Clock-time expressions in the colloquial language: some suggested universals

Language may have special (typically dial-derived) ways of giving minute-precise clock times. It appears that in some languages, the only way to do this is in a purely additive way, with the hour and the minutes in a sequence that mirrors the digital time format: Thus, Mandarin Chinese has liù diăn wŭ-shí wŭ [six hour fif-ty five] for 6:55.

But many languages are like English, allowing subtractive clock-time expressions such as five to seven, or they allow fraction words such as quarter and half (half past six, quarter to seven). Colloquially, these are often still preferred to digital-clock-derived expressions (e.g. six fifty-five), but with the ever increasing spread of digital clocks, it is probably not overly pessimistic to say that the colloquial clock-time conventions are “endangered subsystems” (Wohlgemuth & Köpl 2005) in all languages, including English.

On the basis of a recent unpublished survey of more than two dozen mostly European languages (Wett 2014), one can venture a number of universals of precise clock-time indications (i.e. indications for times that are more precise than the full hour). Of course, these are quite speculative, because the data are not sufficient to be confident that these trends are not due to accident or language contact, but they all seem to have good functional motivations. By hypothesizing that they are universal, this post will make it easier for subsequent research to confirm or disconfirm the tendencies.

(1) Precise clock-time expressions always make reference to an adjacent full hour.

Thus, no language has “eighty after five” for 6:20, “five quarters before nine” for 7:45, or the like.

(2) Only the full hour, the half hour, and the quarter hour are used as orientation points.

Thus, one may have “five after six” (6:05), or “five after half past six” (6:35), and even “five before a quarter of 11th” (10:10, i.e. “five before 10:15”), as in Catalan (falten cinc minuts per a un quart d’onze ‘five minutes missing for a quarter of 11’). But “five minutes after” is never used as an orientation point, for example, so we do not get “two before five before six” for 5:53.

(3) The only available time measure units are minutes, twelfth hours, eighth hours, quarter hours, and half hours.

Thus, no language uses third hours (e.g. “a third after six” for 6:20) or tenth hours (e.g. “a tenth after six” for 6:06). Twelfths are rare, but are attested in traditional Erzgebirge German (“eleven twelfths to seven” for 6:55). Catalan is so far the only attested language that works with half quarters, i.e. eighths (mig quart de tres ‘half quarter of three’, i.e. 14:07-14:08). Half hours and quarter hours are widespread in Europe.

(4) When the half hour is used as an orientation point, the time measure is never more than 12 minutes.

Thus, a language may have “five to half past six” (for 6:25) or even “twelve to half past six” (6:18), but never “twenty to half past six” (for 6:10) or the like. Actually, I am not aware of a language that uses this normally for 6:18, but in colloquial German, it does not seem to be excluded (and 6:20 is commonly zehn vor halb sieben ‘ten before half of seventh’)

There are two different ways in which orientation points can be used: As cardinal points (“6 hours”, i.e. 6:00) or as time periods named by an ordinal number (“the 6th hour”, i.e. 5:01–6:00). Ordinal time indicating is well-known especially from Russian, which consistently has “10 of the 6th hour” (desjat’ šestogo) for 5:10, and so on. But it occurs also in German, especially with half hours (halb sechs for 5:30), though German does not use its ordinal numerals here. This distinction leads to another universal:

(5) Ordinal time periods are always full hours.

Thus, no language has something like “5 minutes of the 2nd half of the 6th hour” for 5:35.

In Russian, this system is quite thoroughgoing: minutes, quarters and halves can be used in ordinal indications, but in southern German, only quarters and halves can be used in this way. Other German varieties allow it only for halves. Maybe this is a reflection of another universal, given in (6)?

(6) If ‘minutes’ can be used in ordinal time indications, then ‘quarters’ can be used, and if ‘quarters’ can be used, then ‘half hours’ can be used.

A few more universals concern the relationship between addition and subtraction in the cardinal system:

(7) If a language uses only cardinal hours, addition and subtraction are used for continuous segments of the hour space.

Languages may have “10 past six”, “20 past six”, etc. up to a certain point, and “10 before seven”, “20 before seven” up to a certain point, but these points never cross each other. Thus, there is no language that uses “35 past six” for 6:35, but “35 before seven” for 6:25.

(8) Addition may be used more extensively than subtraction, but not the other way round.

Thus, Italian is said to use addition up to 35 past (le sei e trentacinque for 6:35), and to begin with subtraction only with 40 past (le sette meno venti for 6:40). No language has the opposite pattern.

(9) In systems that use addition and subtraction in a parallel fashion, addition never goes beyond +35, and subtraction never goes beyond -29.

Thus, we do not find “six and three quarters” for 6:45 in a language that also has subtraction (e.g. “seven minus 10” for 6:50). (Of course, in the age of digital clocks, addition becomes more and more prevalent, so one might get speakers that use “six forty” but “ten before seven”, but this would not count as a parallel system anymore.)

(10) Subtraction is never zero-marked.

Thus, “five twenty” can mean 5:20, but never 4:40. However, zero-marking can also be used for ordinal hours (so “half six” can mean 5:30), but this is not subtraction. (But it is true that synchronically, in those German varieties that have only “half six” but not “quarter six” for 5:15, one could say that there is subtraction. It would be interesting to know whether there are pure cases of this, i.e. varieties with German-style “apparent subtraction” and no trace of the ordinal system.)

Postscript: After I wrote the above, Bernard Comrie noted, with reference to universal (2): “Actually, in the pre-digital age in England we did say things like “it’s one minute before five past seven”, presumably because the five-minute intervals were “really” the smallest basic intervals, and adding anything more precise was like specifying seconds.” In view of this, universal (2) may have to be weakened, or rather turned into an implicational universal (“If a language uses five-minute intervals as orientation points, …”).


Wett, Annkathrin. 2014. Uhrzeitbezeichungen im Sprachvergleich. MA thesis, Leipzig University.

Wohlgemuth, Jan & Köpl, Sebastian. 2005. Endangered subsystems. In: Wohlgemuth, Jan & Dirksmeyer, Tyko (eds.), Bedrohte Vielfalt: Aspekte des Sprach(en)tods. Berlin: Weissensee, 177-186.

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Annotated corpora of small languages as refereed publications: a vision

It has often been said that the job of linguists working on a small language is not complete until they publish three major works on the language: a grammar, a dictionary, and a volume of texts.  This threefold result of extended fieldwork has been described as the “Boasian triad” (e.g. Grinevald 2001, Tsunoda 2006: 245), and ever since Bloomfield’s (1917) “Tagalog texts”, quite a few prominent (and not so prominent) field linguists published text collections (e.g. Heath 1980 on Nunggubuyu, Bollée & Rosalie 1994 on Seychelles Creole, Wichmann 1996 on Texistepec Popoluca, Noonan 1999 on Chantyal, to name but a few). Continue reading

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How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading

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Dictionaries as open-access databases: a vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading

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The necessity of grammatical structures

A great deal of digital ink has proliferated (I won’t say has been ‘spilled’ because that would imply it was done in waste) about the question of linguistic complexity, and whether it is possible to show in a meaningful way that some languages are more or less complex than others. After reading DeGraff’s (2001) and others’ commentary on McWhorter’s (2001) well-known article, ‘The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars’, I have recently come to reject the question as having any meaning, except perhaps in the impressionistic sense of complexity as being ‘harder for adult language learners to acquire’. At the very least, I have yet to see a precise formulation of complexity that I am convinced captures the idea that linguists are attempting to pin down, and since I myself have no alternative definition to offer, I shall refrain from using the concept until such a definition presents itself. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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Tanah Papua

[Note: the following blog post is about a specific and rather parochial issue of geographical terminology, but since it pertains to the region of the world with the greatest linguistic diversity, about which many of us have had occasion to speak and write, I thought it might be appropriate for Diversity Linguistics.]

I am writing this from a beautiful little town called Manokwari, in a part of the world that is of great interest to linguists, being located on the island of New Guinea where some 15% of the world’s languages are spoken.  However, within New Guinea, Manokwari finds itself situated in a region which, although clear and well-defined, has no straightforward way to refer to it.  Or, in other words, a place without a name. Continue reading

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The limits of curiosity

Talmy Givón in “Beyond structuralism: Should we set a priori limits on our curiosity?” (Studies in Language 37.2, 2013, pp. 413-423), answers the rhetorical question of his subtitle with an emphatic ‘no’. In addition to a proponent, he is an avid practitioner of unrestrained curiosity, a curiosity that leads him to a curious presentation of intellectual history.

The rise of structuralism in the social sciences in the early 20th century, with its two towering figures, F. de Saussure and L. Bloomfield, owes its intellectual roots … to a radical brand of empiricism — Logical Positivism — that rose at the end of the 19th century … In the intellectual climate fostered by Logical Positivism, Saussure (1915) elaborated the three reigning dogmas of structuralism (Givón 2013: 415-417)

The normal practice of historians is to presuppose that causes are antecedent to their effects, this limitation to curiosity it seems is not necessary within Givón’s teleological Weltanschauung. Continue reading

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Need and Have, again

Almost two years ago, I posted on DLC a comment on an article published in Linguistic Inquiry:
After posting, I was contacted by Richard Kayne himself, and had rich discussions with him. This encouraged me to turn the posting into an article. I co-wrote it with my colleague Anton Antonov, who discovered the other counterexamples in various languages (we decided to abandon the original Japhug example as it was too complicated to explain in a few pages). The article is now published:

This article would never have been written without DLC, and it shows that this blog can foster discussions between generativists and typologists.
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A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

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Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath’s (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading

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How typology has changed since the 1970s

Based on my experiences in the Stanford Universals Project in 1969-76, it seems to me that the substance and goals of language-typological research were the same then as they are today: the study of the distribution of structural characteristics across languages and in particular, the search for crosslinguistic similarities that are not due to genetic relatedness and areal effects.

The differences that I see are of two kinds: Continue reading

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Can language identity be standardized? On Morey et al.’s critique of ISO 639-3

Since 2007, Ethnologue’s three-letter codes for languages have had the status of an ISO standard for languages. This has considerably enhanced their status in linguistics, and some linguists now use these codes (which were primarily intended as unique identifiers for technical and industrial purposes) in their prose texts, as additional identifiers of the language(s) they are talking about. But at the recent PARADISEC conference in Melbourne, Stephen Morey, Mark W. Post and Victor A. Friedman launched a direct attack on them (Morey et al. 2013). It seems to me that this is a very useful step, because it may lead to a serious public debate of what it is that we can expect from a standard language catalogue such as Ethnologue. (Some discussion of the issues has been taking place in closed circles or small workshops, e.g. at the Leipzig language catalogue workshop in 2007, but this is the first highly critical voice at a major conference, as far as I know.) Continue reading

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On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd)

In his recent post on this blog, Simeon Floyd takes exception with my characterization of his 2011 Linguistic Typology paper as “asking a wrong question”. He emphasizes that the main point of his paper is to clarify what Quechua is like, not how to call the categories, and that in general it is not appropriate to accuse field workers (including field workers of the calibre of Marianne Mithun and Nicholas Evans) of universalism or even ethnocentrism, as I supposedly did in my 2012 paper on major word classes. Continue reading

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Do field linguists really ask the “wrong questions”? A reply to Haspelmath (2012a)

In a recent paper on word classes, Haspelmath (2012a) takes field linguists to task for asking the “wrong questions,” like whether the major word classes are universal or present in a particular language. The problem with this claim is that the field linguists he cites are not asking these questions at all. While they may advocate a particular best analysis, they do not usually make either explicit or implicit universalists claims (the main exception being Chung 2012 who says that her analysis of Chamorro “supports the claim that lexical categories are universal” (p1)).

My Linguistic Typology paper on adjectives in Ecuadorian Quechua (Floyd 2011) is one of sources portrayed as universalist, despite clearly stating that it does not “not take a strong position here regarding the adjective’s universality” (p27) and that the term “adjective” in the article refers only to a “language-internal word class” (p39). Continue reading

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Rethinking Ecolinguistic Diversity

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brian F. Codding and Terry L. Jones (2013) suggest that ecological productivity (how ecologically rich an environment is in terms of water, plant, and animal resources) predicts and partially explains the linguistic diversity of a given region. Many linguists have commented on the correlation between ecological and linguistic diversity, typically echoing works by Nettle & Romaine (2000), Romaine (2012, 2013), and Maffi (2001, 2003) on this topic. Indeed, looking at, it’s easy to see that linguistic diversity is most densely concentrated in the most ecologically rich areas of the world, such as Papua New Guinea or central Africa. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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