Does Your Language Affect How You Perceive Time?

Different languages conceptualize time differently, but is this the result of cultural, historical, and technological development — or of linguistic difference? If words and grammar influence the perception of time, our preconceptions of time as a universal phenomenon are about to be challenged!

Stereotypes about punctuality are common in Europe and throughout the world. Most people have heard generalizations about how southern Europeans have a more flexible relationship with timeliness than, for instance, Germans. Commentators often point to industrialization and technological development as the motivation behind these learned behaviors. A less discussed factor, however, is language. Research indicates that different languages shape temporal perceptions in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Let’s see what these findings tell us about timespace and language.

Short On Time

In a succession of scientific experiments, researchers noticed that Swedes expressed duration using adjectives relating to physical distance (i.e. en kort paus, or “a short break”) — as opposed to Spaniards, who used adjectives of quantity (una pequeña pausa, or “a small break”) to express it. These Swedish speakers employed the conceptual metaphor of time as a horizontal line or a distance travelled, whereas the Spanish speakers conceptualized time as volume taking up space.

The researchers also tested Spanish-Swedish bilinguals and found evidence of a conceptual flexibility regarding time. When expressing themselves in Swedish, bilinguals estimated time with length, but switching to Spanish, they assessed time based on volume. It sounds subtle, but it’s an interesting difference. And, once we leave Europe, the differences become more apparent.

Down Time

Representations of time in European languages tend to follow the same structure: an axis running from left (past) to right (future). We conceptualize time horizontally. In Mandarin Chinese, however, there is an alternative up-down (past-future) axis represented in language — a vertical approach. A Mandarin speaker wouldn’t say “next week,” but, literally, “down week.” “Last week” is, literally translated, “up one week” — since going up is moving towards the past. As a result, getting older is described as going down!

This was observed by researchers, when Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to arrange pictures of two actors (one American, one Chinese) that represented them as young, mature and old. Photos of the American actor were arranged horizontally (looking young to the left and old to the right), as a Westerner would tend to do, yet the very same bilingual speakers arranged photos of the Chinese actor vertically (looking young at the top and old at the bottom). Temporal and cultural metaphorical frameworks played an obvious role in determining how these English-Chinese bilingual speakers ordered objects chronologically. Maybe this sounds peculiar, but some languages are even more striking in this regard!

Behind Time

Aymara is a language spoken in the central Andes by almost 3 million people. In Aymara, the word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time.” When speakers mention future events, they point over their shoulder, because that’s where the future is, while the past is in front of them. The cultural explanation is surprisingly logical: we cannot see the future, but the past has already been experienced, so we can look at it in the same way we can observe what’s in front of us.

This is the exact opposite of what Westerners do. Swedish is a perfect example of this, with the word framtid (literally “front time”) meaning “future.”

Feeling Tense?

For Westerners, it can be even more shocking to find out that there are languages without tenses, such as Yucatec Maya. Not only does the language lack past, present or future tenses similar to English, there are no equivalent words for “after,” “before,” “until” and “while.” So, how do speakers convey a sense of time when describing occurrences? Through context, aspect, and modal distinctions that provide information about the occurrence of events. Grammatical aspect is also very important here: it’s quite similar to tense, but instead of describing when something happens, it describes how something happens. This gives an indication of temporal dimension to conversation.

This may be hard for us to understand, but by referencing specific events, context creates a relative timeline that can accommodate information about singular events. If this sounds confusing, another stark example of the varied perception of time can be found in the Brazilian rainforest.

Simply Timeless

In the heart of the Amazonian region lives a relatively isolated tribe, the Amondawa. This group came into contact with Western researchers for the first time in 1986. What did this encounter teach us about their culture and relation to time?

For one, the Amondawa appears to be a culture without a concept or specific word that relates to the Western concept of “time.” They recognize events happening through time, but do not see it as a separate, abstract entity. Calendars are nonexistent: the concept of a month or year has no meaning to the small tribe because spatial representations are not used to map out time. Numerical age is not specifically referenced, as members simply shed their names and choose new ones as they get older. Their term for “day,” which also means “sunlight,” only refers to daylight hours and not the 24-hour day (they don’t even have hours). Different parts of the day are divided according to different tasks (working, eating) and the sun’s movement (sun is rising, sun is set). The only “holidays” consist of marriage parties and traditional ceremonies, but these are not organized by calendar or season. Finally, the tribe doesn’t represent the succession of these events in a linear or circular manner when prompted to draw them.

The Amondawa seem to live far removed from our abstract concept of time, but their language is suited to their needs. Surrounded by thick vegetation and living without distinct seasons, their language reflects their collective concerns and is adapted to their way of life.

Take The Time

There is growing consensus that all healthy and developed humans are cognitively prepared to experience the world similarly, but that language filters everyday concepts like time in response to cultural variation. It would be excessive to state that certain cultures don’t experience time — they do! But language, strongly influenced by our surrounding environment, is a tool to further communication required for survival. Why should groups in the Amazon use calendars when their everyday lives don’t depend on them? After all, we take it for granted, but the Gregorian calendar (the most widely used international calendar) is itself a construct introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582. Studying different languages is to discover a history that resists the globalized flattening of time. Let’s take the time to appreciate and celebrate how different peoples conceptualize their experience.

Challenge your perception of time today, and learn a language!
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