Archive for category World Building Earth

World Building Question: Do You Need Change With That?

While I’m working on something rather larger related to maps and the like, I wanted to switch things up and look at the coins you might have in your pocket. Specifically, looking at the etymology of the names of the four most common US coins. But first, let’s start with the general concept of what to call subdivisions of the dollar.

Cent. This comes from the Latin word “centum.” This is an oddly important word when looking at the history of language, as the Indo-European languages are broadly divided into two groups based on their word for “hundred.” Centum languages are those in western Europe, including English, and satem languages spread through Iran and India. This is a whole discussion that I barely understand enough to expound on, but trust me, that’s how linguists divide the Indo-European languages. As for the word “centum,” Latin pronounced it with a hard k. The French, as they did with much Latin, softened the k to an s. They also dropped a syllable. The word then came to the British Isles with the Norman invasion as Old English became Middle English. If anything the use of the word “cent” is a shortening of “percent,” which fits more closely with the original Latin. When we talk about ten percent of the population, we’re talking ten out of every one hundred people. It does make it a linguistic oddity, as the meaning of the word has shifted from hundred to hundredth, which is a demotion of four orders of magnitude.

Penny. Penny is one of those funny words, in that linguists don’t have a solid origin for it. It may come from a word that meant “token.” The bit of the word’s history linguists can track ties it to the German word Pfennig, the pre-Euro division of the German Mark. It’s a word that has meant a small-value coin for centuries, but no one knows quite where it came from. It passed into English, and is currently used as the name of the smallest denomination coin in several English-speaking nations.

Nickel. The nickel was named after the metal which currently makes up 25% of the coin. Have one in your pocket? Pull it out. Look for the word “nickel” anywhere on there. You’re not going to find it. Instead it’s a five cent piece. Through all its incarnations, the coin has never borne the word “nickel” only “five cents” or “5 cents” or “V cents”. In common parlance it’s also been called the “half dime,” as the dime preceded the nickel by 70 years. Being the only coin minted in nickel, it was a natural nickname, and this was in common use by no later than 1919.

Dime. This again represents the move of a word from Latin to French to English. The original Latin is decima pars, which meant a tenth part. Again, this was a Latin hard k. Again, French softened the sound to an s and simplified the syllables, turning the word into disme in Old French, which referred to a tenth part or a tithe. When a ten cent coin was authorized by the United States government in the 1790s, the legislation still spelled the word as “disme”. The s disappeared no later than 1837 when the first ten cent coin with the word “dime” was minted.

Quarter. This one’s easy. As minted, the coin says “quarter dollar” and gets almost universally shortened to just the word “quarter.” It’s the only of the four major coins that is named after the modern English word for the portion of a dollar it represents. We don’t have tenths in our pockets, or twentieths, or hundredths, but we do have quarters. Of course, we also don’t call the 25 cent coin the “fourth.” English has a colloquial term for one fourth that it doesn’t have for any of the other fractions represented by modern coins. Unless you want to count half, as in the half dollar, but that’s mostly minted for collectible purposes. The word itself does made the same Latin to French to English transition (quartus to quartier to quarter), but unlike “cent” or “dime” the meaning of the word survives outside of coinage.

Four coins. One that comes from a word that’s always just meant “coin,” one named after a prominent metal in its minting, one after another language’s version of its value, and only one based on the modern English version of its value.

So what? Why am I talking about etymology of coinage?

Language is a funny thing. I’m sure I’ve said this before in the WBQ series. The point here is similar to the point that I made when looking at the names of the months, or names of days of the week, things that feel like they should have a uniform naming convention often don’t. It’s just one of those things to keep in mind when creating a world. In human languages, uniform naming conventions usually denote recently created words. But disjointed naming conventions speak of a broader and richer history of the language and of the world.


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World Building Question: Where Am I?

Last time in the World Building Questions I talked about the differences between noon, 12pm, and how those two concepts evolved. In doing so I very briefly touched on Universal Time, offsets, and the fact that timekeeping on the globe centers on a spot to the south-east of downtown London just off the Themes River. This is Greenwich, specifically the Royal Observatory therein. More specifically, the line running up the middle of the front door to the roof peak overhead. This is the origin point for Greenwich time, and it serves as such because the British figured out Longitude at sea first. Which has a lot to do with noon. So there’s a fitting transition from asking questions about how we keep time on planet earth to how we keep directions.

Let’s talk generally about the ideas of latitude and longitude first. The earth is a sphere. That’s the first of several lies in this post, but it’s an extremely helpful lie.  Around this sphere humanity has drawn two imaginary lines and defined these as origin lines. One is the equator, the other is the Prime Meridian. Locations are then defined by how far north or south they are from the equator, and how far east or west from the Prime Meridian, given in degrees. On earth we call these two measurements latitude and longitude, respectively. Lines of latitude circle the globe, parallel to the equator. Lines of longitude run pole to pole, converging at each end.

The equator is a pretty easy and logical defining line, it’s a circle around the earth perpendicular to the axis of rotation where the days don’t really vary in length and equidistant from the poles. To determine how far north or south of the equator you are, whether at land or at sea, simply look at the sky. For centuries, ancient navigators have known which heavenly bodies to consult and measure to know just where they are in relationship to the equator. The problem is…once you know your latitude is 20 degrees north of the equator, that’s great, you’re somewhere on 19,250 mile long line circling the earth. Where on that line are you? What’s your longitude?

Longitude is harder to work out that latitude. There are no clear celestial signs for how far east or west one has traveled. The easiest way to work it out is through a clock. Here’s how. First you find a clock that keeps reliable time. Then you set that clock to 12pm when the sun is directly overhead. Now, start traveling east or west until noon the next day. Noon, not 12pm on the clock, I’m still being serious about that distinction. When the sun is overhead, look at your clock, and you know how far east or west you’ve traveled by the time shown. How?

Well, it takes 24 hours for the sun to circle the earth. A circle is 360 degrees. If you divide 360 by 24 the result is 15 degrees. So, for each hour that the clock is off, you’ve traveled 15 degrees of east or west latitude. If the clock shows a time before 12pm, you’ve traveled east, if it shows a time after 12pm, you’ve traveled west.

There you have it. Noon tells you where you are. Segue complete!

Alright, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not the math, the math is simple to derive. The difficulty is in that first step: finding a clock that keep reliable time. That’s not too difficult in the year 2013, however clocks of a sufficiently reliable accuracy are a relatively new invention. Clocks of a reliable accuracy that will retain that accuracy while at sea are newer yet. And here is where I’m going to reference A History of the World in 100 Objects, a fantastic podcast and audiobook and hardback that I’ve talked about on this blog before. If you’re curious about history, grab this! The 100 objects range from millions of years old to only three years old, presented chronologically. Object 91 is a ship’s chronometer from the HMS Beagle voyage that brought Darwin to the Galápagos Islands.

What John Harrison did was to invent a clock, a chronometer, that would go on accurately telling the time set in Greenwich, despite the constant movement of the ship and, just as important, despite any fluctuations in temperature and humidity. It was a great feat of precision engineering, but Harrison’s chronometers were pioneering, high-quality instruments, made in tiny numbers and affordable only by the Admiralty. Then, around 1800, two London clock-makers managed to simplify the mechanisms of his chronometer, so that virtually any ship – and certainly the whole of the Royal Navy – could carry them as routine equipment.

First Sea ClockThe image over to the right is one of John Harrison’s first clocks intended for use at sea, not one of the simpler devices that followed. It is the Creative Commons released image I could find.

So this is all well and good, there’s some nice math involved, and I like math. But why is the Prime Meridian where it is, and not one of the infinite other equally arbitrary lines of longitude? When I made that post about noon, I said that the Greenwich Meridian was the Prime Meridian “because an Englishman figured out longitude at sea.” I was London clock makers who perfected the ship’s chronometer, it was the Royal Navy that first used it, and they needed a point to use as their baseline when setting all the chronometers that would go on all the ships. So they chose the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

It doesn’t entirely answer the question, though, as it only explains why the British chose the Greenwich Meridian. Why did the rest of the world accept this meridian? Simple. They voted on it. In 1884 a conference was held in Washington, DC for the purpose of defining which arbitrary north-south line would be the arbitrary north-south line. 26 nations were invited, 22 voted for the Greenwich Meridian, and the motion passed.

Do I even need to say that the French were one of those opposing. They used their own meridian which ran through Paris, and kept it until 1914. Which means the Prime Meridian has been an international standard for less than a century. Which makes it slightly older than the full international adoption of the modern calendar, but puts it squarely on the list of things you might have thought were international standards longer than they actually have been.

One equator, one Prime Meridian. That’s also how we can know where we are on an arbitrary, but internationally agreed upon, scale of latitudinal and longitudinal measurements. Certainly we now have more sophisticated ways of determining our location, such as GPS, but it all comes down to clocks and the sun.

How do you know where you are at sea without a way to calculate longitude? Answer is, you don’t. Not really. Oh, the best navigators could guess by using a process called dead reckoning which relies on knowing three things: where you were, what heading you were on, and how fast you were going. If I traveled 50 nautical miles east-northeast, I can put a dot on a map 50 nm east-northeast of the dot I drew yesterday. Which was based on the dot the day before. And the day before that. It’s a series of educated guesses which allows errors to compound. Yet it brought Columbus to the new world and back again.

I’ll admit, while a fun transition from time to direction, this is a harder post than usual to come up with world building questions for.

I could posit a planet in tidal lock to its sun has an interesting set of non-arbitrary meridians. It has an equator, and it has the delineation between day side and night side. Since the sun doesn’t rise or set, its position in the sky would always provide an exact location on the day side. The night side would have to rely on purely stellar navigation. This is actually the case in Frederick Pohl’s book Jem, which has a “heat pole” and a “cold pole” instead of a North and South pole, representing the points farthest from the day/night line.

I could posit an uninhabited alien world. Would a human colony on a new planet use its first outpost to define a prime meridian for the planet?

I could posit an inhabited world. Would an alien race come up with another way of defining a point on their globe? I can actually think of one. Start with the equator around the center of the globe, then rotate it a given number of degrees about a set axis. A point on the globe could be defined by the angle of rotation and the distance from the equator. I’m not sure that makes sense as I’ve written it, I might try to diagram it if it doesn’t.

I suppose the world building lesson is that north and south, as we define them, are easy on a rotating body. East and west are a little harder. A society that navigates with something like latitude would need a way to compute that latitude, whether technical, biological, or magical.

Up next: how maps are centered and oriented (“Which way is up?”), and how we tell directions on a day-to-day basis, especially since we have two different sets of four directions we tend to use (“Is that my right, or your right?”).

Chronometer picture via Wikipedia user Phantom Photographer and released under Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike license.

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World Building Question: When is Noon?

This is a direct outgrowth of the previous World Building Question, and yes, continues the feature’s fascination with timekeeping that was only briefly interrupted by henotheism and monolatry. It’s a little harder to tie this back to world building, but I’ve got some of my standard questions at the end of this post. Next time I’ll find something else to talk about, I promise. That said, a simple question:

When is Noon?

To start answering this question, I’m going to take the computer programming route and define some terms first. This is important because people tend to think of “noon” and “12pm” as synonyms, but for the purpose of this post they are not. I will try my damnedest to be consistent.

Noon shall be defined as the time that the sun is at its zenith for the day in a given location. This is also called “solar noon,” but I’m going to simplify the term for this post.

12pm shall be defined as when a clock at a given location, set to that location’s time zone, reads 12pm.

Let’s continue now, shall we?

I brought up noon in my previous world building question that provided a brief history of the length of an hour, listed it as one of those clear delineating points of the day for a culture that uses the sun as its primary time telling device. Oh, that’s not to say it’s perfectly clear the exact moment that the sun is as high in the sky as it’s going to get, no big bright flash or bells going off, nothing like that. But it’s generally clear that, hey, the sun is pretty close to overhead.

Now, as to what time that was? Well, there was some disagreement on that. In modern cultures, with the 24 hour clock we’ve globally settled on, it’s close-ish to the middle of the day (more on that later). In several older cultures, this was true as well. Each new day started at sun-up and went until just before sun-up the following day. Of course, under this notion, noon would be about 6 hours into a 24 hour day. Some cultures considered the new day as starting at noon, so it would be 0 hours into the day. Some cultures counted a new day when the sun set, making noon about 18 hours into the day. These don’t make any actual difference, because things were getting done during the day, and all three ways of counting would agree on what day it is.

Today we count new days at midnight so noon happens 12 hours into the day at 12pm. Right?


For a time, yes. For a time when the sun was at its highest point of the day where you were it was 12pm, and twelve hours later would be midnight and the start of the new day. This held on for quite a while. Every city would have its own little mini time zone. In Boston it would be 8 minutes earlier than it was in New York, give or take. When it takes several days to get between cities, little differences of a few minutes in time don’t make a hell of a lot of difference. However when the railroad came around, that’s what things started to change. Which means we’re talking 19th century. Mid to late 19th century at that. What was called “railroad time” showed up in England around 1847 and in the United States in the 1880s. This evolved into the time zones we’re aware of today.

So what time is noon? Well, since an entire 1/24 slice of the globe is now on the same time, it can vary by an hour from one edge of a time zone to another. Except that time zones aren’t straight lines, they have bulges and juts that can create a wider gap than one hour. China, notably, has a single time zone that results in a four hour difference in when noon happens from the western extreme of the country to the eastern.

Then there’s Daylight Saving Time that throws everything off by another hour.

So to answer the question of when noon is. Today, March 21, 2013, noon in Washington DC will happen at 1:15pm. In Nashville, Tennessee and Amarillo, Texas, both in the same time zone, noon today will happen at 12:54pm and 1:54pm respectively. That’s a nearly two hour difference between 12pm and noon in west Texas. In Harbin, China, noon will come at 11:40am. In Kashgar, China, 3:03pm. The Kaliningrad Oblast, that little chunk of Russia that’s divorced from the main body of the country, uses the same time zone as St. Petersburg and Moscow. So while the city of Kaliningrad is almost due north of Warsaw, the former will hit noon at 1:45pm, the latter at 11:43am.

And so on.

Then there’s Zulu Time, aka UTC. Whatever you want to call it, the universal international time zone based around the non-DST adjusted time in Greenwich, UK (for various reasons that boil down to “because an Englishman figured out longitude at sea”) is where noon and 1200 hours are completely and forever divorced. Find the right place and noon will be at 0000 hours, or 12am. This is essential for organizations, like the US Navy, that need to coordinate on an international scale on vessels that might rapidly traverse time zones.

So when is noon? It depends on whether you’re on the western or eastern edge of your time zone. Whether you’re in a state or country currently observing Daylight Saving Time. Whether you’re in a culture that depends on rapid transit.  Whether you’re in a culture that needs/values uniformity of time for various transactions. Whether you’re observing a globally constant time. Noon as 12pm served humanity very well for an extremely long time. Now we’re moving increasingly into a society where the day is less defined as the sun and more defined as what we want it to be.

So what does that say about us as a global culture? What would it say about a global culture (either alien or future earth) that fully used UTC? What would it say of a culture that reached a similar technology as earth now has without any form of time zones or universal time, letting each city have its own slightly different time?

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World Building Question: How Long is an Hour?

Has anyone else been thinking about the nature of time lately? Two weekends ago we lost an hour, an entire hour, as Daylight Savings Time began. Today is the vernal equinox, the transition point where days are once again longer than nights. I know I must think about time around this point of the year, because it was almost exactly a year ago that I started asking these World Building Questions, and started by asking What Time Is It? I’m going to move back to my questions about how time works on earth. So we lost an hour recently, but what is an hour?


Cesium. For all your time telling needs. Can you see it performing hyperfine level transitions?

Alright, that’s an easy one. An hour is sixty minutes long. Each of those minutes is sixty seconds long. So an hour is 3600 seconds long. We know the length of a second because it was defined at the 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures, an occasional meeting that sets things like the international standards for metric measurements, and just how many yoctometers are in a yottameter (a hell of a lot). A second, per this SI definition, is “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the [cesium] 133 atom.” Whipping out a calculator to do the math, an hour is thus 33,093,474,372,000 of…whatever the hell they’re talking about with transitions and hyperfine levels. I was never that great at the applied sciences. As I’ll one day demonstrate when I crowd source some physics questions for an upcoming novel.

This is clearly a modern definition. An extremely modern definition. A definition less than 50 years old with a clarification less than 25 years old that “[t]his definition refers to a [cesium] atom at rest at a temperature of 0 K.” Cesium itself wasn’t discovered until 1860. And yet the human race has had hours for far longer than this definition has been around. For most of the history of the hour it was defined as 1/24 of a day-night cycle. Actually, this is a subtle lie. For much of the history of the hour, it was defined as 1/12 of the period between sunup and sundown. The period between sundown and sunup didn’t get hours because no one was doing anything during them, so who the hell needed to know what time it was? Night was divided, if at all, into watches.

Why 12? I covered that one when I asked what time is it? For those who don’t want to do the back reading, the short answer is “the Egyptians.”

As a side note: back in that post I said “Once a society becomes more advanced, it needs more granular time,” without really going much into it. I’m not really proud of that statement, as my wanderings through history in the last year have smacked down notions of societies as more or less “advanced,” which is really a modern ethnographic concept. To employ better phrasing, the use of granulated time, which flows from broad chunks of the day to hours to half and quarter hours, relates less to the “advancement” of society as it is to the ability to easily know what time it is while on the go. If you’re bustling around Rome and not stopping to check the nearest sundial, all that matters are the periods before noon, noon itself, and after noon. When you stop at a sundial, you could see where the shadow fell and know more broadly what time it was, but the same could be gauged by looking overhead. It’s not until clocks are visible from multiple points in the city, and the advent of portable clocks we call “watches,” that the person on the go could quickly have a better notion of the actual time.

So, alright, an hour is 1/12 of the time from sunup to sundown. This was thanks to those sundials, which started working every morning when a shadow first appeared and stopped working every night when the last shadows slipped into total darkness. There’s a problem with this definition, however. The period from sunup to sundown is not a constant. Here in the DC area the winter solstice produces just 9 hours and 26 minutes (by modern reckoning using the cesium atom) of sunlight. During the summer solstice DC gets 14 hours and 54 minutes (cesium) of sun. Dividing each of those by twelve, the length of a classical hour here in DC would be 47.2 modern minutes on the winter solstice, 74.5 minutes on the summer solstice. This is a significant swing. Playing this out over a modern eight “hour” work day, this would mean working just 377 minutes in late December but 596 minutes during late June.

Which is why it’s fitting to talk about this today, one of the two equinoxes, when the modern definition of an hour is as close to the classical definition as it gets during the year. Actually, this isn’t quite right as most of the world is today experiencing a day of 727 minutes, not 720, but it’s as good as you’re going to get. This is less the day where we get equal amounts of day and night, and more the day that everyone gets an equal amount of day.

Later hours were defined not as 1/12 of the daylight, but as 1/24 of the period from sunup to sunup. This wouldn’t result in 45 minute swings in time seen by the old definition of an hour but would still drift ever so slightly and require clocks to be reset a little each morning. Using DC from March 20, 2013 to March 21 as an example, on the 20th the sun rose at 7:11, on the 21st it will rise at 7:10, resulting in a day that is a minute short, and hours that are each about 2.5 seconds off. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you turn that into 22,981,579,425 of the cesium things.

So when did hours become equal in length? Not until the 1400s. Why? It took that long for the combination of accurate time keeping and a willingness to move away from the previous sunup-to-sunup definition. Technology fighting the momentum of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” just as it will throughout human history on oh so many issues. This technology continues to push forward, and we now understand that what we once defined as an hour isn’t necessarily a constant. But I’d rather not get into that, because I’m far more likely to say something entirely wrong. Or more wrong than the wrong things I’m sure already litter this post.

I like to bring these posts back to world building, so let’s give it a shot. We’ve seen how the hour evolved on earth, and how it was originally tracked thanks to sundials. The sundial is an intuitive piece of technology, by which I mean it emerged independently at several points in human history. So let’s take it out of the picture. How does time keeping evolve on a planet where the light is diffuse, say through a constant cloud layer? There would be a clear morning and dusk as light grew and diminished in intensity, midday could be intuited as the midway point between the two, but no clear progress of shadows would be seen. How would hours be divided by a species who has a sleep cycle that doesn’t line up with the planet’s day/night cycle? Would two clocks develop? What if a culture developed under more extreme cycles, such as those seen in Iceland where the length of a day swings from 21 hours to 3 hours?

There’s one more bit I wanted to go into, but I’m already over 1200 words so I’ll hopefully get to it later in the week. It’s the related, but interesting question: What time is noon?

Cesium ampule picture released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by the Dennis s.k collection. Find his other photos at his Wikipedia user page.

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World Building Question: Where’s Your God Now?

This is not a blog about religion. It’s a blog about writing and whatever else I want to write about. I don’t talk about religion on this blog. However, as we look at building a world and its society and cultures, it’s sometimes necessary to talk about talking about religion. Which is what I’d like to look into today. What is your culture’s religion, how did it grow, and how is it implemented? Primarily, I’d like to focus on four words: polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, and monotheism. If those middle two terms are unfamiliar, they were to me as well. They were coined by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and popularized by Max Müller. If you don’t know the words, I suspect you’ll recognize the underlying notions.

First, let’s back up and acknowledge our societal biases. That’s really an essential starting point. Most of the readers of this blog, whatever their individual beliefs, come from societies where most religious adherents are monotheistic. As such, we tend to think of religions as existing in one of two primary states: monotheistic and polytheistic. These western biases also push us towards the idea that monotheism is somehow more socially evolved. We call a lot of polytheistic religions “pagan,” lumping them together under that one broad term that really is a catch word that comes out of Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

In a way I’m going to pile on with that cultural bias by talking about moving from polytheism to monotheism. This is not to imply it’s the correct direction. However, it does represent the direction early adherents of what became the three major Abrahamic faiths moved, and presents a wider range of options when we’re determining just what the societies and characters we build believe and why. This is also all deistic religion, religions with gods. Religions surrounding shamanism or spirits will have to wait for some other time.

One last bit of ass covering. I’m going to talk about these things in the context of the Greek gods. This does not mean that the Greeks went under the stages that I’m presenting, only that I’m choosing a recognizable pantheon for hypothetical examples.

Wow. Alright, three hundred words in, and I feel my ass now sufficiently covered against a theological flame war in my comments. So let’s look at the four stages of divinity.

Polytheism. Most people have a handle on this stage. This is the Greek pantheon. Today is a beautiful day so I will offer my thanks to Zeus. Tomorrow I undergo a sea voyage, and so I will sacrifice a goat to Poseidon. My nation is at war, and so I will entreat Ares to see our armies to victory. Under polytheism there are multiple gods, often with a patronage system defining which god oversees which aspect of life or the world. There is often a hierarchy within these gods that includes power struggles and politics, and frequently a family tree. It’s important to note that a polytheistic individual is not just acknowledging multiple gods, but is actively worshiping multiple gods. This is an important distinction as we move through the categories.

Henotheism. Here things are getting a little more specific. A henotheistic adherent to the old Greek gods would acknowledge the entire pantheon, and even that it’s appropriate for others to worship their choice of god or gods within that pantheon. But with Henotheism we’re getting into a dedicated cult of Athena. Henotheistic individuals or societies will choose just one god within a broader pantheon to worship, forsaking all other gods. They may still recognize the hierarchy of gods within the pantheon, and the validity of worshiping these other deities, but they are devoted only to their individual god of choice.

Monolatry. Now we’re moving one step further. I have formed a cult of Athena, and while I recognize that Athena is just one of a multitude of gods, I believe that she is the only god anyone should worship. We’re now moving into a territory where the individual is no longer respectful of the choices of others to worship the god or gods of their choice. Sure, there are other gods out there, but only the worship of my particular god is the true way towards religious enlightenment.

Monotheism. Last step along the path. Not only is the worship of my god the only true way towards religious enlightenment, my god is the only god. No others exist. Any other proclaimed “god” is falsely divine or an idol.

Looking at this broadly, it’s likely that a society as a whole (assuming religious uniformity) is going to be polytheistic or monotheistic. However, individuals within a polytheistic society have the potential of being henotheistic or monolatristic. The best example that comes to mind is Dungeons and Dragons. The society as a whole is polytheistic, there is a very clear pantheon of gods who frequently have direct interaction with the people of the world. However, most characters with a divine build tend to be either henotheistic or monolatristic, depending on the heat of their particular religious fervor.

I’d like to briefly acknowledge one other deistic option. Monism. Monism is an odd duck. From the inside the religion is monotheistic, from the outside it appears polytheistic. This is the view, as typified by Hinduism, that there are multiple divine forms or avatars, but that they are all aspects of one god.

Clearly things can get more complex as the writer desires. There are examples within human experience that hybridized polytheism and monism. Which is to say that there is a vast pantheon of gods, and that some of these gods (Zeus is an actual example this time, not a hypothetical one) may take multiple, distinct forms. Religion is far more complex concept than these five terms. Theologians far more knowledgeable than I have had extensive debates about whether Christianity is strictly monotheistic, or if it represents monism or monolatry. I’m not having that debate here or now. I’m merely presenting these terms as a fantastic place to start when determining the beliefs of your society writ large or your individual characters.

During most of the history of religion in western civilization, movement trended down the chart. This isn’t to say societies only move in one direction. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV moved the society from a henotheistic or monolatristic worship of the sun god Aten and pushed for monotheism, but his son Tutankhamen returned the pantheon and reasserted Egypt’s polytheism. However, the general momentum towards monotheism means that most radicals within societies were the ones that pushed in that direction. Even in the case of King Tut, he only reasserted an existing pantheon. We are now so accustomed to a monotheism that I’m not sure we would know as a society where to move if we were to return to polytheism. Ignoring that the path of western society, if it is moving at all, is from monotheism to atheism, trying to imagine a monotheistic society where polytheism is reemerging is intriguing. If western culture moved back up the scale, recognizing first the existence, then validity, of gods beyond the God of Abraham, what would that look like? Would it be an old pantheon reasserting itself into society, or a new pantheon being crafted? Does it grow out of the veneration of saints? These are the questions just within Judeo-Christian society.

Within your society, what would cause movement in the “wrong” direction on the course “towards” monotheism? What, if anything, maintains the status quo? Who are the renegades? The zealots?

If religion is going to be a core within your society, these are all important questions to ask and have answers for. Even if religion isn’t going to be a core issue of the story, if your society does follow a deistic religion, it’s important to at least have a notion of where it fits within categories, or how it straddles or breaks with categories.

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World Building Question: What Year is it?

Yes, it’s time for the standard question of the amnesic or accidental time traveler.  A year, like a day, tends to have an astronomical definition, the length of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun.  Roughly 365.25 days, though not exactly, which is why leap years in the Gregorian calendar happen every four years, except years divisible by 100, unless they’re also divisible by 400.  1900 wasn’t a leap year, 2000 was, 2100 won’t be.

How to number those years?  That’s a little more arbitrary.  Except that it’s not.  Calendar makers tend to pick a point in time as significant enough to be Year 1 and continue from there.  This shows up in both fantasy and science fiction, as a common trope of future civilizations is they do not continue to use the Gregorian calendar.  The advantage here is apparent when we read books like 2001 or 2010.  A ship clearly did not travel to Jupiter and/or Saturn eleven years ago, and I certainly don’t remember Jupiter igniting into the new sun Lucifer two years ago.  Resetting the calendar avoids the problem of reality catching up to the dates set aside in our science fiction.

So…that was easy.  The current year is the number of times the earth has gone around the sun since a significant event in a culture’s history, called Epoch dates.  Unless we’re talking about a purely lunar calendar, like the Islamic calendar discussed last time.  The question becomes: what is a significant enough date?

Many calendars, including the predominant Gregorian calendar, pick a religious date.  Jewish tradition counts the years since the creation of the world, as does the Byzantine calendar, though the years are different in each.  Christian tradition counts the years since the birth of Christ, plus four years for incorrect math.  Islamic tradition counts the lunar years after the Hijra to Medina.  Some calendars, such as the pre-Julian Roman calendar, track the years since the founding of the culture.  Some cultures, such as ancient Rome or modern England, maintain a calendar that starts over with the rise of the new king, queen, or emperor.  There are even calendars that don’t traditionally number years, such as the Chinese calendar.  Any attempt to determine an Epoch year for the Chinese calendar is largely from an external force.

So we’ve got three major questions when it comes to determining epochs and current years.

  1. Does your culture even have an epoch?  Are years numbered at all?
  2. What significant event determined the epoch?
  3. Does the culture recognize negative years.

That third one is important.  In a calendar such as the Hebrew or Byzantine calendar, intended to count the years since the beginning of time, negative years are meaningless.  In a calendar such as the Christian/Gregorian or Islamic calendar, intended to count the years since a historic event, each has a notation for years before that event.  Regency calendars would restart with each king or emperor, so wouldn’t have negatives but would have multiple year ones.

Oh, and an interesting fourth question that can be as important as you want it to be: Is there a Year 0?  Which can be tied to the next question: Is there a number 0?  Which is far too important of a question to go into right now.

This all works fantastically on earth, where we have three astronomical points of reference that are vastly different from each other: the length of a day, the cycles of a single large moon, and the time it takes the planet to orbit the sun.  In our own solar system we see planets that would destroy any of these.  To make things clear, I’ll use “day” to mean rotation and “year” an orbit of the sun.  On Venus a year is just under two days long.  On Mercury a day is twice as long as a year.  Calendars developed on these planets would be vastly different to ones developed on earth.

Alright, I’ve focused this series almost entirely on time keeping.  Which is an interesting subject, but now quite exhausted.  Next up, directions, looking at the way most people overlay two-dimensional directions with three-dimensional directions.


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World Building Question: What month is it?

Didn’t it feel like March just sailed by?  Isn’t it nice we’ve been having a temperate Ēostur-mōnaþ thus far? Am I the only one worried we’re going to have a viciously hot მკათათვე?  I’ve been working my way through periods of time with these world building questions, and it’s time to move from hours to weeks and now to months.  We skipped one unit of time that’s directly observable, the day, but we’re going to stop here on another that’s theoretically observable, the month.  I say theoretically as we’ve diverged slightly from the origins of the month, but that’s already getting ahead of ourselves.

Months are roughly based on moon cycles.  The period from full moon to full moon is roughly 29.5 days, and tracking the lunar cycle dates to at least the Paleolithic era.  This means that the concept of the month as a period of time is roughly as old as humanity’s concept of tracking time.  However, the idea of a month gets complicated as soon as we divide 365.25 by 29.5 and wind up with 12.4.  That is to say a year cannot be evenly divided into months as long as months are tied to lunar cycles, and a month tied to lunar cycles is going to be as off-center compared to the year as weeks are compared to months.  So what do we do?  On earth there are three answers: lunar calendars that will drift compared to the seasons, lunisolar calendars that add what we might call “leap months” to even everything out, and solar calendars that decouple months from lunar cycles.

Lunar calendars, such as the Islamic calendar, define a year as 354-355 days or 12 synodic lunar cycles (there are five lengths of lunar months that I’m not going to cover because, frankly, I don’t understand them).  The major effect of this is a drifting of Islamic holidays when compared to the Gregorian calendar.  Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of fasting, cycles backwards through the Gregorian calendar in roughly 34 year cycles.

Lunisolar calendars base the length of a month around the same synodic cycle, but make an attempt to adjust to the period of a year by providing extra days built in when needed.  In keeping with our religious calendar theme, the best known of these lunisolar calendars is the Hebrew calendar which adds an extra month to seven of the years in a 19 year cycle.  This is why, while Ramadan begins roughly 11 days earlier every year, Hanukkah reliably falls during the Gregorian month of December, though does shift between the beginning and end of the month.

Solar calendars are what most people reading this post are accustomed to.  The Gregorian/Christian calendar is solar.  Notice a trend, three major Abramic faiths, three majors calendar types?  I suspect an ethnographic study could be made of why the religions each chose the type of calendar they did, but this isn’t about ethnography.  The Gregorian calendar is, let’s face it, a mess.  But it’s a mess in the kind of way that fascinates me for world building, because it shows how different influences shape simple things.  Some highlights:

  • A significantly shorter month, which used to be the last month and thus had its length determined by how much time was needed to catch up to the solar year.  This is why leap days are still applied to February.
  • Four months named after an older calendar order, thus September thru December, the 9th through 12th months, have names that mean “7th Month,” “8th Month,” “9th Month,” and “10th Month.”  January and February were the 11th and 12th months.
  • Four months are named after gods (January, March, May, and June), two after emperors (July and August) and one month’s etymology is lost to time (April).

Random side note observation: with both hours and weeks we saw an attempt to decimalize them during the French Republic period.  Months?  They were fine with 12 of them, though of 30 days each with 5-6 bonus days at the end of the year, similar to the Mayan Wayeb’.

I’d normally be digging more into the origins of months, but here’s the thing.  Months are potentially a very human thing.  Many cultures independently came up with them, because the cycles of the moon are very obvious to the naked eye.  It’s the only object in the night sky that changes so dramatically.  And there’s just the one of it.  So if you’re world building a fictional civilization that’s earth based, they’ll probably have some concept of months, with the question being whether the calendar is Lunar, Lunisolar, Solar, or whether they keep both a solar calendar and a ceremonial lunar or lunisolar calendar, as the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar requires of practitioners of the Islamic and Jewish faiths.

Things become more troublesome when world building for a species not based on earth.  There are more variables to consider.  Is there a single frame of reference for a longer period of time, something between a day and a year?  Does it line up evenly with a year?  Do the locals care?  If there’s no obvious astrological point of reference, is the year subdivided in some other way?  By seasons?  Arbitrarily?  Mayans had 20 day months in their calendar tied to the solar year, chosen to evenly divide the year rather than tracking lunar phases.  Are there two moons and a complex series of calendars that include a solar calendar, prime-lunar calendar and secondary-lunar calendar?  Why do I think that last one would be fun to work out?  Just what would happen to a culture that had a strong lunar tradition if something catastrophic happened to their moon?  Why am I putting so many story ideas I want to use in these questions?

Let’s do the reverse world building wrap-up.  On my planet called earth, they have a moon that dominates the night sky, and goes through 29-ish day cycles.  They’ve long used these cycles as a unit of time, and now have calendars based roughly on the cycles, though with some fudging to keep up with the length of a year.

Some of the upcoming questions (and the intended topics) for this series:  What year is it (how years are numbered and when do they start)?  What’s for lunch (eating and mealtimes)?  Which way is the restaurant (directions)?

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World Building Question: What Day Is It?

Subtitle: Is It Friday Yet?

Most of the time periods we track on earth make sense.  Years are based on how long it takes the earth to go around the sun.  Months originated with moon cycles.  Days are based on the rising and setting of the sun.  These are all observable periods of time, and showed up in isolated cultures.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t talk about years and months while reverse world building the earth, but they’re not what I’m talking about in this post.  Here I want to focus on that period that falls between months and days, and is far more arbitrary and interesting.  We’re talking about weeks.

Weeks are strange.  They’re arbitrary seven day chunks that bridge across the ends and beginnings of months and years.  A year is made up of fifty-two of them, with one or two days left over.  Most months are made up of just over four of them.  It would be more apparently logical to consider a week to be five days, after all that divides evenly into the 365 days of a year (yes yes, leap years, that’s for another day).  We saw from talking about the number of hours in a day that the ancients tended towards base twelve counting, with sixty as a significant number, so we might reasonably expect a twelve day week.  But we have seven.

Medieval Lithuanian calendar with 9-day week.

Looking at the seven day week is already getting ahead of ourselves, as it takes something for granted.  Why have a week at all?  I’ve been looking into that question, and have yet to find a satisfying answer to it.  The week appears to be entirely an invention of contrivance.  They appeared in several cultures because it was helpful to have a period of time longer than a day but shorter than a month, and because it’s nice to have a way to break a calendar into columns.  They ranged in length from three days in ancient Basque tradition to ten days in ancient Egypt.  Sometimes they evenly divided months, sometimes they didn’t.

The standardization on a seven day week world wide is tied to the same reasons why this is the year 2012 and why our calendar is named after a Pope.  It all has to do with the strength of the Christian tradition when it made sense to standardize such things.  To sum up: today we have a seven day week because the early Christians had a seven day week, because they used the same origin stories as the Jews, who likely got their idea of a seven day week from the Babylonians.  So where did the Babylonians get seven days from?  Lunar cycles.  Look at a calendar that shows moon phases, and you’ll see for the most part they line up in a single row.  This doesn’t exactly work, so the Babylonians tended to follow three seven day weeks with an eight or nine day week to keep things in phase with the moon.  Judaism standardized seven days to every week in the Genesis creation story, the earliest culture I could find that used seven days for every week.

Seven took awhile to take hold.  On the right is a calendar from medieval Lithuania with a nine day week.  During the French Revolution, at the same time they were playing with decimal time, they also briefly observed a ten day week.  As recently as the 20th Century in the Soviet Union five and six day weeks were implemented.  So it’s only been since the 1940s that all major world powers have agreed on a seven day week, and even then there’s disagreement about what day a week starts on.

So now we’ve got a week, but that doesn’t answer our opening question.  What day is it?  We’ve got handy labels at the top of the columns on our calendars, where do the names come from?  Well…it depends on where your language came from.

If you’re speaking a Romance language, then the days of the week come from the seven classical planets.  Thus they days of the week were named, in order, for the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.  Five of these seven are still prevalent in Spanish: Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, and Viernes.  The weekend has been renamed to reflect Jewish and Christian tradition, with Saturday named for the Jewish Sabbath (Sabado), and Sunday named God’s Day (Domingo).  This renaming of the weekend is common in the romance languages.

Not a recommended way to celebrate Thor's Days.

The Germanic languages, English included, largely did the opposite.  Our weekends are still given to Saturn and the Sun.  Monday is still the Moon’s day.  The rest of the names reflect the Norse influence on the Germanic tongues, with days belonging to the gods Tiw, Wodan, Thor, and Frig.  These days of the week represent the largest influence that Norse mythology still holds over modern culture, so prevalent that we might not always remember these origins.

One more question while I’m talking about weeks: Is it the weekend yet?  We have the fifth commandment to thank for that.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a proscription against working on the day that God rested after creating the world.  We get two days instead of one because Jewish tradition has a Saturday sabbath, Christian tradition holds to Sunday.

To think, if they agreed on this issue, we’d possibly have a six-day workweek.  So three cheers for theological disagreements.

Weekends are not uniform across cultures.  In most of the western world they fall on Saturday and Sunday, because those are the days that several major industrial powers shut down.  However in Islamic nations, where a majority of the population holds Friday as a holy day, Thursday-Friday or Friday-Saturday weekends are more common, and some observe a six-day workweek with only Friday taken off.  The oddest outlier is the tiny nation of Brunei which has a split weekend, taking Friday and Sunday off, but working Saturday.

Time to bring this all back and look at this from a world building perspective.  Here on my fictional planet called “Earth” there has long been an agreement that a subdivision of time between the day and the month is logical.  They call these “weeks.”  Different cultures have experimented with different length weeks as recently as 70 years ago, but the calendar that all societies now use is based on seven days.  This is due to the creation stories of one religion, even though the names of the days largely come from another religion.  They work for five or six of these seven days with the others meant for meditation and spiritualism, though they can’t agree on which day(s) these are, and many don’t bother with observing either.

So should your world or culture have weeks?  Does it need weeks?  It depends on how long periods of time are observed, and the nature of the society.  They’re, in large part, an artifact of keeping physical calendars.  If you have them, the questions to ask: How long are they?  Why are they that long?  It could be astronomically significant, it could evenly subdivide a longer period of time, it could be religiously significant (though religious significance is often reverse engineered), or it might be completely arbitrary.

Coming up in the future of this series: What year is it?  When is lunch?  Where am I? And who are you?  Yes, these are sounding more and more like the cliched questions of an amnesiac.  I’m enjoying this series, as it gives me an excuse to research little bits and pieces of life that are so culturally engrained that we don’t consider they had origins and that different cultures disagree.

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World Building Question: What Time Is It?

Here in the United States, except for most of Arizona and Hawaii, we’ve gone into Daylight Saving Time, when we shift our clocks forward an hour so we can take advantage of more sunlight in the evenings after work.  You know what DST is, because while the whole world doesn’t use it, probably 95% of this blog’s traffic comes from countries that do.  However, DST is not universally applied internationally.  The US and the UK shift a few weeks apart, and Australia observes DST opposite the rest of the world due to flipped seasons.  It also picks different dates.  This video explains the history of DST and how things just don’t line up all that smoothly, and even the odd DST observing and non-observing enclaves within Native territories in Arizona:

So last week we here on the east coast of the United States were 16 hours behind Sydney, Australia, now we’re 15, and in another few weeks it’ll be just 14.  And just when it looked like we were catching up to the Aussies, it’ll all reverse and go back to 16 hours in a few short months.

Alright, so what’s my vague justification for talking about DST under the auspices of World Building?  It brings up an important question when it comes to non-earth worlds:  What time is it?  How granular is time?  In a less advanced civilization there may be just four broad times: morning, midday, evening, and night.  If you’re not trying to plan specific and detailed events, that’s all you really need, and it’s more about our perception of time than actual hours.  “Morning” changes by hours a year, to when it starts, when it ends, and how long it is, thanks to lengthening and shortening of a day and by ones latitude.

A more advanced society requires more advanced time keeping.  Broad subdivisions of time independent of the rising and setting of the sun come first.  We call these hours on earth, and arbitrarily divide a day into 24 of them.  There are 24 because the Egyptians liked to use base 12, and split the equinox day into equal halves, twelve portions of daylight, twelve portions of darkness.  Why 12 when we have 10 fingers?  Because they counted knuckles, not digits.  It’s handily a mathematically significant number because there are more factors of 12 than 10, but it’s largely arbitrary due to one culture’s affinity for a number and later cultures’ affinity for that culture.

Once a society becomes more advanced, it needs more granular time.  This won’t necessarily lead straight to minutes, but could be quarters of the longer time blocks, or perhaps eighths.  Even modern society we tend to use only halves and less frequently quarters for most of our daily activities.  Sixty minutes on earth come from old methods of hand counting from cultures that lacked calculators and needed ways of tallying numbers larger than ten using the digits on their hands.  It’s the old 12 knuckles on one hand, multiplied by 2, 3, 4, or 5 on the other.  Thumbs need not apply.  We further divide things into seconds, again with 60 per minute.  After that, time becomes decimal, belying the fact that smaller units of times than seconds weren’t really necessary until after the scientific revolution.  Thus we end up with milliseconds and picoseconds.

There are some who suggest that all of time should be decimalized the way subdivisions of seconds are.  A day would be 10 hours of 100 minutes of 100 seconds, which the length of each being determined by taking the period of revolution of the earth and dividing by the correct number.  While there’s a certain logic to this decimalization, there is so much cultural momentum to overcome that decimal time will likely never be more than just a novelty.  We see this here in the United States as various movements fail to convert the country from imperial to metric measurements.

We further complicated time of day with time zones, designed so that noon in each part of the world roughly represents the midpoint between sunrise and sunset, but rarely actually does.  There is some push to eliminate those just as there is a push for the decimalization of time.  This is more successful as there are already organizations, such as major world navies, who see the benefit of referring to an exact moment of time by the same numerical representation wherever you are in the world.  Thus 0300 Zulu is 0300 Zulu whether a ship is in the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian oceans.  It’s handy for any organization attempting to synchronize around the planet, or even beyond it, something that wasn’t necessary or possible until very recently.

So let’s pretend we’re world building time on the earth.  The day was divided into 12 units (and the night an additional 12) because 12 was a culturally significant number for an early culture, in no small part because it represented the number of segments on the fingers of one hand.  Hours and seconds were divided five times farther because early cultures would use this counting-to-twelve method on one hand, then use the fingers on the other hand for the multipliers 2x through 5x.  Subdividions of seconds are the only units of time that are decimalized because they are only useful to scientists who prefer decimalization because it makes math easier.  These divisions have nothing to do with when the sun rises or sets, and even arbitrarily shift by an hour at a time.  The earth itself is divided into 24 major time zones (we won’t even start with the minor half and quarter hour zones) one per hour of the day for offset, though these are slowly going away in favor of a universal time.  And this is all before we’ve put down our first settlement on a planet that rotates at a different rate than earth, which will further complicate things.

So we’re back to the original question.  What time is it?  It’s a complex question that will deal with the history of your planet and culture, cultural norms, scientific advancement, and ultimately may cause debate and confusion on a planet shrunk by high speed communication.

And this is without even asking two far more complicated, but legitimate, world building questions: What day is today? And when is lunch?

Railway station clock picture by Wikipedian Petar Milošević, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  French decimal clock picture by Wikipedia Cormullion, and also licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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