excerpt | time


it is a curious fact that most languages of the world do not appear to have a word that differentiates between the day as a period of twenty four hours (i.e night plus day) and the day as measured by daylight hours. while we count our days from midnight to midnight, the romans counted theirs from one dawn to the next; the greeks did the same, as in the homeric phrase: 'this is the twelfth dawn since i came to ilium.' caesar noted in his written account of the gallic wars: 'spatia omnis temporis non numero dierum, sed noctium finiunt.'  latin is a beautifully concise language, which is why it was used for so long as a cornerstone of education. english, though the most concise of the european languages, cannot match it. is it possible to translate caesar's nine words into any fewer than these eighteen english ones: 'they define all spaces of time, not by the number of days, but by the number of nights'?

that caesar should have been intrigued by this is surprising. most people of the world count by nights. the arabians talk about things occurring 'in three nights', as did their far distant ancestors who wrote on tablets in sanskrit. for them, the period of ten days is the dacaratra (ratri meaning 'night'). about the britons, the roman historian tacitus (the most concise latin writer of them all) managed to make the same point as caesar had made about the gauls, but added extra information and still managed to shorten the sentence length by a word!: 'non dierum numerum, ut nos, sed noctium computant' (they do not count time by numbering days, as we do, but by counting in nights') this custom has not been completely extinguished in britain. the british still talk about a fortnight meaning a period of fourteen days. the taiwanese, greenlanders, native american indians and many other tribes and cultures counted nights and not days. the dakota indians counted days in 'sleep-times', the kiowa measured the length of a journey in 'darks'. the reasons for this are not entirely clear, though it has been suggested that since the moon was such an important tool for measuring time, the night became one also - not an entirely convincing argument whatever the source, the practice of counting days from sunset to sunset is an ancient one. for jews and christians it is a tradition which has its roots in the creation, a tradition which states, according to genesis: and god saw the light and it was good: and god divided the light from the darkness. and god called the light day and the darkness he called night. and the evening and the morning were the first day.


waugh, a. (1999), time, chapter v., pg 68 -69

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