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See Inside March / April 2011

Which Way Is the Future?

How we imagine the movement of time depends on what language we speak

If you had four pictures of a person at different ages, how would you lay them out in chronological order? As an English speaker, you would almost certainly put childhood scenes on the left and pictures from old age on the right. But if you spoke another language, you might arrange the photos in a column or even from east to west.

Almost every culture in the world uses space to think about time, but the visualizations vary widely. A November paper in Psychological Science describes the first culture known to tie time’s march to the cardinal directions.

The Pompuraawan, a remote tribe in Australia, do not have terms for spatial relationships such as “left” or “in front of.” Instead they use the directions as descriptors, such as “my south arm.” They think of time the same way, the new study found. When asked to arrange four pic­tures showing a person’s life, Pompuraawans laid the photos in a line from east to west.

Three main factors affect how people imagine time, says Stanford University psychologist Lera Boroditsky, an author of the study. One influence is how the culture thinks spatially; for instance, the Pompuraawans often gesture to the sun to indicate the time of day, Boroditsky says.

The layout of the written word also plays a role. Israelis tend to think of time as flowing from right to left, Boroditsky concluded in a study last year—the same direction Hebrew is written.

Last, a language’s metaphors can have an effect. Mandarin Chinese associates “up” with the past and “down” with the future. And re­search shows Mandarin speakers often put photos in a column with the earliest at the top.

Visualizing the passage of time may be a human universal, but these studies show just how differently that can play out. Whereas we look forward to the future, the Pompuraawans say that the west is yet to come. 

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