The 747 of the title is not the well-known plane. It in fact refers to a Tardis-like craft that can jump through time and space. It was/is/will be named after the well-known Boeing airliner.

The jokey phrase "What is the past tense of 'to be' on a 747?" comes about because (a) everyone had a 747. It was the most popular travel box of its time. (b) because, when it was in vogue, time travellers were still grappling with ways of talking to each other about complex time relationships.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes about unusual English verb tenses that are necessary with regard to time travel. I suspect his intention was mostly to be humorous. However, I am wondering whether, when time-travel is customary, we will need such grammar in order to be comprehensible.

My Examples

Q: Where will you be tomorrow? (or perhaps, When will you be tomorrow?)

A: I will be in yesterday tomorrow. I'm travelling back there to locate my lost briefcase.

Q: Where did you go on your holidays last year?

A: I went to next week.

Q: Do you mean that last year, you went one week into the then future?

A: No, I literally mean that, back then, I went to what is now for us next week. By the way I saw/will see you there!


Are there limitations to the English language (especially verb-tenses) in a world where time-travel is a common occurrence?

Attribution The rather odd question at the beginning of the title was inspired by and came directly from a comment by @L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica, regarding a previous question of mine. What if the world is not real? No I don't mean a simulation

The comment made me think and gave rise to this question.

  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, we don't have access to the Chasly Time Machine, and therefore we cannot answer the question... As you know, statements about contingent futures do not have a truth value. Anyway, if you would truly like to invite speculation (which is a rather poor fit for Stack Exchange, but whatever), it would be most helpful to indicate whether you expect a technical discussion or not; at a minimum, state whether the question refers to real verbal tenses (of which English has two, present and preterite) or rather to the many syntactic constructions which may function as verbal tenses. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 18 '20 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - the latter. $\endgroup$ Jul 18 '20 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ Well then, insert this clarification in the statement. Without it, the only reasonable answer is "no", because English almost certainly won't suddenly start enriching its morphology after working for almost a full millenium to reduce it to almost nothing. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 18 '20 at 20:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @chasly-reinstateMonica Don't forget, clear communication involves two people. It could have been sheer chance I interpreted it correctly. In any case, I made an edit to the phrasing of the question, so it focuses more on defining the issue and less on the possible solutions (which are myriad). Feel free to revert it if it doesn't describe the issue adequately. But it's possible that they'll want to close this anyway because "define this issue further" might not be one of the x types of questions allowed here. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 19 '20 at 15:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm - maybe it's the title that's at fault. I'll change it slightly. $\endgroup$ Jul 19 '20 at 15:48

I think there's two questions here: when time traveling, what are the limits of what the English language can express, and how will people avoid ambiguity.

The latter has an infinite number of answers. English has two proper tenses and some auxiliary verbs, Chinese has zero, and other languages may have many more. Perhaps frequent users of the 747 will develop a system of prefixes, or extra verbs, or new tenses. All is possible, and it is hard to judge which system will be more likely to arise. I expect the first community of time travelers to have say in it.

But the first question can be answered. English is, like the human experience, predicated on a flow of time that is both linear and traveling in the same direction for everybody. As said in the comments, one way of dealing with one person's temporal hijinks is to treat the personal experience of time as the baseline for tenses, rather than the universal experience (which is no longer universal).

So, using that system, "I will go hiking yesterday" is perfectly non-confusing: in the future, you will go to the past, and go hiking. Conversely, "I went hiking tomorrow" means that in the past, you went to this tomorrow. "Tomorrow" and similar words are never assumed to calculate from any time frame than the moment of speaking, so that posed potential ambiguity feels unconvincing.

It gets more complex when not talking about one's own flow of time. "You went hiking tomorrow". "Went" from whose perspective? Either the speaker has been in tomorrow, saw the listener hiking, went back to today, and told them that they saw them hiking - an act which the listener may or may not have already carried out. But if "went" refers to the listener's perspective, then unambiguously the listener has already been hiking tomorrow and is now back in the today.

It grows much more doozy when it's the collective. "We went hiking tomorrow". It could be in the past for one person or both. Is this something the listener is still to plan for?

Now obviously there's many ways to solve this. A clever multi-dimensional calendar app can put appointments at various temporal distances from fixed dates - though I do not envy the programmer in charge of making that system handle daylight saving time. And there's also linguistic solutions in various forms. Talk at a higher pitch when discussing time from the listener's perspective, or prefix all references to time with the name of the person experiencing it. Or add more tenses. Go wild!

But in conclusion, the biggest issue that I think time travel appropriate language will need to solve is accounting for different people's temporal experiences and clarifying which experience is meant when discussing time in any non casual sentence.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nice answer. I'm still digesting it. One point though, when you say "I will go hiking yesterday" is perfectly non-confusing", that may be true but what about, "Tomorrow I will go time-travelling to today, yesterday." It starts to get a little difficult to disentangle. $\endgroup$ Jul 18 '20 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly-reinstateMonica I personally think that sentence is misconstructed. If you were talking about physical locations, it would read: "In Spain I will go to France, in Italy." If you wish to describe a trip of several locations, both times and physical places, you would need to divide it up, e.g. "Tomorrow I will travel to today, from yesterday." That would be the equivalent of "In Spain I will go to France, from Italy" - which is unambiguous, even if there is a step missing (getting from Spain to Italy). $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 19 '20 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, so is your answer to my question, "No, there are no limitations" and current language will suffice perfectly once we establish a few conventions. $\endgroup$ Jul 19 '20 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly-reinstateMonica No. I would say that there are limitations - the suggested system I described (treating one's personal flow of time as the base for tenses) becomes ambiguous for second and third persons. But this ambiguity can be solved in a very large number of ways. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 19 '20 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's fine. I never asked for any "ways" to solve the problem. I'm just asking if there is a need in the first place. Nice answer and looks like it will be the only one (not a bad thing :-) $\endgroup$ Jul 19 '20 at 15:58

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