Goodness, is that the time?: A look at how languages name hours, colours, numbers - Hindustan Times
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Goodness, is that the time?: A look at how languages name hours, colours, numbers

ByAdam Jacot de Boinod
Jun 22, 2024 05:23 PM IST

In parts of the world, the day is divided into slabs. Words for hues are limited to just a handful. And directions include realms above and below.

It is reassuring to think that, even in a world of such sameness, there are intriguing differences to be found, when it comes to how languages distinguish one thing from another — times of day, directions, types of numbers, colours.

The Hausa (above) and Zarma tribes of West Africa are not known for punctuality, so the day was traditionally simply broken up into chunks. Through recent centuries, amid the rise of Islam here, these chunks came to be linked to the nearest Islamic prayer time. (Africulture / Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The Hausa (above) and Zarma tribes of West Africa are not known for punctuality, so the day was traditionally simply broken up into chunks. Through recent centuries, amid the rise of Islam here, these chunks came to be linked to the nearest Islamic prayer time. (Africulture / Shutterstock)

We may all agree now, for instance, that the day is divided equally into 24 hours. But that’s only because we are forgetting the other daylight math that our peoples once used.

In parts of Africa and China, for instance, the day is divided not into hours but slabs. Among the Zarma people of West Africa, one such slab, “wete”, covers the mid-morning hours between 9 and 10. Among the Hausa, also of West Africa, “azahar” is the period from about 1.30pm to 3pm. The Samoans use the word “afiafi” to cover late afternoon and evening, descriptive for the period from about 5pm until dark. And the Chinese have “wushi”, for the time between 11am and 1pm.

Why these slabs? What do they signify? Well, wushi is the “time of the heart”, when yang energy is believed to be at its daily peak. The Hausa and Zarma are not known for punctuality, so the day was traditionally simply broken up into chunks. Through recent centuries, amid the rise of Islam here, these chunks came to be linked to the nearest Islamic prayer time. In Hausa, these times are the “asuba” at dawn, “zzahar” at about 2pm, “la’asar” at about 4pm, “magariba” at dusk (about 6pm), and “lisha” at nightfall (about 7pm).

When it comes to hues, most of the languages I have encountered tend to have distinct words for black and white (the two extremes of colour that we all identify) and for red, a vital colour indicative of danger, toxins, violence and blood. Shades of green and yellow typically follow, chosen, I would assume, for their sheer ubiquity.

But some languages do this differently too. The Bassa people of Liberia only recognise two families of shades: “ziza” (red / orange / yellow) and “hui” (green / blue / purple). The Shona of Zimbabwe recognise four: “cipsuka” (red / orange), “cicena” (yellow / yellow-green), “citema” (green / blue) and “cipsuka” again (as the word also represents the purple end of the spectrum). In the Yele language of Papua New Guinea, the five basic colour words only cover shades of red, white and black.

When it comes to counting, the idea of using multiples of 10 is unsurprisingly pervasive; it probably came from ancient peoples all having the same idea: of adding things up on the outstretched digits of their hands. Some cultures, however, go down a different route here as well. The Ancient Greeks rounded things off to the nearest multiple of 60 (for their low numbers) and 360 (for their high numbers), while speakers of Old Germanic would simply use the term for 120 to indicate any large figure.

The Native American Yuki people count in multiples of eight and round off their high numbers to the nearest multiple of 64. Many Native American tribes count in multiples of four, as this number is reflective of the whole world being made up of the four directions of north, south, east and west. Others use multiples of six, as they add to those directions the worlds above and below.

Today, as satellites synchronise our watches and maps, no matter where in the world we are, it is heartening to think that these differences survive and persist, even if only in niche customs and rites, a periodic reminder that our diversity of world views is precious (and at risk).

(Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo)

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