Relativistic Linguistics

A study in linguistic relativity.

English – as, it would seem, all human languages – assumes a Newtonian conception of space and time. These languages, and in particular their tense systems, postulate, in addition to three spatial dimensions, a single temporal dimension. These dimensions equip space-time with universally valid coordinates. The time dimension in particular assigns – or so we imagine – to every event a unique time value, valid for all observers. By comparing these time values, we introduce such notions as simultaneity and precedence; these emerge in language through grammatical tense, as well as through certain prepositions.

In the Newtonian model, all relations of simultaneity and precedence (which might hold between any two space-time events) hold independently of observer. The notion of duration is also well defined and consistent across observers. Finally, geometric notions such as length and angle are independent of observer. The Newtonian framework closely approximates physical reality when all observers travel at speeds well below the speed of light.

Questions such as the following could empirically test whether English presupposes Newtonian physics:

  1. Ben and Josh are twins, born on the same day in the same hospital. Ben knows that the supernova of the red supergiant KSN2011d became visible to Earth before his twenty-fourth birthday. Can Josh necessarily say the same? (No.)
  2. Was Ben really born first? (Yes – even under relativity – because our births were very close spatially. Sorry Josh.)
  3. Have you ever traveled near the speed of light – in this life, or throughout your evolutionary history? (No. Hence the Newtonian trappings of natural language.)

A Newtonian language ill befits communication between observers moving at speeds close to the speed of light. Continue reading