Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Classic Mexican Timing

I’ve had time on my mind lately.  It’s caused me to think about some interesting colloquial expressions for time -- Mexico has some unusual ones.  In English, I could say, “We meet here, on page nineteen of The News’ Living section, once a week, on Tuesdays, and I hope to see you back here every week” -- all the while, thinking of seven days.   However if I were speaking in Spanish I'd likely say, "We meet every eight days" or  "cada ocho días."
If we were to meet every other day, I’d be thinking of the day after tomorrow.  I wouldn't say how many days that will be -- at least if speaking in English.  However, in Mexican Spanish I'd say "cada tercer día" -- every third day.  Again, counting days by including the day on which we are speaking as well as the day of the recurring event.  I have an English-speaking friend who thought it strange her dog's medicine was ordered for every third day.  Of course the vet intended for the medicine to be administered every other day.

English has a name for a two-week time period. We think of fourteen days when saying "a fortnight".  In Spanish we'd say "quince dias" -- fifteen days. Again, adding the day on which we are starting the count to the total.

So, to be consistent, if we were to say in Mexican Spanish "let's meet in three weeks," you would think we’d say, "Let's meet in twenty-two days."  But that would not be the way a Mexican would measure that period of time.  A Mexican would say, "Veámonos en veinte dias" or “Let's see each other in twenty days.”  Instead of including the day on which we start the count, as in each of the previous examples, it is as if we have left out both the initial day and the day of our intended meeting.

Perhaps saying "twenty-two days" would be cumbersome but it is my theory that "veinte dias," used as a time period, is a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican calendar element -- the veintena -- that slipped into Mexican Spanish.  Though not a pre-Hispanic word, it defines a 20-day time period in the pre-hispanic calendar.

Ancient Mesoamericans developed and used a vigesimal, base-twenty, system of mathematics.  It is natural and logical that their calendars made use of twenty as a natural grouping of periods of time, be they days of a month or longer periods.  With the exception of the year (not divisible by twenty), each named grouping of a period of time is twenty times larger than the previous period.   This is consistent with our calendar and the base-ten number system.  Our units of time are each ten times larger.  A year, a decade, a century, a millennia, ten millennia are contemporary divisions of time.

The Mesoamerican system for recording time made use of two calendars – a 365-day solar calendar combined with a 260-day ritual calendar.  Mesoamerican languages each had different names for the two calendars as well as for their internal divisions of time.  Haab is a Maya name for the 365-day solar calendar.  In the Haab there are 18 veintenas of 20 days.   The five extra days are “nameless” days.  It was not good luck to be born on a “nameless” day.   Tzolkin is the 260-day ritual calendar.  It, too, makes use of twenty-day time periods.

A quincena (fifteen day time period) is a common salary payment period.  Payments are usually on the fifteenth and thirtieth of each month -- days on which banks and supermarkets are crowded.  Cuernavaca looks forward to increased tourism income when quincenas are paid on a Friday (yes, people refer to their salary as their "quincena").  With money in their pockets, residents of Mexico City are much more likely to set off on a weekend mini-vacation.

And, of course, in the political world, the important time period is the sexenio which refers to the six-year presidential administration.  With no presidential re-election allowed, each six-year time period is easily remembered by the recalling who was president.  In people's minds each sexenio takes on the personality of the president in office making it easy to associate events with dates.  This year will be the end of one sexenio and the beginning of another.

I’d enjoy hearing readers’ time stories and anecdotes about time misunderstandings.  If you have other time expressions to share those would be fun too.

Nos vemos en ocho días.





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