Developed by the linguist Edward Sapir in 1929, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language determines the perception and interpretation each native speaker has of every experience they go through.
This theory, which created controversy, sustains that speakers of different languages perceive the world in different ways. And, in fact, subsequent researches have added evidence supporting such a hypothesis. How does that influence our time and space perception?
During the first half of the 20th Century, Sapir along with his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, found out the conceptual differences that delimit non-universal languages. As decades went by, and through different research, cognitive scientists have come to determine that the language we speak has profound effects in our world perception.
Many researches noticed, for instance, how language differences lead to differences in color perception, while others studied the influences of reading direction and spatial arrangement.
Based on 3 experiments, we discovered that English speakers (who read left to right) associate past events with the left side of space, while Hebrew speakers (who read right to left) associate past events with the right side.
The fact is that there is proof to confirm that language allows us to discover the contents of our experience: we turn to language to share our perceptions, thoughts and intentions. Different studies demonstrated that language directs thought, influences concepts of time and space and affects memory.
Some examples let us understand the strange ways in which language impacts on our notion of time. English and Mandarin speakers, for instance, talk about time differently: English predominantly talks about time as if it were horizontal (a straightforward relation with left-to-right reading); while Mandarin (mostly written from the top down) commonly describes time as vertical. The fact remains that language is a powerful tool in shaping abstract thought.
People often talk about time using spatial language: “long holidays” or “short theater play”. Daniel Casasanto, cognitive psychologist, ensures that we think using mental metaphors: “not only do people talk about abstract domains using spatial words, but also think about these using spatial representations.”
English speakers, for example, prefer distance metaphors to describe time (e.g., for a long time) as well as events (e.g., a long party), while Greek speakers usually choose volume metaphors for time (e.g., poli ora or much time) and events (e.g., parti pou kratise poli or party that lasts much).
In that regard, Casasanto concludes: “beyond impacting on thought for talking, language can also intervene in the non-linguistic representations we build to remember, act on and even perceive the world around us. It may be universal that people conceptualize time according to spatial metaphors, but given that these metaphors change with languages, the members of different linguistic communities develop distinctive conceptual repertoires.”
Researcher Lera Boroditsky, who studied time representations in Pormpuraaw —a remote Australian Aboriginal community— has arrived at similar conclusions. These representations of time differ strikingly from all others documented to date.
“Previously, people have been shown to represent time spatially from left to right or right to left, or from front to back or back to front. All of these representations are with respect to our bodies. Pormpuraawans instead arrange time according to cardinal directions: east to west,” explains Boroditsky.
And she adds: “time flows from left to right when one is facing south, from right to left when one is facing north, toward the body when one is facing east, and away from the body when one is facing west.” It becomes clear that language plays a key role in a person’s thought formation. And this formation gets even more complex if a person is bilingual or multilingual. The truth is that every language is unique and also provides a unique perception of the world around us. Hence the importance of preserving each language and encouraging multiculturalism.