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23rd November 2022

The Language of Time

The language you speak directly impacts your understanding of time. Could the western-dominated scientific community be losing out on important interpretations of the universe?
The Language of Time
Djim Loic @Unsplash

Imagine placing these famous people in chronological order of birthdate: Taylor swift, Henry VII and Marilyn Monroe. How did you picture it? Was it on a line from left to right, right to left, vertically or not on a line at all? Your answer most likely depends on the languages you speak!

A fascinating area of cognitive science is dedicated to studying how language affects the way you think about the fourth dimension of the universe: time.

It’s about time

Time is inherently difficult for the human brain to comprehend. Great scientists, such as Einstein and Lorentz, dedicated much of their work throughout the 20th century to understating the fourth dimension of our world. Laid out in Einstein’s infamous papers comes the destruction of the universality of time. Time is key to investigating the nature of the universe, and is not as simple as it seems at first glance.

Even the basic concept of time having some inherent direction is difficult for our brains to process. Unlike dimensions of space, which are multi-directional (left and right, forward and backward, and up and down), we can only move forward in time. We can also only see the past, with the future remaining invisible to us.

It makes sense that throughout the evolution of language, humans have coined metaphors that link time events to spatial events to help us feel more comfortable with picturing time. These metaphors, limited by the language you speak, have been shown to have a profound effect on the way you picture time.

Is the future in front, behind, or below us?

One of the critical aspects of the linguistics of time is the ordering of events. Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky showed that English speakers typically picture time evolving horizontally from left to right. This is probably due to English being read from left to right, therefore building a link between the ‘unread future’ lying to the right, and the ‘read past’ to the left.

Boroditsky extended this to other languages and found that Hebrew speakers, who read their language from right to left, typically order events on a timeline from right to left. Mandarin speakers follow the way ancient Chinese texts were read, placing events on a vertical timeline from top to bottom. Metaphors for time in Mandarin follow suit, with the word ‘xia’, used to mean ‘next’, translating literally as ‘down’.

Timelines or Time volumes?

Time intervals are often difficult to visualise, so other phrases which are easier to understand are therefore applied to durations of time. In English, Swedish, and many other languages, durations of time are given in length units for example; a ‘long’ or ‘short’ time. In contrast, in Spanish, they are assigned volumes with ‘big’ or ‘small’ time.

Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist at Lancaster University in the UK, investigated how these language differences affect the way time is perceived to be passing. He conducted a study with a group of Swedish speakers and a group of Spanish speakers, showing them a video in which there was either a line of growing length or a container filling up with fluid. Participants were then asked to estimate the time duration of the video.

Athanasopoulos found that Swedish people’s estimations were mostly determined by how much the line had grown, whereas Spanish speakers focused on the volume filled. This is consistent with their respective linguistic associations of time with length, and time with volume.

The experiment was repeated with bilingual Swedish and Spanish speakers. It was found that when the Spanish word for a period of time, ‘duracion’  was flashed on the screen, the results were the same as those for Spanish monolinguists. Likewise, when the Swedish word ‘tid’ was flashed up, the results matched those of Swedish monolinguists. This provides evidence that linguistic context affects the thinking of bilingual individuals.

Need for diversity in science

Time is one of the most perplexing areas of modern science and poses difficulties to the unification of physics into one consistent theory. Language clearly plays an important role in the way that time is viewed, pictured, and understood.

Most of our physical understanding of the subject of time was developed in the early 20th century. Daniel Casasanto, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University, commented that “I’ve long wondered whether our physics of time might be shaped by the fact that English, German and French speakers were instrumental in creating it.”

It seems clear that linguistic diversity in science could help deepen our physical understanding of the universe. Different approaches of picturing and comprehending time could make the confusing and unintuitive nature of time itself more approachable.

Is it now time for a new wave of development in the physical understanding of time, driven by a more diverse and multicultural generation of physicists than existed a century ago?

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