Toward a Quantum Linguistics: Possibilities for Change in the Delta Zone

© 2000 by Eric S. Piotrowski

Physicists have . . . been proclaiming for more than fifty years that the empirical evidence provided by quantum phenomena demands a radical revision of our ideas about physical reality: that the new phenomena entail a peculiar kind of macroscopic wholeness -- a strange sort of nonseparability of macroscopically separated parts of the universe. . . .

[T]he orthodox quantum physicist construes science in a way that relegates ontology to philosophy. Philosophers are thereby seemingly placed in the position of either: (1) apologizing for their failure to produce an ontology . . . ; (2) embracing an ontology that orthodox physicists reject; or (3) constructing an adequate ontology where physicists have failed. There is, however, another possibility, which is to deduce by careful analysis exactly what constraints are imposed upon ontology by the structure of quantum phenomena.

Henry P. Stapp


As an important component of (or at least contributor to) our comprehensive modern ontology, the sphere of literature should also be subject to an application of what we might call quantum constraints. Literature -- like physics -- is an attempt to reveal the face of reality, and it feeds our ontology as it is subject to it. A result of science's influence on literature is a paradigmatic literary shift toward a quantum vision of reality, one which acknowledges the essential nature of observations in the world of physics. "Reality is no longer realistic," says Susan Strehle;

it has more energy and mystery, rendering the observer's position more uncertain and more involved, than the solid and rocklike overlook from which the realist surveyed a stable world. In the quantum universe, space and time aren't separate, predictable, and absolute; narratives can't steer by the fixed poles that guided realistic fiction. While many living writers share a well-read fascination with the possibilities inherent in literary form, and while they make allied formal choices to displace realism, they do so in order to think more clearly about what we now understand as real.

However, the possibilities inherent in literary form are themselves now constrained by the structure of quantum phenomena. In order to keep pace with modern ontology, literature must evolve new forms to allow a more accurate representation of reality.

The Delta Zone

In 1999, I began writing a novel whose narrative presented a paradox. At the onset, the main character (and first-person narrator) Dave comes home from work:

I threw my keys on top of the refrigerator and fell into the big blue chair.

He then launches into a reverie about the chair and his girlfriend Leslie's relationship to it:

Leslie never sits in the chair; she says it reeks of old beer.

Let us pause here and briefly explore the architecture of narrative chronology. Consider a story being told about an event or series of events that took place in the past (there are other ways of telling a story, of course, but for the purposes of the discussion, we'll focus on the simple past). Let's call the point at which the story is told (the time of narration) point alpha (α). In the above example, it is the time at which Dave is speaking to the reader. The point at which the action takes place shall be named point beta (β). Here, it's the time when Dave comes home from work, throws his keys on the refrigerator, and sits in the chair. We'll refer to the period of time between points β and α as the delta zone (Δ). This is laid out in graphical terms in fig. 1, where the arrow of time moves from left to right.

If we adopt the metaphor of Schršdinger's cat, then β is the point at which the cat is placed inside the box; the cat is in a quantum state of existence in the zone Δ; and α is the point at which the box is opened, revealing the cat's condition.

As we look again at the second sentence, we see something peculiar arising from the language. When we say "Leslie never sits in the chair," the use of the present tense implies that this is an absolute truth, unchangeable under any circumstances, now (at point β) and forever (including point α). What the sentence means to say, however, is that Leslie does not sit in the chair at point β, without any inference on the future status of Leslie's relationship to the chair. It's supposed to indicate a quantum relationship between Leslie and the chair in the delta zone.

Let's try substituting the past tense:

Leslie never sat in the chair; she said it reeked of old beer.

Now we must infer that something about the situation has changed: at point β, Leslie never sat in the chair, but that's not true at point α. Perhaps they no longer own the chair. Perhaps Leslie is no longer Dave's girlfriend. Whatever the reason, the past tense indicates a shift in the conditions of the situation (and the reader will probably wonder about the nature of that change, and expect an explanation of it from the author). Both of the tenses force upon the writer an undesired implied meaning. If the present tense is used, then there can be no change in the delta zone. If the past tense is used, then there must be change.

What is needed here is a linguistic tool (or set of them) which indicates the truth about an event or object at point β but allows for the possibility of change in the delta zone, without necessitating it. Such a tool would more accurately reflect the true nature of reality, where things can change, but don't have to (or, if we accept the inevitability of change in a dynamic universe, not for a very long time).

The Quantum Present Tense

Of course there are ways around the trap of present vs. past tense. We could say:

Leslie never sat in the chair those days, a condition which may or may not still be true today.

but this is absurd in the context of a simple narrative. We could also say:

Leslie never sits in the chair . . .

and then make reference to the passage of time in the delta zone. But if the purpose of the story is only to describe events taking place at point β, then such a structure detracts from the thrust of the narrative.

Therefore, it seems reasonable for the English language to develop a new tense that reflects the quantum nature of objects and situations in the delta zone. There is no need for a past tense variant, since there are many ways of indicating the quantum nature of the past:

I couldn't tell how Leslie felt about the chair . . .

which mainly result from the subjective nature of the narrator within a story. And since any story told in the future tense will, by nature, be speculative, there is similarly no need for a future form of the quantum tense.

The quantum present tense, then, would allow narratives to leave unanswered the question of an object or situation's status at point α. It would indicate their condition at point β and assume nothing else. Stories may more accurately represent the ideas behind the metaphor of Schr ödinger's cat, where the contents of the box exist in a quantum state. Of course, most stories look like a series of boxes. We watch cats being placed inside some boxes, we watch some boxes being opened, and we only hear about some boxes. By using the quantum present tense, the author may indicate that the contents of a particular box exist in a quantum state until the box is opened again (whether or not it's opened at point α).

Following the dictates of simplicity, we can form this tense by simply adding the letter 'q' to the present-tense form of the verb. Our final product is therefore:

Leslie never sitsq in the chair; she saysq it reeksq of old beer.


It's worth noting that this application of quantum phenomena need not be limited to verbs and verb tense. A quantum form of adjectives could be just as useful (and easy to construct) for writers. But since verbs are the main indicator of action in writing, and since quantum phenomena primarily describe changes (a form of action), the use of the quantum present tense is the most immediately useful application of one to the other.

There should be no delusions about the likelihood of such a tense gaining widespread prominence anytime soon in the English language. Descriptive grammar changes its forms according to popular use, not the dictates of discoveries in the world of physics. Still, one goal of the author is gain access to as many tools as possible, as Strehle points out, "to think more clearly about what we now understand as real." It is hoped that this new tense will provide one more tool for exactly that purpose.

Works Cited

Stapp, Henry P. "Quantum Nonlocality and the Description of Nature," in James T. Cushing and Ernan McMullin, eds., Philosophical Consequences of Quantum Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

Strehle, Susan. Fiction in the Quantum Universe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.