Languages and Time

You are a time travel. Since you were born you have been walking on a timeline that are taking you from point A (birth) to point B (death), wishing the line will stretch as much as possible. Every time you take a step you go into the future and away from the past. The future is in front of you and you let the past behind. If you would make a chronology of the events of your life, you would draw a line and write the events by order from left to right. Those events would be timed according to date (year, month, year) and according to a specific hour and corresponding minutes.

This is how western languages perceive time.

If you speak Mandarin Chinese, that timeline would be drawn in vertical. While western languages are read from left to right, Mandarin Chinese is read top down. Therefore, your birth would be on top of the list and then your life would be downhill from that point…

If you think this is scary, try to see time with the eyes of Aymara speakers (indigenous people living between Peru and Bolivia). They too walk a timeline but every step they take they see the past in front of them and they know the future is behind them. What?! Yes, it does make sense. So, since the past has already happened, you can “see” the past (which is in your memories) in front of your eyes (sort to speak). But the future is unknown, you cannot see it. Therefore, the future is on your back, away from your eyes.

If you have being paying attention, the story always has “you” as reference: you walk the line, it is the events of your life, the past and the future are in front or behind you. What if you have no importance in time? For Guugu Ymithirr speakers, a tribe living in north Queensland, Australia, everything revolves around the cardinal points: north, south, east, west. The cardinal points are so fundamental in their lives, that when they meet someone on the street they ask “Where do you come from? Where are you going?” and the answer will be north, south, east, west. Remember, in western languages the usual question is “How are you?” (again, the individual point of view). So, Guugu Ymithirr people always know exactly where they are geographically, no need for GPS. And how would they draw the timeline of their life? According to the cardinal points, of course. Birth would be on the east (where the sun rises) and death would be on the west (where the sun sets). Are you perceiving sunsets is a different way now?…

But not everything is daunting in other languages. Learning verb tenses can be a true headache, no doubt. What if there were no verb tenses? Yes, in some languages that is exactly the case. They only have to learn the present tense and then use words to determine when the action has happened. For example: I go to the village yesterday. As simple as that. It would be nice, right?

For more detailed information:

  • Language alters our experience of time – THE CONVERSATION 45762-200
  • Tenseless language – WIKIPEDIA 45762-200
  • 5 Languages That Could Change the Way You See the World – NAUTILUS 45762-200
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