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It is often said that the language of science is an extension or refinement of the language of ordinary life, because scientific concepts, no matter how sophisticated they may be, must ultimately be explainable by means of concepts used in the ordinary experiences of daily life. This is certainly true for the scientific concept of simultaneity because the term “simultaneous” was used in ordinary language long before it became the object of philosophical or scientific inquiry. Moreover, the notion of simultaneity must have been in the mind of humankind even before its conscious articulation, for when at the dawn of civilization prehistoric man observed the stars in the sky and thought that they were where he saw them, he conceived the idea of an allpervasive “now.” In this conception his mind implicitly applied the notion of distant simultaneity as a necessary component in the mental process of distinguishing his self from the world that surrounds him. This does not mean, however, that he already possessed a distinctive verbal expression for this abstract notion at this early stage. The question of how he performed the transition to such an articulated expression is related, of course, to the general problem of the origin and development of language. C H A P T E R T W O The Concept of Simultaneity in Antiquity Concept of Simultaneity in Antiquity 17 Discussing this issue, which is still a matter of dispute, would lead us too far from our topic. We focus, therefore, on only a few metalinguistic remarks that are relevant to the notion of simultaneity. Particularly relevant to our subject is the claim made by Edward Sapir and his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf that “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.”1 In other words, the concepts and categories used by an observer to describe physical reality depend on the structure of his language, a thesis these authors call the “linguistic principle of relativity.” They claim that this principle applies not only to an advanced stage of intellectual activity but also, and most importantly according to Whorf, to the rudimentary phase of concept formation even in primitive civilizations. Whorf arrived at this conclusion as a result of analyzing various languages and, in particular, the Hopi language spoken by the westernmost group of Pueblo Indians of the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. This study showed him that “various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe.”2 This applies also to the notion of simultaneity . According to Whorf “Hopi may be called a timeless language. It recognizes psychological time, which is like Bergson’s ‘duration,’ but this ‘time’ is quite unlike the mathematical time, t, used by the physicists. Among the peculiar properties of Hopi time are that it varies with each observer and does not permit of simultaneity.”3 This constraint imposed on the expression of simultaneity relations is caused, in part at least, because Hopi verbs have no real tenses but are modified instead according to the length of time an event lasts or whether an action is completed or not. Because it lacks, in particular , the present tense by which the speaker of a statement implies the simultaneity of the contents of the statement with the act of uttering it, Hopi foregoes the most frequent application of simultaneity. Hopi is not the only tenseless language. The ancient Semitic languages, such as the Hebrew of the Bible, have only two modifications of the verb: the “perfect,” implying that the action referred to by the verb is completed, 1 B. L. Whorf, “Science and linguistics,” Technical Review 42, 229–233, 247–248; reprinted in J. B. Carroll (ed.), Language, Thought, and Reality—Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (Cambridge , Massachusetts: MIT Press; New York: Wiley, 1956), pp. 207–219. 2 Ibid., p. 216. 3 Ibid., p. 216 (emphasis added). 18 Concepts of Simultaneity and the “imperfect,” implying that the action is still going on. “Hebrew, unlike Greek and most other languages, possesses no form specifically to indicate date.”4 That this particularity makes it unwieldy, just as in Hopi, to express simultaneities can be shown by textual examples, in which the temporal relation of simultaneity is described in a roundabout way in terms of parallel statements.5 It also increases the syntactic-logistic...


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