Wednesday, December 29, 2010

English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently.

I pass on this abstract from Boroditsky et al., and a few clips from the article:
Time is a fundamental domain of experience. In this paper we ask whether aspects of language and culture affect how people think about this domain. Specifically, we consider whether English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently. We review all of the available evidence both for and against this hypothesis, and report new data that further support and refine it. The results demonstrate that English and Mandarin speakers do think about time differently. As predicted by patterns in language, Mandarin speakers are more likely than English speakers to think about time vertically (with earlier time-points above and later time-points below).
From their text:
Both English and Mandarin use horizontal front/back spatial terms to talk about time. In English, we can look forward to the good times ahead, or think back to travails past and be glad they are behind us. In Mandarin, front/back spatial metaphors for time are also common. For example,  Mandarin speakers use the spatial morphemes qián (‘‘front”) and hòu (‘‘back”) to talk about time...Unlike English speakers, Mandarin speakers also systematically and frequently use vertical metaphors. The spatial morphemes shàng (‘‘up”) and xià (‘‘down”) are used to talk about the order of events, weeks, months, semesters, and more. Earlier events are said to be shàng or ‘‘up”, and later events are said to be xià or ‘‘down”.  For example, “shàng ge yuè” is last (or previous) month, and “xià ge yuè” is next (or following) month...This difference between the two languages offers the prediction that Mandarin speakers would be more likely to conceive of time vertically than would English speakers.

In the experimental paradigm, participants made temporal judgments following horizontal or vertical spatial primes. On each trial, participants first answered several questions about the spatial relationship between two objects (arranged either horizontally or vertically on a computer screen), and then answered a question about time (e.g., March comes earlier than April; TRUE or FALSE). Participants’ response times to the target question about time following either the horizontal or vertical primes were the measure of interest.

The basic finding was that both groups organize time on the left-to-right axis with earlier events on the left, a pattern consistent with writing direction. But, Mandarin speakers also show evidence of vertical representations of time, with earlier events represented further up. English speakers showed no evidence of such a representation.

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