21 December 2011

Language Confusion

In my previous post, I discussed confusion over the meaning of 'fasting', specifically whether it involves abstaining from drinking water or not. A friend in America, Judy Gilbert, wrote to me saying I was lucky I only had to abstain from water from 1 pm, as in her experience she was not allowed to have any water after 12 am.

Now, that raises another confusion: what do we mean by 12 am? Is it midnight or midday? I don't think anyone knows. Which is why many people prefer to say 12 midnight or 12 midday. (You may also notice that flights never arrive or leave at 12 midnight, because then nobody knows which day it is. If I say 12:00 midnight (00:00) on Wednesday, does it leave Wednesday early morning or Wednesday late at night? I believe that flights always arrive or leave at 23:55 or at 00:05, but never at 00:00.)

Anyway, it is interesting to note how confusing language can be, even in the absence of cross-cultural issues such as that involving 'fasting'. For example, if I suggest we meet up next Friday, when should you come? The Friday later this week, or the following one, next week? Nobody seems to know.

And here's another one: in the UK, if I invite you to tea, do you expect to have a meal or just a few cakes with a cup of tea? Nobody knows. And at least once my wife and I have had the embarrassing situation of inviting somebody for tea and then, after quite a while when they didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave, suddenly realising that they were expecting a complete meal.

English really is confusing. But maybe all languages are.

1 comment:

  1. The English language is a model of clarity ;) - the "m" in "am" and "pm" is "meridien", or noon. "a" is "ante" or before, hence calling noon "12am" would be a misnomer, literally "12 'before noon'". So the avoidance of 12am for noon is logical. (and using 12am to refer to midnight would only make sense in a 'countdown' system where "am" referred to the amount of time left before noon, but that's not how we use "am"). 12pm for midnight would seem to make sense.
    On fluid time categories, we can refer to (and think of) something happening at 3am on a Monday, as either happening very late Sunday night, or in the early hours of Monday morning. And 3 hours earlier, midnight is both halfway through Sunday night, and the beginning of Monday. The "Sunday night" interpretations look to be from an older system, the Monday interpretations from a newer one(?). Confusion, or flexibility? I agree though about "next [Friday]". The main regularity seems to be that everyone else interprets it differently from me.

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