The Language(s) of Time

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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?

It’s a controversial question, but new studies from Lera Boroditsky‘s lab at Stanford University say that yes, the way people talk about time matches the way they think about it.

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.

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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

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6 thoughts on “The Language(s) of Time

  1. Just as I was about to pour myself a G&T, I’m tricked into a morass of what has been for years, to me, a fascinating area where language can intersect with behaviour. (Did you see what I’ve done with the tenses there??)

    And you haven’t even mentioned Goon (Spike Milligan): “I’m walking backwards to Christmas…”

  2. This is so great. While I have a hard time as an English speaker thinking about time in any other way than horizontal/linear, I like to think that someone else is envisioning it that way. Are there people who can’t put the cards in order at all?

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