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On the basis of a recent unpublished survey of more than two dozen mostly European languages (Wett 2014), one can venture a number of universals of precise clock-time indications (i.e. indications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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8 thoughts on “Clock-time expressions in the colloquial language: some suggested universals

  1. I can provide what seems to be a counter-example to universal (9): in Italian we can say both “le sei e tre quarti” (six and three quarters) and “le sette meno un quarto” (seven minus one quarter) to mean 6:45

  2. I was taught to express 6:55 as qī diǎn chá wǔ fēn, “seven hours miss(ing) five minutes”, in Mandarin, 6:30 with “half” (liù diǎn bàn), and 6:15 with “one quarter” (liù diǎn yī kè). I forgot how to say 6:45. 🙁

  3. My daughter, born in 1987 and a native speaker of American English, does not appear to understand subtractive expressions like five / a quarter / twenty to five, at least not without considerable reflection. This is doubtless due to the prevalence of digital clocks in her home environment (there is only one analogue clock available, and I doubt if she ever looks at it). I would not be surprised if in a few more decades the ability to use subtractive expressions was lost from AmE.

  4. A quick incursion into Arabic could have provided further insights. Eastern dialects have thirds: Xamsa u θulθ is ‘five and third’ (5 :20), xamsa illa θulθ ‘five except third’ (4:40). Western Arabic has ‘five minutes’ as a unit: drəʒ ‘step’, so xamsa ɣiːr dərʒ-iːn ‘five except two steps’ (4:50).
    It’s always instructive to see what happens beyond Europe.

    • Many thanks for noting this! It was precisely to elicit such additional data that I formulated the generalizations as “universals”, even though the data were of course insufficient.

  5. It would be interesting to know whether the relation between minutes and cardinal orientation points was expressed in the same way before the advent of superimposed hour and minute dials.

  6. Very intriguing! Also interesting is how hours and fractions of hours can be arranged either arithmetically (Italian sei e un quarto ‘6:15’, French cinq heures moins le quart ‘4:45’), or using temporal prepositions, in turn derived from spatial ones ( German zehn nach vier ‘4:10’), or spatial ones (some German dialects ‘viertel über vier’ ‘4:15’). Maybe there are other means, too.

    • Yes, there are quite a few further interesting typological differences that can be observed in European languages. But I didn’t find further universals. Maybe one could say that universally, the relation between minutes and cardinal orientation points is expressed either (i) by (quasi-)arithmetic expressions (and, plus, minus), or (ii) by temporal or spatial adpositions. It is only with ordinal orientation points that one can have zero (like German halb sechs, dreiviertel sechs)

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