space, time and language

I notice my thinking comes in waves. As you readers know, I often dwell on linguistic details but sometimes my mind gets temporarily bored with that and instinctively, it seems, my focus drifts to more generalized notions of things as if it were some kind of "learning sleep-cycle" until the next awakening. Lately I ponder on the interrationship of space-time and grammar which may come across as ethereal but is, I believe, not as frivolous as it may sound.

It starts with deconstructing something as benign as English infinitives. We use the preposition to in the infinitive to go, for example, and yet it's probably obscure to even the most able speakers why we should do so. This is where a broad experience in foreign languages leads to added insights. In Ancient Egyptian too, the particle r 'to, towards' came to be used for future tense as if time were "space". Proto-Indo-European *-i, the notorious hic-et-nunc particle used throughout much of the primary conjugation, is likely in origin a postposed version of the demonstrative stem *ʔi- and locative particle *ʔe 'here, there' which alluded to location as well as, apparently, tense (cf. the "augmented past form"). In other words, while we all know the difference between space and time, spatial morphemes are constantly being employed to describe points or spans of time without being terribly obvious as to why this is so.

I could go on and on listing example after example but it's quite clear that the association of space with time is a curious cross-linguistic tendency. It strikes me as ultimately subconscious because when we think on the meaning of "space" and the meaning of "time", we see that they appear quite conceptually different aside from being both a type of "dimension". Seemingly, space-time has been hardwired into our brains over eons of evolution. And yet why and how? It's as if Albert Einstein was merely the first to finally drag this subconscious association into the conscious realm only to discover that it's key to the riddle of the cosmos, both micro- and macroscopic.

It's as if the human brain merely reflects quantum topology in its thought processes somehow. As if the interrelationship of space and time were actually, in some crazy way, a part of our brain's computational process.


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