Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Timely Reflections

¿Qué hora es? Wie spät ist es? What time is it? This is how the three languages that I am familiar with ask about the time of the day. The answer to each of these questions is: Son las tres, Es ist drei Uhr, and It’s three o’clock.

I am a literalist, so I am not very good at translating poetry and aesthetic prose. I do things word for word. I also like to translate idioms literally and speculate how they may have come about, even though they may have come to mean something different in current usage. This helps me compare languages and the cultures from which they have come.

Take the expressions we use for telling time. In Spanish, they literally ask “What hour is it?” They answer that question, “They are three (hours).” When asking what time something is, they ask “¿A qué hora es . . .?” meaning “At what hour is . . .?” The answer to this is “Es a las ocho.” That means “It's at the eight(h) (hour).

Spanish-speaking countries are notorious for their lack of punctuality. The way they talk about time reflects this. When an invitation to a social event says 3 p.m., so long as you show up before 4 p.m. you are still on time. After all, the event is “at the third hour.” The third hour begins at 3 p.m. and ends at 4 p.m. So as long as you arrive before four, you are within the hour stated as the time of the event.

Contrast that to the German time expression “Wie spät ist es?” That means, “How late is it?” German-speaking countries are well known for their punctuality. They are always worried about getting somewhere late. Now there is another way to ask the question about the time in German: “Wie viel Uhr ist es?” This literally means, “How much clock is it?” Perhaps a shorter way of saying “How much of the clock is it?” In everyday speech it is much more common to hear “How late is it,” but both expressions are related to punctuality.

Interestingly, when they ask at what time something is, they say, “Um wie viel Uhr ist es?,” which means “Around (about) how much of the clock is it?” The preposition “around” doesn’t seem to lend itself to punctuality. The answer to this question is: “Es ist um drei Uhr.” “It’s around three of the clock.”

English is clearer on punctuality. “What time is it?”, we ask. And we answer, “It’s three o’clock. O’clock is a contracted form of “of the clock.” We use the same expression in the answer to the question, “What time is . . .?” We answer, “It’s at three of the clock.” There is no ambiguity with the preposition “at.” It means “on the dot” without having to say it.

Does our language reflect our culture, or does our cultural reflect our language? I’m sure this discussion could be developed more by examining more languages and how the expressions surrounding time reflect the way those cultures respond to clock time.

Time to reflect on how timely this subject is. It is timeless.

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