Is Before to the Left of After?
How language shapes our perception of time
Posted Oct 27, 2011
How we think about time can differ dramatically across cultures. Suppose someone gives you four cards, each of which depicts a scene from a story about preparing and eating a meal. The person asks you to arrange the scenes in temporal order, from beginning to end. Will you place the first card to the left or to the right of the second card? Your answer likely depends on where you were born or, more precisely, which language you speak.
Scientists discovered years ago that spatial representations of time are affected greatly by linguistic conventions. If English is your native tongue, you're likely to think of time as moving from left to right, but if Arabic is your language of choice, time moves from right to left. These differences can be traced to the direction in which one's language is written, either left-to-right or right-to-left.
Not all languages, however, use relative spatial terms like left and right. The languages of the Pormpuraaw, a remote aboriginal community in Australia, include relative spatial terms like left and right, but they're rarely used. Instead, speakers of these languages rely on absolute terms that correspond to the four cardinal directions. A Pormpuraawan says things like "the girl standing to the south of the tall guy is my sister" and "move the centerpiece [on the table] a little more to the northeast."
In 2010, psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby tested Pormpuraawans and Americans on two time-ordering tasks. In the first task, each participant ordered sets of cards, each of which depicted a temporal progression--a man at different ages, for example. In the second task, the researchers showed each participant a dot on the ground and said, "If this here is today, where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?"
Every American in the study placed earlier time points on the left and later time points on the right. Most of the Pormpuraawans did the same thing, but only when facing south! When they faced north, they typically laid out time from right to left. When facing east, time came toward them, but time moved away when facing west. All of this makes sense when we learn that Pormpuraawans generally think of time as moving from east to west, just as the sun does in its daily journey.
Do people everywhere represent time as either a left-right dimension or in terms of cardinal directions? Not at all. In an earlier study, Boroditsky demonstrated that Mandarin Chinese speakers construct vertical timelines, in contrast to the horizontal timelines familiar to English and Arabic speakers. Mandarin speakers in her study were faster to confirm that June comes before August if they had just seen a vertical arrangement of objects (e.g., balls or worms) than if they had seen a horizontal arrangement. The reverse was true for English speakers. Mandarin speakers sometimes use horizontal terms to talk about time, but they often refer to earlier events as shàng (up) and later events as xià (down). June, for example is "above" August.
The evidence is clear: To a surprising degree, language and culture influence how we think about time.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1), 1-22.
Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A. (2010). Remembrances of times east: Absolute spatial representations of time in an Australian aboriginal community. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1635-1639.