Welcome to the first Thinking in English episode of 2023! Or… is it really 2023? Let’s discuss this history of calendars, time, and dates on today’s episode (and practice your listening comprehension and vocabulary skills at the same time)!
Take for granted (phrase) – to believe something to be the truth without even thinking about it
I guess we all took it for granted that water would always be freely available
Solar (adj) – of or from the sun
I want to build a solar power car
Lunar (adj) – of or relating to the moon
The lunar rover landed safely on the moon
Approximately (adv) – close to a particular number or time although not exactly that number or time
The job will take approximately three weeks, and cost approximately £1,000
Breakthrough (n) – an important discovery or event that helps to improve a situation or provide an answer to a problem
Scientists are hoping for a breakthrough in the search for a cure for cancer
Drift (v) – to move slowly, especially as a result of outside forces, with no control over direction
No one noticed that the boat had begun to drift out to sea
Divisible (adj) – meaning that can be divided by another number
A prime number is only divisible by 1 and itself
Official (adj) – agreed to or arranged by people in positions of authority
The official opening of the store is next week
Happy New Year!
I hope everyone listening had a great December, enjoyed the New Year celebrations, and is prepared to keep learning and studying in 2023.
If you are a regular listening of Thinking in English, you will know that I love to question everything. I like to think critically, investigate issues, and explain everything. It is part of my character and personality.
One thing most people take for granted is the year. It is 2023, last year was 2022, and next year will be 2024. Simple, right? Well, not everywhere. Throughout history we have used a variety of different calendars and systems for telling the time, tracking years, and describing the date.
Even today, while most countries use the year 2023 for international dealings, there are other systems out there. In Japan, the year is also Reiwa 5, in the Taiwanese calendar it is the year 112, in the Islamic Hirji calendar it is the year 1444, and the year 1401 in the Persian calendar.
It is also clear that time started way before all of these dates – the world is definitely older that 2023 years. So why is it the year 2023? Why do most countries use this calendar? And are there any alternative calendars currently used around the world?
History of the Calendar
Time is an interesting concept – something that we take for granted in our daily lives. We organise our lives in terms of years, months, days, hours, and even minutes. But keeping track of time is a complicated task!
For most calendars, there are two important measurements. The length of a solaryear and a lunarmonth. Solar refers to the sun. A solar year is how long it takes the earth to travel the whole way around the sun. Lunar refers to the moon. A lunar month is how long it takes the moon to cycle between its different phases as it travels around the earth!
Today, we know that a solar year is approximately 365.24 days and that a lunar month is about 29.5 days. This means that within a year there are around 12.36 lunar months. While we know these precise measurements today, people making calendars in the past didn’t.
Our ancestors had to decide the best methods to combine their observations of solar years and lunar months to create a somewhat accurate calendar.
The Babylonians, Chinese, and Egyptian calendars used 12 months containing either 29 or 30 days. This would keep their calendar in time with the lunar months but would be about 11 days short of a full solar year.
The Islamic calendar is an example of a calendar still in use that follows an exclusively lunar system. The issue with this, however, is that the year drifts. Every year, events and dates in the Islamic calendar get slightly earlier. The important Islamic festival of Ramadan, for example, started on April 2nd in 2022, will take place on March 23rd in 2023, and begin on March 11th in 2024 – over the years these events drift.
If you don’t care about the seasons or solar year, then an exclusively lunar calendar might be fine. Yet one of the most basic functions of a calendar is to make sure things happen at the same time every year. Imagine you are a farmer trying to plant vegetables that grow best in warm weather – having the same date every year to plant your vegetables would make your life a lot easier.
The Babylonians, Chinese, and Egyptians tried to solve this difference between lunar months and the solar year by occasionally adding extra months to keep the seasons balanced. One of the most famous examples of this approach was discovered by Meton, an Ancient Greek living in Athens. He realised that every 19 years the lunar months and solar years return to the same time. By combining 12 “short years” (containing 12 lunar months) and 7 “long years” (containing 13 lunar months), you can make a functioning calendar.
Roman Julius Caesar was known for many things: he invaded Britain, built a bridge across the river Rhine, contributed to the end of the Roman Republic, became dictator for life, and his name Caesar became synonymous with emperor (some modern equivalents are Kaiser and Tsar). Julius Caesar also introduced his own calendar – the Julian Calendar.
The Julian Calendar was designed with the help of Greek mathematicians and became the official calendar of the Roman empire on 1 January 45BC. It later became the official calendar in most Western countries for over 1500 countries and is still used by parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church today.
The Julian calendar solved one of the major problems with old systems – it is a 12-month calendar than doesn’t need extra months. The big breakthrough was the decision that a month didn’t need to be exactly in line with the moon – the months of the Julian calendar are not lunar months.
If you don’t need to keep the months in line with the phases of the moon, you can then choose the length of each month, and choose the length of a year on the calendar. If you remember, the solar year is approximately 365.24 days – and the Julian calendar came very close to this with an average of 365.25 days. They achieved this by taking a leap year, or adding an extra day, once out of every 4 years.
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The Julian calendar was almost perfect… almost but not exactly. The calendar averaged 365.25 years, but a solar year is approximately 365.24219. This means the Julian calendar is slightly, very slightly, longer than the solar year. Overtime, this leads to a drift against the solar calendar – every 128 years the Julian calendar gains a day.
Compared to lunar calendars, and earlier versions, this drift probably seems insignificant. And for 1600 years the Julian calendar was used by almost everyone in Europe. However, some Christian leaders wanted a better calendar – one that did not drift at all.
In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII modified the Julian calendar and introduced a new version now known as the Gregorian calendar. The change was very minor – the Julian calendar had a leap year every 4 years, but under the Gregorian calendar this was changed so that years divisible by 100 (like 1700, 1800, and 1900) are not leap years (unless they are also divisible by 400 like the year 2000).
This small change in leap years shortened the length of an average year. In the Gregorian calendar, a year is 365.2425 days which is incredibly close the length of a solar year.
Why did Pope Gregory want to change the calendar? As the Julian calendar was slightly inaccurate, it had caused the spring equinox (when the hours of dark and light are equal) to happen before the date it was supposed to do so – on March 21st. As Christian churches use the equinox to calculate the date of Easter every year, making sure the calendar was as accurate as possible was seen as very important.
The new Gregorian calendar was first adopted by European Catholic countries (and their colonies). Over the next centuries, most other European countries began to follow the new calendar – Greece was the last country to adopt the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes. By the end of the 20th century, almost every country used the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes (while sometimes keeping alternative calendars for religious and cultural purposes).
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Why is it now 2023?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the history of calendars, but I haven’t yet mentioned the main inspiration for this episode… why is it 2023? Why does most of the world follow this dating system?
It is the year 2023 as it is supposedly 2023 years since the birth of Jesus Christ. Our world has 8 billion people, the majority not Christian, so why do we all follow the Christian system for years?
Christian scholars began studying and calculating the birth of Jesus long ago as they considered it the beginning of time. Debates were common over the exact year and date of his birth as it is not mentioned in the bible.
The Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived between the years 673 and 735, is often credited with popularizing this system. He decided that Jesus was born on the 25th of December in the year 1BC, and that history should be counted forward from that date.
Bede was one of the most famous writers and historians in England, and he used his dating system in all of his work. Other Christian scholars began to use the system over the following centuries, and the Emperor Charlemagne of France was apparently educated by tutors who followed the system. Eventually, most of Europe followed this dating system.
As European countries began to spread out and colonize the world, they took their time and calendar with them. The more places using the Gregorian calendar, the more other countries were pushed to change and adopt it. Today, the Gregorian calendar is used everywhere, as is the year 2023 referring to the birth of Jesus Christ!
Despite this, it is highly unlikely Jesus Christ was born 2023 years ago. There is very little historical evidence for the exact time and date of his birth, and the year was chosen centuries after Jesus’s death.
Other Calendars Around the World
It is important to know that while most countries will use the Gregorian calendar officially for civil purposes, they may also have their own calendars!
In the Hebrew calendar, one of the official calendars of Israel it is currently the year 5783. Why? According to Jewish tradition the calendar began when the world was created! The Hebrew calendar is also based on a Metonic system (the system I mentioned earlier of long and short years over a 19-year period)!
The Solar Hijri calendar, used in Iran and Afghanistan, puts the year at 1401. This calendar is based on observation, not mathematical rules, meaning it is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar. Year 1 in this calendar is the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s migration to Medina. Interestingly, this is the same start date as the Islamic Hijri calendar… but that calendar puts this year’s date as 1443. This is because the Iranian calendar is based on the sun and the Islamic calendar on the moon.
In the Japanese calendar, it is the year Reiwa 5. Reiwa refers to the current emperor, and this is the fifth year of his reign. Thailand used the Thai solar calendar, a version of the Gregorian calendar but using years in the Buddhist era which 543 years ahead of the Gregorian – so this year is 2566. And there are more dating systems around the world!
Why is it the year 2023? Because European countries decided that was the year and then began to dominate the world. But in reality, it is not necessarily the year 2023 in every country. Many countries and people use two different dating systems – one for professional and civic purposes and the other for cultural and religious events!
That was a brief history of calendars, time, and the year 2023. Many of us take for granted the changing of the year every December 31st, but in cultures around the world the date and time is often different!
Does your country have its own calendar? What year is it in your country’s traditional calendar?