I’ve been thinking about my watch a lot lately. Well, maybe not a lot, exactly, but more than normal.
You see, my watch has recently started losing some of its batons.
I’ll tell you now that I had to find out what the objects named batons were called. Most analogue watches have numerals, either Arabic or Roman. But some, like mine, have simple rectangular markings instead, and these are called batons.
I’m not sure why the batons started to fall off (I’ve just considered that it’s not entirely accurate to say that my watch is losing them, as they’re still bouncing around in the watchface). Well, age most likely, and possibly not the highest-quality manufacturing. But the really strange thing is that after one fell off, another quickly followed, then another, and just today, another.
When the first fell off, I thought I’d have to get a new watch soon, as without a baton it’d be difficult to tell the time. But now, with four gone, I’m not really experiencing any inconvenience.
Because of course, the hands are still working fine. After many years of knowing how to read an analogue watch, I can tell pretty much straight away what time it is from the positions of the hands. In fact, even with all batons intact, it’s not like I was looking at numerals anyway: I was still going by the general positions of the hands, and the batons were just useful for letting me know when the hands were precisely at a specific minute/hour.
It made me wonder if people with more traditional watches with numerals actually look at those numbers to tell the time (by the way we say tell the time, because the word to tell comes from the Old English tellan, which meant to calculate!). I suspect not, at least not after a couple of years.
It’s a little bit like a language really, telling the time. That’s certainly the case it you look at it on a grander scale. Both are about decoding a system of signs we have to learn/acquire in order to get meaning from these signs.
But then, my disappearing batons also reminded me that once we’re used to these systems, we quickly make shortcuts. Or at least, we don’t consciously go through all the steps required to create meaning.
With language, we jump automatically to the linguistic structures we need in a particular situation. And when we learn to tell the time, we know that when the big hand is at 3, and the little hand is at 6, it’s quarter past six. But pretty quickly, we read the time without really thinking too much about the numbers. And then we can get by fine without the numbers at all, as the specific positions of the hands become instantly understood.
And language is a lot like that too. We could be very precise and use very long utterances to convey our precise meanings. But we use abbreviations, we drop some features, we assume some knowledge, and we get our meaning across with fairly minimal effort.
Maybe the reason language is something that seems so easy for us to develop as infants is that we’re used to doing this kind of decoding in different ways all the time in life.
I just wonder what the linguistic equivalent of losing your batons is.