Time-Travelling Words

M.C. Corballis, ‘Mental Time Travel: A Case for Evolutionary Continuity’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (2013), 5-6.
T. Suddendorf, ‘Mental Time Travel: Continuities and Discontinuities’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (2013), 151-2.
M.C. Corballis, ‘The Wandering Rat: Response to Suddendorf’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (2013), 152.

Three articles, four pages: a brief exchange about whether the ability to travel mentally in time (to put oneself in future or past situations, to revisit events) is special to humans. The authors build on several earlier papers and deal with the consequences of new research suggesting that animals can do something like mental time travel. On the one hand, a case is made for a Darwinian difference in degree rather than kind: our journeys to future and past are scaled-up versions of ones found in rats, crows, and all. On the other, exponentially higher complexity and other considerations are the foundations of human uniqueness. Language, ‘which may indeed be uniquely adapted to communicating the nonpresent, including the outcomes of our mental time travels’, is one possible divider.
      Please forgive a moment of personal time-travel backwards. The notes in the first Corballis piece led me to the work of Nicola Clayton, and I remembered that my daughter was involved in a time-travel related experiment run by one of her collaborators in Cambridge. Aged about four, she played blow football and had to plan a future game. It was all very sweet and too. This got me thinking back to my own cameo in a psychology experiment when, as a student chess player (not a very good one) I had my taxed. If any readers would like to tell me about the research done on their brains, maybe I could do a special post.


Literature gives us lots of ways of thinking about mental time travel. Narratives can move from one time to another, in any direction. We get to see the effects of characters remembering, or planning, or prophesying, on themselves, and other characters: is the wider cognitive environment affected by the mental time traveller? Can there be co-travellers? An extreme instance would be ’s novel Albert Angelo. This has a hole cut through several pages so that the reader can, in effect, see the future.
      The thing I want to focus on, though, is language. In this post I want to suggest that in literature we often see explorations of the ways words themselves can travel in time. They are not just the means of reporting back; they are a medium in which time can be traversed, enabling but also constraining what humans can do.
      Macbeth says, of Duncan’s murder: ‘If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly’. Shakespeare works with the very particular ways that the English language creates tenses. If reaches into the future; between the it were and the ’twere the ’tis strikes a present note (it is); but the three instances of done propose something completed. Time is of the essence, and Macbeth wants to get past it quickly, so he posits a future present in which the terrible deeds are done… done… done in the past. I think when an audience hears these complex lines it’s a stretch to follow Macbeth in his time-travel; just as we’re feeling rushed, he says quickly.


But I don’t want to say much about Shakespeare in this post. I want to talk about a different time-travelling work and its language. Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape features an old man playing a tape of his younger self looking back on his even younger self. A full version, performed by Patrick McGee (the actor for whom Beckett wrote the play), is available on Youtube:

You may want to see it in its own window, because I’ve made it rather small, so as not to make too much of a gap in my post.
      The tape’s future is the old man’s present, its present is his past; the tape’s past is the old man’s past, but in different ways. Words trace these pathways with lives of their own. The voice from the past uses the word ‘now’ as a reel of tape comes to an end:

Here I end this reel. Box – (pause) – three, spool – (pause) – five. (pause) Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

In the timeframe of the tape’s voice the fire ‘now’ is anticipatory. He is prepared to do without happiness because of a creative force that will continue. But in the timeframe of the listening, older Krapp, that ‘now’ has failed to travel to a future; it is locked in the then.


Elsewhere another, stranger word has a more subtle place in time:

Back on the year that is gone, with what I hope is perhaps a glint of the old eye to come, there is of course the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late autumn, after her long viduity (Krapp gives a start), and the – (Krapp switches off, winds back tape a little, bends his ear closer to the machine, switches on) – a-dying, after her long viduity, and the –

The voice on the tape is musing on time gone and to come, but the listener is arrested by the word ‘viduity’. He has to look it up, finds out it means ‘widowhood’. And the particular linguistic time-travel of Krapp’s Last Tape grinds to a halt, because this word has taken its own unique journey through time, and has arrived incomprehensible. So, one thing that literature might know about your brain is that language is indeed a wonderfully adapted medium for reporting on mental time travel, and must be crucial to the special qualities of the human version of this capacity. Language is also travelling in time, and often it isn’t a smooth journey. Writers have been showing us about this all along, and I don’t think we can investigate mental time travel in humans adequately without learning from them.

J. Russell, D.M. Alexis, N.S. Clayton, ‘Episodic Future Thinking in 3- to 5- Year-Old-Children: The Ability to Think of What Will Be Needed from a Different Point of View’, Cognition, 114 (2009), 56-71.
T.W. Robbins, E.J. Anderson, D.R. Barker, A.C. Bradley, C. Fernyhough, R. Henson, S.R. Hudson and A. Baddeley, ‘Working Memory in Chess’, Memory and Cognition, 24 (1996), 83-93. It seems this was the first publication of two distinguished memory scientists: Richard Henson, the undergraduate friend who got me into it, now back at Cambridge; and Charles Fernyhough, author of the excellent Pieces of Light, who teaches at Durham.
British experimental novelist, lived 1933-1973; received quite a lot of press attention earlier in 2013 for anniversary reasons; see for example Colin Burrow’s profile in the London Review of Books, 11th April.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

2 thoughts on “Time-Travelling Words

  1. Andrew Zurcher

    When you quote from Macbeth, you seem to treat the three uses of the word “done” as if they are the same. I don’t think they are — quite apart from the pressure applied to them by the various moods of “to be” with which they are here presented in combination. In the first instance, the word seems to mean something like “completed”, whereas in the second it means something more like “finished”, and in the third it means something like “taken in hand” or, if that seems too tendentious, “performed, put in act”. You can undertake something, you can get it done, and you can make sure it’s quite done. These different feelings of “done” have different temporal aspects; in the first, that which is “done” is so completed that it will never move after, while in the second that which is “done” has merely been finished but perhaps may stir again, and in the third that which is to be “done” is still in the doing. These different experiences of “done” are modulated by “when” and “then”. So, in other words, to me they don’t just propose something completed; instead, the first proposes something completed-for-ever, the second something merely finished, and the third something doing. What seems most odd to me about this is that “when” is used temporally, but “then” is used consequentially (in correlation with the “if”) — and yet the interposition of “when” begins to attract a temporality to “then”, so that the word “quickly” comes to reflect a kind of rush from the potential of the protasis (“if…”) to a moment in time in the apodosis when one will be doing the thing. How strange, then, that the most completed “done” is the furthest in the future! — too far in the future for Macbeth to reach it.

  2. Raphael Lyne Post author

    Belated thanks for this, which adds another level of insight into a key line. Yes indeed, there are lexical nuances in play as well as grammatical manoeuvres, and this adds to the richness (and difficulty) of mental time-travel as Shakespeare (or Macbeth) imagines it in this case.


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