Monday, September 30, 2013

Time flies.

A few weeks ago I saw Rachel Biel’s post on the TAFA-Forum for members in response to her friend A. Abdul Wardak’s poem on time. Rachel wrote something about trying to balance out everything by keeping a notebook, getting rid of clutter, and focussing.
Through these posts I was reminded of my former life as an academic - to be more precise, a linguist - and the research I was conducting at that time, on usage of the English word ‘time’. It was a large post-doctoral study in which I looked at more than 150,000 instances of the word and the context it appeared in, all of these instances taken from ‘real life data’. (They call that a ‘corpus-based study’ and it was all in vogue at that time.) I left my position at the university for personal reasons before I had completed that study, and decided I was going to something else in my life, so I can’t give you a concise presentation of the all-over final results it might have yielded had I just held out long enough. But I did find out a few things about the word ‘time’.
Please note: I did not find out the real solution to many people’s problem(s) with time as such, of which St. Augustine supposedly said that he knew exactly what it was as long as he wasn’t asked to talk about it. It was not a study on time management.
Anyway – the English noun ‘time’ is very frequently used in combination with a verb, and much more frequently so than in a phrase such as “the time is right to...” or “on time” or even “at that time” (which I have used above). The most frequent combinations in which ‘time’ appears (linguists call that a collocation) are the verbs spend, waste, take and have. In that order of frequency. So we talk or write a lot about how we “spend a lot of time doing this and that”, or that we “can’t spend a whole lot of time on...”. We are very much afraid to “waste much time”, or we “don’t have enough time to...”. And we are concerned with the fact that things “take (up) too much time”. We try to save time wherever possible. (I had not started looking at that collocation when I left, but I had written the four chapters on the most frequent collocations.) And we try to manage time. I wasn’t planning to look at that last combination in particular in my study, in fact, I don’t remember it appearing noticeably frequently in my data – perhaps due to the fact that the corpus I used had been assembled in the eighties and early-to-mid-nineties and the real obsession with time management came only afterwards?
These combinations tell us a lot of things about how we perceive time – it is a commodity, it has value, it is an asset. At least the western world’s thinking is strongly characterized by this conceptual metaphor (see  Metaphors we live by by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) of time as an important commodity that can be dealt with in earnest, very similar to money. Many of the contexts I found in my corpus were negative, either explicitly negating the verb (“I don’t have enough time to…”), or in meaning (“I’m spending a whole lot of time these days…”). We do not have a positive relationship with time.
Which is why we end up writing lists of all the things we have to do “by that point in time”, try to learn how to arrive at perfect self- or time-management. And still there never seems to be just enough of it to get all the things done that we would like to do or have to do. And never is there enough time to not do anything at all. (Which is the only reason why it has taken me several weeks to put all this into writing and share it here.)
Having done all this research, of course, does not guarantee that I am not prone to having periods when I fall into that trap myself. But I do tell myself to remember these results, and it does give me incentive to at least try and change my thinking about it all. We do have a lot of time – our entire life-span. Of course, we don’t know how much that is in terms of years, i.e. amount.
But what really counts is the quality we give it. One big help in this thing might be humor – linguists put it like this: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

And perhaps this approach by Amber Kane  is a good first step into the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly have given me plenty of food for thought with this post.