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In Douglas Adams' "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," there is a passage about tenses. The author "explains" that the biggest problem with time travel is, in fact, the difficulties travelers have with using the correct tense when they wish to describe anything. I apologize in advance for the length of the quote.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire history of catering. It is built on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined planet which is (wioll haven be) enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe. This is, many would say, impossible. In it, guests take (willan on-take) their places at table and eat (willan on-eat) sumptuous meals whilst watching (willing watchen) the whole of creation explode around them. This is, many would say, equally impossible. You can arrive (mayan arivan on-when) for any sitting you like without prior (late fore-when) reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were when you return to your own time. (you can have on-book haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrohome.) This is, many would now insist, absolutely impossible. At the Restaurant you can meet and dine with (mayan meetan con with dinan on when) a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time. This, it can be explained patiently, is also impossible.

What language (or whatever) is being parodied here? How exactly does "meet and dine" become "mayan meetan con with dinan on when"? What is the author's method?

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    Goodness gracious! Don't apologize for the length of the quote. It's about time someone asked about a passage on here and provided sufficient context in the question, rather than some measly fragment that gets people scrambling to find the rest of it. – J.R. Oct 21 '15 at 21:15
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    Hey, thanks. But, hey, so many of my questions get downvoted here (especially those that have to do with Shakespeare ... go figure ...) that ... hmm ... Suffice it to say that I get the impression (sometimes) that anything longer than four or five lines, or above the level of "is it incorrectly to used quotation signs to expressing feelings," is resented here. – Ricky Oct 21 '15 at 21:45
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A lot of the humor of the Hitchhiker "trilogy" involves taking a simple idea and pursuing it to the furthest limits possible. In this case, if it is poking fun at any language in particular, then it is just a loving jab at English, and the way English handles conditionals and distinctions such as "would have been" or "will have been" vs "was" or "will be". It's not that other languages don't have these distinctions of tense (although some certainly do not), but it seems that English, particularly written English, exercises all its tenses a lot more than many other languages do. So this is poking a bit of fun at the complex usage of tenses in English, and imagining how they might be further complicated and expanded to encompass impossibly more conditional future and past actions.

As for the method, this is mostly bits of English jammed together oddly, presumably just however the great Mr. Adams felt it would have the most humorous ring to it, and with a random bit of Spanish (con) and maybe German (-en ending in watchen and the reversed verb order "willan on-take") thrown in, perhaps for spice?

Looking at the way he is writing things, he seems to be taking a verb or a particle and swapping it with a similar one so that it will still be understandable, but different enough to make his point that it is complicated. ;-) Can becomes may, with becomes con. He is also adding an extra ending and an extra particle, -an and on-, again, just to show that there is a clear rule being put in place. It could have been anything, I think he just thought this sounded good. It also isn't really consistent because he seems to be increasing the complexity as he goes through the passage, even to the point of reusing some forms in different ways (willing watchen vs presooning and returningwenta).

I can't find any direct references to Douglas Adams discussing this, so this is just my take on it as a longtime fan of the series.

  • Thank you. Okay, so, Spanish and German, yes. What about "wioll"? As in "wioll haven be"? "Haven," German, but "wioll"? – Ricky Oct 21 '15 at 21:53
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    I think that's just messing with the English word, I don't know of a specific and direct comparison for that. Possibly because "to be" is already an irregular verb, he wanted to make it even more irregular? – NadjaCS Oct 21 '15 at 21:55
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    The joke is that English already has a way of dealing with all these 'tenses'. For example, "wioll haven be" is just a near anagram of "will have been" with one letter 'e' replaced by a letter 'o'. I remember reading this for the first time (years ago) and just skipping over it. It isn't intended to be taken seriously and it isn't consistent. More to the point, it isn't necessary not even with time travel. We could handle all of the weirdness by playing with the verb forms we have already. – chasly from UK Oct 21 '15 at 22:09
  • I think he was trying to add in the factor of the speaker's own timeline vs "real time". But agreed, it is not meant to be taken seriously. – NadjaCS Oct 21 '15 at 22:57
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This is a callback to the joke about Streetmentioner's "Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations" earlier in the book, which is itself merely the elaborate setup to a terrible pun:

...The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.

Ba-dum tsss.

I'd guess that the reason for the elaborate tense jokes in the first place was Latin or possibly Ancient Greek, which both have very complicated tense/aspect systems for indicating which actions came before or after each other, and with which Adams would probably have been somewhat familiar. Both have a distinct "future perfect" tense to indicate a future action that nonetheless will be completed by the time of another future action.

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