By Virginia Hughes | November 3, 2010 | 6 Comments
Time flies; it passes; it marches on. Time can be hard, ripe, rough or sharp. It can be saved, spent, managed.
I make dinner reservations ahead of time, and push back deadlines. I look forward to Christmas in New York. My teenaged years are over (woohoo!).
‘Time’ is the most common noun in English, and all of the various ways I talk about time feel…right. But other languages have different (and to me, peculiar) ways of describing the concept. In Indonesian, for example, verbs don’t have tenses: ‘I sit’ equals ‘I sat’ equals ‘I am going to sit’. In Aymara, a language spoken in the Andean highlands in South America, the past is said to be in front of you, and the future behind you. Mandarin speakers use vertical metaphors: earlier events are ‘up’ (shàng) whereas later events are ‘down’ (xià).
Do these sorts of linguistic variations reflect differences in the way we think?
I’ll start with my native tongue. English is read from left to right, and many English metaphors of time (step by step; long time; short time; passing time; timeline) place it on a horizontal plane.
In one of Boroditsky’s signature experiments, she gives participants four cards, each depicting a different stage of the same event, such as a chick hatching from an egg. When asked to arrange the cards in order, it turns out that native English speakers put the earliest event on the left and the latest on the right. But native Hebrew speakers, who read from right to left, place the cards in the opposite order, so that they progress from right to left.
In a similar paper published last week in Cognition, Boroditsky found that native Mandarin speakers have no trouble ordering photos — head shots of Woody Allen at different ages — on a vertical plane, with younger photos at the top and older ones at the bottom. (In contrast, English speakers require significantly more time to do vertical ordering than horizontal.)
Other cultural forces can also influence our perception of time. Australian Aborigines have an enviable sense of direction: they can always point to the north, south, east or west, with high precision. Even in their language, they use absolute, rather than relative directions (“My mother is standing to the south of my father”). As Boroditsky reported October 19 in Psychological Science, they seem to use this internal compass to think about time, too. When asked to temporally arrange photos, they usually line them up from east to west.
The cultural differences are fascinating in and of themselves. But it’s the potential implications — for diplomacy, stock markets, communications and health — that make this such a hot topic. To give just one provocative example: a 1963 study found a link between young children’s conception of time and the likelihood that they’ll steal.
Last week, 3quarksdaily published a short video interview with Dr. Boroditsky, which discusses some of the broader implications of her work. And last month, she and Joshua Knobe, of Yale, talked in depth about how language shapes not only how we think about time, but about color, gender and numbers.
‘Eternal Clock’ image courtesy of Robbert van der Steeg, via Flickr