For as long as humans have been around, we have sought to understand time. It dictates the way our society functions, disciplines exist dedicated to understanding it, and it is a notion we have a grasp of from an incredibly young age. Despite this, so little is known about how time works. This poses a challenge for language: how can we put this nebulous, but crucial, concept into words?
The challenge is twofold: how do we refer to points in time, and how do we refer to time itself? The solution to the former issue is systems of tense and aspect. By using a range of grammatical and lexical features, speakers can situate themselves temporally in relation to the event they’re describing. While it is possible to describe any point in time in any language, the tools that each language equips you with differ.
In English, we make morphological distinctions – distinctions related to the construction of a word – between past and non-past tense (for example, “walked” is past tense and “walk” is non-past), and additional grammatical distinctions between present and future (“walk” versus “will walk”). Some languages, like Italian, make morphological distinctions between all three tenses. Languages can have more tenses. Swahili, for example, makes a morphological distinction between the recent and distant past. In other cases, languages have fewer tense systems. Some, like Burmese and Dyirbal, don’t have any morphological tense systems.
The issue of describing time as a concept is a bit more challenging. Time is an abstract and nebulous concept – it’s not something we can see, and its nature is difficult to physically determine. Because of this, much of the language we use to describe time relies on metaphor. While these metaphors are typically consistent within a language, they tend to differ cross-linguistically. In English, a lot of the metaphors we use to describe time relate to direction, imagining time as if it is a straight line. We describe future events as “going forward”, and the past as “looking back”. In contrast, in languages like Aymara (which is spoken in the Bolivian Andes), the past is in front (the Aymara word is “nayra”, meaning “eye” or “front”), and the future, which you cannot see, is behind.“Q’ipa”, their word for “future”, is also the word for “back” or “behind”. This metaphor is not restricted to spoken language; an English speaker may gesture over their shoulder when speaking about the past (accompanying something like “way back when”), while an Aymara speaker might do the same when talking about the future.
As well as being a straight line, English speakers conceive of the line of time moving from left to right in the same way as our writing. In a study that asked English and Hebrew speakers to physically arrange images of events into a timeline, English speakers typically arranged them left to right from oldest to most recent, while Hebrew speakers, whose orthography goes right to left, arranged them in the inverse order. Similarly, speakers of Mandarin, a language which is traditionally written in vertical columns, see the “line” of time as being vertical rather than horizontal like English speakers do.
Many languages don’t see time as linear at all. In Thai, metaphors that describe time characterise time as a pool within which the speaker can walk around. In Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar, time moves, but speakers are static observers to it (as opposed to moving through time themselves). In some languages, like Greek and Spanish, time is three-dimensional – in Spanish, you can talk about someone being away “por mucho tiempo” (for much time), but not for a long time, because length is a fairly linear concept.
What do these differences say about the people who speak these languages? In 1944, Benjamin Whorf wrote a seminal paper comparing the way time was described in English and Hopi, a Native American language spoken in Arizona. He found that, in contrast to the direction- and movement-based metaphors of English, Hopi grammar suggested that time was simply a “getting later” of everything. His conclusion was that this reflected deep truths about Anglo and Hopi cultures, pointing to movement being central to much Western art, and Hopi culture having a strong emphasis on being prepared. While these conclusions have been contested in the 80 years since its publication, Whorf’s basic claim – that the affordances a language has to describe time are closely linked to how a culture views time – does seem to hold up. More recent studies have found, for example, that speakers of futureless languages – that is, languages like Mandarin, Japanese, and German which don’t have a future tense – tend to be more concerned about preparing for the future than speakers of languages like Greek, English, and Italian, which do have a future tense. Futureless speakers are more likely to invest in savings, practise safe sex, and to smoke less than those whose language does have future tense.
Our thoughts are inescapably filtered through language – I have written previously about how hard it is to conceive of things which we do not have words to describe. When the language you speak uses a particular metaphor or grammatical structure to communicate time, and when the culture you exist in echoes those same metaphors right back to you, it is easy to see how your understanding of such an abstract concept is so strongly shaped. Time is immensely complex, but it is something we can talk about with relative ease from childhood, and that is only made possible by the specific metaphor and structure that our language gives us access to. And I, for one, think that’s cool as hell.