After having commented the different visions and opinions this subject has produced along history, it is time to be more specific and expound different examples of how language influences, in this case, our perception of time and space.
The relationship between language and the perception of space have always been one of the aspects more interesting to linguists.
In this sense, the Australian aborigin languages Kuuk Thaayorre and Guugu Yimithirr are very famous because, unlike most of languages, they do not use egocentric coordinates, which are relative, but absolute geographic directions.
What does this mean? That instead of using words depending on the position of our body like right, left, opposite or behind, they use geographical coordinates like north, south, east, west, etc, that do not depend on corporal position.
A speaker of these languages would not ask for a book that is on the right, but he or she would use the word corresponding to the cardinal point where the book is.
The peculiarity of these languages oblige their speakers, at any moment and since a very young age, to think and to know their position in space and to pay attention to the clues provided by the ambient (like the sun position or the wind direction) in order to be able to speak appropriately. This requirement of the language reinforce and train the cognitive processes related with orientation, allowing better orientative skills and spatial knowledge. For this reason, the speakers of these languages seem to have superpowers, because even if they are indoors or in completely unknown spaces, they can get their bearings even better than people who move daily in those surroundings.
Generally when you think different about space you also think different about time. Many think that “the temporary system of a language determines the understanding of time by its speakers”.
In that regard, the professor George Steiner adds: “Much of the Western perception of time as a linear sequence and motion vector is established and organized by the Indo-European verbal system.”
In the language Kuuk Thaayorre, which uses geographical coordinates instead of egocentric coordinates, the way of organizing time is also different to what we are used to.
In languages like Spanish or English, we think that future is in front of us and past is behind. But in others like Aymara, past is in front and future is behind (that is the reason because we cannot see it). In both cases it is a horizontal conception of time.
If a Spanish or English speaker is asked to order chronologically a series of photographies, he or she will surely order them in a line from left to right, the oldest picture on the left and the most recent on the right.
Nevertheless, if a Hebrew or Arabic speaker should do the same task, we could prove that he or she would do it the opposite way, that is to say, the oldest on the right and the most recent on the left.
If the same test is perform by a Chinese speaker, we could see the order is no longer horizontal but vertical, with the oldest picture up and the most recent down.
As can be inferred, the pattern different languages use to build the time metaphor has a lot to do with its writting system, being in English or Spanish from left to right, on the contrary in Arabic or Hebrew and vertically from up to down in the case of Chinese. So we can see the concept of time not only has to do with the tenses of each language, but also with the way it is written.
But… what happens in the case of Kuuk Thaayorre? If we ask one of its speakers to do this same task, we could see that he or she would always order the pictures from east to west, regardless of the position he or she is.
Thus we realize that language provides symbols for spatial patterns that help us perceive the world in specific ways.
Interesting, isn’t it?
Want to know how it affects our perception of colour and gender? Read on…