Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and there’s a very good reason for that. For a over a year now, I’ve been focussing my attention on a new project, a YouTube channel of educational videos based on the sorts of things I’ve been writing about on this blog, which you can find at https://www.youtube.com/user/Alliterative. In fact several of the early videos you’ll see there are based on blog post I’ve written. It occurred to me that I could get the ideas across more clearly and entertainingly if I simply spoke them, along with illustrative images, and since there didn’t seem to be anyone making videos on these topics, I decided to set myself the task of learning to do them myself. It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s finally ready for launch. Here’s the one-minute promo trailer:

To accompany the videos I’ve also created a website, http://www.alliterative.net/, with additional information, credits, etc., and I’m moving this blog over to that site. I’ve transferred all my previous posts over to there (though I’ll still leave them up here too, in case anyone has links to them). From now on though I’ll be blogging at http://www.alliterative.net/blog/, so head over there if you want to keep reading.

So thanks for reading the blog here, and I hope you enjoy the new videos and continued blogging on the new site!

Categories: General | 1 Comment

Time: Discovery

An excellent summary of a fascinating interdisciplinary magazine (fully readable online) with a current issue about time…

What's in a Brain

A friend recently turned me on to Nautilus – a self-proclaimed “different kind of science magazine,” that weaves science together with philosophy and culture. Each issue has a general theme and is comprised of 4-5 chapters, one published every week, and each containing a few different articles.

Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 9.15.03 PM

The current issue is Time: mysteries of the moment. Considering time is a topic with which many of us are intimately familiar (we make it, spend it, kill it, waste it, give it, and occasionally even enjoy it…), the authors’ abilities to make me see time through new lenses is pretty welcomed. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Chapter 1: Discovery:

The very first line of the introduction:

There’s a ticking bomb in the corner of your awareness. The danger isn’t the bomb, though—it’s the clock. Time, that most pedestrian, over-measured, and tightly regulated quantity of our daily…

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Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Clip show: Links to links part 2

Following on from my last post, here are some more links to some interesting online content that is related to the topics I write about here, along with some commentary from me. First of all, have a look once again at the blogroll in the sidebar — I’ve added some more blogs, including Whats in a brain? which has a recent post on linguistic relativity and time. Now in today’s post I’ve got some longer lecture-type items, mostly by academics but aimed at a broad non-specialist audience. Wherever possible I’ll try to include links to both video and audio versions for you to choose from.


First of all is a talk by James Burke titled “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll” (also available in iTunes). In addition to his usual connections approach, this is an excellent argument for the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. It’s also very witty and entertaining, as usual for Burke.

At the end of the last post I linked to some basic introductory linguistics videos, and here is another very good introduction to the basics of linguistics, “Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain” by Steven Pinker. This lecture is part of the Floating University initiative, and in it Pinker does a pretty good job of not only presenting basic linguistic concepts but also introducing and giving a balanced treatment of some controversial issues such as language universals and linguistic relativity, subjects that he has fairly strong views on. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

Related to the subject of language universals is Daniel Everett‘s Long Now lecture “Endangered languages, lost knowledge and the future” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on Fora.tv). Based on his observations of the Pirahã language, Everett argues against the Chomskyan notion of  an innate universal grammar, and instead suggests that language is a cultural tool invented by humans to serve a social function.

Lera Boroditsky gives an excellent introduction to recent research on the subject of linguistic relativity in her Long Now lecture “How Language Shapes Thought” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on Fora.tv). In particular, Boroditsky many of the language and time issues I’ve written about recently. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

On the subject of time, here is Claudia Hammond‘s RSA talk “Time Warped” based on her book of the same name (the full audio of the talk is also available in iTunes). Hammond discusses many interesting issues about time perception. Here is a YouTube video of the edited highlights of this talk:

Cognitive scientist David Eagleman also works on time perception (as well as a variety of other topics). Here are two lectures of his from The Up Experience. In the first, he gives good summary of his work on how we perceive time and how our sense of time is largely a construction by the brain:

In this second Eagleman talk, he discusses, among other things, the relationship between the present self and the future self, drawing on a story of Odysseus and the sirens from the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey to describe what he calls the Odysseus contract:

Economist M. Keith Chen also draws on the idea of future discounting, which Eagleman refers to in that last video, in his highly controversial connection between how languages handle the future tense and future planning (which I’ve discussed before here and here). Here is his TED talk presenting this theory:

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about our orientation to time, that is being past, present, or future oriented, and what this means to the way we approach life, also touching large scale cultural differences, in his RSA talk “The Secret Powers of Time”. Here are the YouTube videos of both the full lecture and the excellent 10-minute RSA Animate video excerpted from it:

And finally, since I started this post with James Burke’s kind of connections, I’ll end with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung‘s TED talk “I am my connectome”, in which he discusses his connectome project of mapping the brain’s neuronal connections, and related book Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are:

I’ll hopefully be able to get back to more substantive blogging later on in August, but for now good watching/listening!

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, General, interconnectivity, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | 1 Comment

Clip Show: Links to links part 1

To tide things over for a while until I have more time to write more substantive posts, I thought I’d like to put together a post of some curated links to online content relevant to the sorts of topics I’ve been writing about recently. Think of it as a kind of clip-show approach to keep putting posts up while I’m a little short of time to write. First of all, needless to say, have a browse through the blogroll at the side of the page. It isn’t an exhaustive list of the blogs that I read, but it reflects the kinds of subjects I write about here, as well as the interdisciplinary breadth I’m arguing in favour of. Next, in this post I’m including some podcasts and YouTube channels which regularly touch on issues of language, cognitive science, and in particular issues to do with time. I’ll save some one-off links to longer lectures for the next post.

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot

First up, there are two excellent language podcasts, Talk the Talk, featuring linguist Daniel Midgely and co-host Ben Ainslie, and Lexicon Valley from Slate magazine, with Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield. For Talk the Talk I’m going to recommend episode #29 “Time in Amondawa”, which looks at the topic of space-time mapping I’ve written about recently, and for Lexicon Valley I recommend episodes #8 “When Nouns Grew Genitals” and #9 “And May He Be a Masculine Bridge”  which look at the question of linguistic relativity, and features the work of, among others, Lera Boroditsky, whom I’ve referred to on several occasions.

If you’re interested in the cognitive stuff, have a listen to The Brain Science Podcast, in which Dr. Virginia Campbell, MD reviews books and interviews scientists on a variety of neuroscience topics, and All in the Mind, in which host Lynne Malcolm covers a variety of topics about psychology and the mind. In particular, for The Brain Science Podcast  I’ll recommend episode #94 “How the Brain Makes Meaning” in which Dr. Campbell interviews linguist Benjamin Bergen about his book Louder Than Words, and for All in the Mind I’ll recommend the episode “How language shapes thought”, which again touches on Boroditsky’s work.

Now for some videos. Brady Haran has a number of educational YouTube channels, mostly on scientific topics, but also including Words of the World, which uses words, their meaning and history, as a jumping off point to examining culture and history through a series of interviews with academics from a variety of disciplines. However, I’m going to recommend three of his videos which deal with the subject of time. First from PsyFile, “Time Perception”, which discusses how the brain perceives and keeps track of time:

Next, from PhilosophyFile, “The Philosophy of Time”, which is a good introduction to some basic concepts such as McTaggart’s ideas about time and the A series (past, present, future) and B series (earlier, later) of time:

And finally, from Sixty Symbols, “Arrow of Time”, which looks at the question of whether or not physics requires directionality in time:

On the channel YouTube channel Vsauce, host Michael Stevens, who has a background in neuropsychology, frequently posts educational science videos, including this one titled “How Old Can We Get?”, which discusses not only biological time, but also issues about time perception:

And finally for today, Tom Scott has recently been posting a number of short video introductions to linguistics topics, including this one, “All The Colours, Including Grue: How Languages See Colours Differently”, which discusses the linguistic relativity question:

So have a browse through these links — they should provide some depth and background to the posts I’ve been writing lately. And coming soon, some longer lectures that have been influencing me lately.

Categories: cognitive, General, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | Leave a comment

The Shape of Time: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Today I’m going to write a bit about the shape of time, a big topic which I’ll need to come back to a number of times to discuss specific examples. Consider this an overview of the topic, which follows on from my last post’s discussion of circular and linear time. In particular, today I’m going to focus on how we use space to think about time, where we locate different times in our mental landscapes. It turns out that this is not as straightforward as it might at first seem, and there is plenty of variation.

Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

The first thing we need to cover is the idea that we need to use metaphor to think and speak about time. Time is an abstract idea. We have no direct way of perceiving time, no sense devoted to it. There are, of course, workarounds to this, and in fact in many cases we’re quite good at estimating the kinds of timeframes we tend to have to deal with in day-to-day life. It seems the brain has no one internal clock, though there are regions of the brain that control things like the circadian rhythm (specifically in that case the roughly 20,000 neurons collectively known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus), and it has been suggested that the number of things we experience and the number of memories we create affects our judgement of the duration of time. We are also able to perform motor tasks that require very precise timing, and can judge the minute time difference between sounds coming in one ear and the other in order to have stereo location of sounds. However, our experience of time can also be quite flexible, as Claudia Hammond discusses in her book Time Warped (which I’m working my way through right now). In any case we have difficulty thinking and talking about time without relating it to something else, as suggested by the passage I quoted from St Augustine a couple of posts ago.

suprachiasmatic nucleus and  circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

suprachiasmatic nucleus and circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

It is frequently noted then that we use metaphor to talk and even think about time, metaphor particularly drawn from the concrete domain of space, to think and talk about the very abstract domain of time. Indeed that’s generally the way it works, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By — we constantly use metaphors drawn from very concrete, experiential domains in order to think about all the more abstract domains, and we can’t get very far without doing this. Language, and indeed thought, is essentially metaphorical once you get past the concrete and the physical. Space is one of the first things we perceive and experience in life. As babies we soon learn spatial relationships, first learning to make sense of visual data, such as the arrangement of features on a face, and then interacting with the spatial domain as we become able to move through it. Thus unsurprisingly we use spatial metaphors to deal with a whole host of more abstract ideas.

It has been suggested, by Lakoff and Johnson as well as by many others, that all people, cultures, and languages draw on space to deal with time, though it has recently been argued that speakers of the Amazonian language Amondawa don’t do this space-time mapping at all (and indeed they may do very little abstract thinking about time at all, the research suggests). In any case, though most languages draw on space to talk about time, not all cultures/languages arrange time in the same metaphorical spatial relations.

In English, we’re accustomed to talking about time in what is called a sagittal axis, that is back to front relative to our bodies, with the future in front of us and the past behind. But this isn’t the only possible mapping of time onto space. There are some languages that locate the past in front and the future behind, due to the fact that we know what has already happened, but can’t “see” the future. This has long been suggested of Ancient Greek, with the following comment on the word ὀπίσω ‘backward’ in the standard 19th century Greek lexicon by Liddel and Scott: “of Time, hereafter, since the future is unseen and was therefore regarded as behind us, whereas the past is known and therefore before our eyes”. A similar claim has been made of the Madagascar language Malagasy (according to Øyvind Dahl), and other languages as well. While there has been some criticism of these claims, Núñez and Sweetser very convincingly demonstrate that this is the case in the South American language Aymara. The nice thing about their research is that they draw not only on linguistic evidence of this metaphor, but gestural evidence as well. I’ll discuss these examples at more length in a later post.

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

English speakers also tend to use a left-to-right arrangement for time as well, with the past to the left and the future to the right. Though we never use left-to-right metaphors in speech — you don’t for instance say Boxing Day is right of Christmas — test subjects will tend to arrange temporally ordered pictures in this direction and more quickly recognize temporal orders if consistent with the left-to-right arrangement. This temporal arrangement seems to be influenced by writing direction, with Hebrew speakers showing the opposite right-to-left arrangement consistent with their writing direction. Mandarin speakers tend to more often use an up-down arrangement for time, consistent with their writing direction (at least sometimes and in some places, particularly in Taiwan, but more on that in a later post), and even use up-down metaphors in speech, with above being earlier and below being later. Though I’ve never seen it suggested in any of the research, I wonder if the mechanism for this kind of directionality is not so much the writing direction itself, but at least in part the arrangement of book mechanics. In English books we read the left page and then the right one, and then turn the page to the left. Even before they can read, children master the mechanics of a book, based on the pictures and the turning of the pages by whoever is reading to them, and thus they are trained into understanding narrative, and thus time, as progressing in that particular direction. Of course the arrangement of a book, left to right or right to left, is at least in part influenced by writing direction, but it seems to me to be worth researching what the effect of book direction is, looking for instance at up-down languages like Mandarin to see if there is a secondary left/right bias based on page turning direction. Furthermore, we can consider narrative conventions — in film, it seems to me, journeys out are more often depicted as going toward the right and journeys home towards the left. Look for this next time you watch a science fiction tv show or movie like Star Trek, with journeys away from earth more often depicted towards the right. And what are the cinematic conventions in other cultures?

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

An even more striking example of a different spatio-temporal arrangement can be found in languages that use absolute spatial terms, such as cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), rather than body-relative ones, as in English right and left. The Pormpuraaw languages of Australia, for instance, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, are such languages. Speakers of these languages are always aware of their absolute spatial orientation, since they always have to use these absolute terms to refer to any spatial arrangement. Essentially they would, for instance, have to refer to their north leg rather than their right leg. Furthermore they draw on this spatial reasoning for reasoning about time, always arranging pictures in temporal order east to west regardless of the orientation of their own body, clearly mirroring the course of the sun in the sky. And there are a variety of other shapes and spatial arrangements for time as well, such as concentric, near and far, up and down hill, and so forth. More on these later.

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

There is one last issue relating to our spatio-temporal arrangements I’d like to mention today: how movement is used to think about the passage of time. One can think of either time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, for instance, as in “the holidays are approaching”, or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path, as in “we’re rapidly coming to the end of the year”. In English, both of these metaphors are available, though this isn’t necessarily true in all languages. And it turns out, you draw on spatial reasoning actively, so that if you are already predisposed to thinking of yourself moving in space, by say going on a journey, you are more likely to think of yourself moving through time. This sort of thing can affect how we interpret ambiguous phrasings such as the sentence “let’s move Wednesday’s meeting back two days”. Does this mean the meeting is now on Monday or Friday? It depends on whether you are thinking from a time-moving perspective or an ego-moving perspective.

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

So that’s a bit of an overview of some of the issues relating to how we use space to think about time. I’ll come back to a number of these examples that I’ve mentioned here and discuss them in more detail in future posts, along with some other interesting cases that I haven’t yet mentioned. The upshot of all this is that we think about time in very different ways, depending on language and a variety of other cultural influences. There seems to be great variation in human temporal cognition. Try to pay closer attention to the ways you talk about time and the kinds of metaphors or expressions you use (not necessarily just spatial ones), and don’t assume these are universal and shared by everyone. It’s endlessly fascinating.

A select bibliography because making footnotes in WordPress is irritating and I’m getting lazy (and sorry about the messiness and inconsistency here, but again I’m feeling lazy):

Bergen, Benjamin K. “Writing Direction Affects How People Map Space onto Time.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 109. Frontiers. Web.

Boroditsky, L. “Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers’ conceptions of time.” Cognitive Psychology 43.1 (2001): 1–22.

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. “Do English and Mandarin speakers think differently about time?” Cognition (2010), doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. “Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community.” Psychological Science (2010), doi:10.1177/0956797610386621

Dahl, Øyvind. “When the Future Comes from Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences for Communication.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 19.2 (1995): 197-209.

Gaby, Alice. “The Thaayorre Think of Time Like They Talk of Space.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 300. Frontiers. Web.

Guen, Olivier Le, and Lorena Ildefonsa Pool Balam. “No Metaphorical Timeline in Gesture and Cognition Among Yucatec Mayas.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 271. Frontiers. Web.

Hammond, Claudia. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Canongate Books, 2012. Print.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Núñez, Rafael E. & Sweetser, Eve. “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time.” Cognitive Science 30 (2006): 401-450.

Sinha, Chris et al. “When Time Is Not Space: The Social and Linguistic Construction of Time Intervals and Temporal Event Relations in an Amazonian Culture.” Language and Cognition 3.1 (2011): 137–169. Print.

Categories: culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, time, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Linear and Cyclical Time: Time’s Arrow or Boomerang?

Cultures can vary widely in terms of their conceptualisation of time. Simply put, there are many different ways of thinking about time. We can picture time in different ways, drawing on different sets of imagery, or using different metaphors. We can understand time in relation to ourselves or in relation to some external frame of reference. We can divide time up in different ways, and have different beliefs about how time affects us. And how we think about time can be intimately related to a host of broader cultural values or beliefs. In modern western cultures, for instance, we tend to think of time in terms of a three-part structure of past, present, and future, with time moving in one direction without repetition. Though events can repeat themselves, tomorrow is fundamentally different and separate from yesterday.These conceptualisations are not universal across all cultures, and can also change over time. It should also be said that any given culture may have more than one way of looking at time too.

cyclical vs linear time

cyclical vs linear time

Anthropologists have often described cultures as having either cyclical or linear notions of time. Though this simple binary may be something of an oversimplification, it’s still a useful model to consider. Cyclical time, naturally enough, emphasises repetition and is very much influenced by the cycles apparent in the natural world. The day/night cycle regulates our lives, telling us when to sleep and when it is productive (and safe) to go about the business of agriculture or hunting/gathering. Cyclical patterns are suggested by seasonal cycles and their relation to agriculture. Shorter cyclical patterns, such as the day/night cycle or the phases of the moon, can be used to track these larger cycles, with growing seasons or human gestation lasting so many months or days. In many cultures, these kinds of cyclical patterns are infinitely repeatable and part of a recurring overall cycle of time. Traditionally, anthropologists have identified this notion with early or prehistoric, and I suppose significantly pre-literate, cultures. Without a system of writing, it’s hard to envisage a future that is fundamentally different from the past. These types cyclical patterns, of course, haven’t gone away from modern western culture, but many argue that they have become subsumed by the larger framework of linear time. Thomas Cahill, for instance, in his book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, argues that Judaic culture fundamentally changed Western culture by contributing this sense of linear time, which of course was adopted by Christianity and thus spread throughout Europe and the western world. Here’s an excerpt from the blurb on the website for Cahill’s book:

The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies–a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence–and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As Thomas Cahill narrates this momentous shift, he also explains the real significance of such Biblical figures as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Pharaoh, Joshua, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Have a look also at this reading guide to accompany Cahill’s book — it also gives a useful overview of his argument.

Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill

Judeo-Christian thinking implies a one-way, linear time in which the future is fundamentally different from what has gone before, with bibilical time progressing from creation to judgement day. Each successive moment is qualitatively different from the one before, and there is no repetition. According to Cahill this fundamental aspect of modern Western culture comes to us thanks to the Jews, who he argues thought about time in a way that was radically different from all the contemporary cultures in the Mesopotamian world from which they came. And it is not hard to see that our modern sense of progress, of forward momentum, of change, stems from this way of looking at time. Indeed, as Cahill argues, cyclical time is kind of the norm in most cultures around the world, and the Jewish notion of linear time was an unusual innovation when it came along. Having spread, through Christianity, becoming the predominant mindset for modern western culture, it’s influence is global, but we would do well to remember it isn’t universal, and I would argue the same could be said for the handling of time in language.

Categories: time | 10 Comments

Augustinian Time: some things never change

For my first post on time, I’m going to start with something which may seem like an odd place to start, the ideas expressed about time by Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions. This is not the most basic or fundamental way of thinking about time, but it does in many ways seem to lie behind a lot of our modern western conventional notions of time, and thus reflect many of our preconceptions about time.

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1494

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1494, Uffizi Gallery (from Wikipedia)

The Confessions is essentially an autobiography, in which Augustine describes his misspent youth as what we would now see as a troubled teen from a good family who acts out in a variety of antisocial behaviours, the whole wine, women, and song routine. Some things never change, I suppose. In his Confessions he famously encapsulates his feelings at that time with the line “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Eventually he cleans up his act and converts to Christianity, becoming one of the Four Fathers of the Western Church who basically established much of the groundwork for the Western Church as we know it today. What is perhaps surprising about this autobiography is that it ends up with some reflections and commentary at the end which we might now recognise as an early attempt at cognitive science. In book 10 he expounds on a theory of memory, and in book 11 he turns his attention to time.

He starts off with the oft-quoted statement about the difficulty of discussing the subject, musing “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know: but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not” (Conf. XI.xiv.239). Well, I know I often feel that way, so again some things never change. He then goes on to discuss the very familiar and conventional three-part way of looking at time, with a future that in the instant that is the present is converted into the past. As we’ll see in future posts, this three-part, moving time way of looking at things isn’t the only way — indeed there is a great deal of variety. But for Augustine writing in a Roman, Christian context, this is pretty standard. The Latin verb system has three tenses, past, present, and future, and the Christian sense of history moves inexorably from Creation to Judgement Day.

But the particularly clever bit is what he does next. He collapses all three times to cognitive operations in the present moment:

“Clear now it is and plain, that neither things to come, nor things past, are. Nor do we properly say, there be three times, past, present, and to come; but perchance it might be properly said, there be three times: a present time of past things; a present time of present things; and a present time of future things. For indeed three such as these in our souls there be; and otherwhere do I not see them. The present time of past things is our memory; the present time of present things is our sight; the present time of future things our expectation.” (Conf XI.xx.252)

Cognitive scientists still express this idea in pretty similar ways, as for instance does Bruno G. Bara in Cognitive Science: A Developmental Approach to the Simulation of the Mind when he states that “In general terms, time is a feature of certain functions: the past is a function of memory, the present of consciousness, the future of planning” (Bara 270). Sounds a lot like Augustine, doesn’t it? Once again, some things never change. Bara expands on and further explains this notion:

“Considering men and women as living systems, we immediately discover that the sole dimension that is real for such systems is the present. Within this present inhabited by the system, other times are constructed. All mental activity in the system is carried on in the present – from perception to reflection to problem solving. If by chance the system requires data that are not immediately available, it can call upon memory stores, from sensory buffers to long term memory. These are structured in such a way as to permit the system to utilise a piece of information even when it is not immediately at hand. But whatever mental process the system is engaged in, from the attempt to recover notions stored decades earlier to planning an action to be carried out the following day, the time in which these functions are executed is always the present. It is the present that creates all the tenses of thought. We saw earlier that memory is properly speaking a construction of (past) memories occurring in the system’s present — I reconstruct my past in my present. The same is true of planning the future — I construct now what will happen tomorrow. The future is built by projecting the present. Finally, if a system becomes conscious of its present state it can create its own present. By activating memory processes, we can gain the sensation of returning to the past. By concentrating on our current state, we become conscious of the present. By utilising projection procedures, we can travel into the future. Nevertheless, everything always comes about thanks to the present functioning, here and now, of our cognitive processes — past, present and future are all constructed in the present.” (Bara 270–271)

Time, at least as we conventionally understand it, is a function of our minds, and how we talk and think about time have an important connection. (And I won’t, for the moment anyway, get into a broader discussion of our scientific understanding, or lack of understanding as it turns out, of the reality of time, and instead stick with time perception, cognition, and communication, that is how we experience time, how we think about time, and how we talk about time.) Anyway, I’ll leave it that for now before I lose your attention, as I’ve no doubt gone on long enough about what is essentially a fairly straightforward point. In the end, some things never change.

Categories: time | 3 Comments

It’s all relative (part 2)

In my last post, I gave a brief potted history and explanation of the concept of linguistic relativity. Now I want to touch on some of the reaction to this new wave of research on linguistic relativity and talk a bit about my own take on it.

Through most of the 20th century there really wasn’t much solid evidence supporting the notion of linguistic relativity, and as I’ve said linguists were mainly focussed on looking for universals in language. So it is perhaps not surprising that in spite of the growing body of experimental evidence to support the idea, there is still considerable resistance. But in the recently burgeoning field of cognitive linguistics, linguistic relativity is starting to gain real traction again.

As Daniel Casasanto points out, most people who argue against the idea of linguistic relativity are objecting to the wrong thing.1 Most proponents of linguistic relativity don’t hold that language is the same thing as thought, just that it can influence thought. Casasanto proposes the simple (and quite elegant) mechanism of learning. Through repetition, language trains us into thinking in certain ways. Learn a new language and you are gradually trained into a new way of thinking. This is a convincing explanation that seems to fit much of the the data well. There is also evidence to suggest that we sometimes draw on language as a tool to aid thought. In some experiments, when your ability to use language is negated (by tying up your language faculties with other linguistic tasks like reciting a series of numbers), the linguistic relativistic effects lessen or disappear. Thus there may be more than one mechanism at work here. Clearly there is still much work that remains to be done to figure out the exact scope and parameters of this Whorfian effect.

Daniel Casasanto

Daniel Casasanto

It’s interesting to note that many of the people who argue against linguistic relativity tend to focus only on strong linguistic determinism or other notions, such as the idea that language is thought, that few if any still argue for, and largely ignore the more recent work in this area. It’s a bit of a straw man argument really. Or they’ll focus solely on the false claims made in popular media on the topic. See for instance this very revealing debate on linguistic relativity from a few years ago. There certainly are a great deal of misleading and downright incorrect claims popularly made about linguistic relativity which is quite rightly deserving of criticism, but the popular media has a long history of misrepresenting the ideas of scientists and other academics, and none of this really reflective of the merits of the real argument itself. I do think that the weight of opinion will gradually shift as more research is done. I’m certainly convinced that at least some of what is claimed about linguistic relativity is true and valid, and well supported by the evidence that I’ve seen, but much of this research is still on the cutting edge of the fields of linguistics and cognitive science, so time will tell.

For my own part, it seems to me that we frequently ask the wrong questions when debating the validity of linguistic relativity. Does language influence thought, or does thought influence language? Well it’s likely both. And clearly there are external factors on both, what we might refer to as culture.2 It is perhaps best to think of a complex three-way relationship between language, thought, and culture, in which each influences the other two, which may lead to feedback loops with language, thought, and culture reinforcing each other back and forth. Furthermore, it is not at all surprising that often real-world evidence of Whorfian effects seem hazy, as one would expect multiple, often conflicting, linguistic influences on thought as well as multiple cultural influence. Rarely if ever would it be the case that an element of language is the only thing that influences some aspect of the way one thinks or behaves. But just because the Whorfian effect is frequently cancelled out or overruled doesn’t mean it isn’t operating beneath the surface. In highly controlled experimental situations, such as those Boroditsky creates, it is often possible to isolate a Whorfian effect, but it is such a complex system that practically speaking these effects may be hard to see clearly in the real world, though sometimes it seems to come out in startling ways. Again, even if the effects aren’t clearly visible, it doesn’t mean that the influences are not there. Human behaviour is complex and not easily reducible or predictable. See also my previous comments on interconnectivity — it’s the complex nature of the connections that’s really interesting here.

Language, Thought & Culture

Language, Thought & Culture

I’m not myself concerned with isolating these influences or devising some kind of predictive theory about behaviour, though those lines of research are certainly important themselves. Since I come more from the humanities side of things rather than the sciences or social sciences, I’m more concerned with interpreting rather than predicting, so my main interest is seeing what linguistic relativity can tell us about the complex interrelationship between language, thought, and culture over time through the course of history. And as I’ve said, I see all these elements influencing each other. The (admittedly imperfect analogy) I like to think of is that even though the gravitational effect of a pebble on the earth is tiny compared to the effect of the earth on the pebble,that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, and if enough pebbles start pulling in the same direction, metaphorically speaking, the effects can add up. Of course the tendencies of individuals may in many cases be far more variable than any Whorfian effect. The Whorfian effects might be the tipping point in an otherwise evenly balanced situation, or might only be noticeable in isolation or in the aggregate; but if they line up with other cultural influences the outcome might be profound, with the kind of feedback loop effect I alluded to earlier.

Gravity action-reaction (Wikipedia)

Gravity action-reaction (Wikipedia)

In any case, I’ve waffled on about this topic no doubt to the point of boring any casual reader into giving up on this post several paragraghs ago, so I’ll stop now, though it’s likely that the topic will come up again in future posts.

1 See Casasanto’s excellent and wonderfully titled article “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic Differences in Temporal Language and Thought”. [back]

2 See Dan Everett’s fascinating work on the cultural constraints on language. Based on his research on the fascinatingly different language Piraha, Everett rejects the notion of universal grammar and concludes that language is constrained by culture and is in fact a cultural tool, an invention by human beings, not an innate instinct. See also Everett’s more popularly targeted book Language: The Cultural Tool. I’ll be writing more about these topics in the future, particularly as they relate to time in language and thought. [back]

Categories: linguistic relativity | 2 Comments

It’s all relative (part 1)

This is the last of the background posts I had planned (for the time being anyway). In the others, I have written about cognitive philology, interdisciplinarity, and interconnectivity. Here I wish to briefly state my position on linguistic relativity. I’ve touched on the topic before in a number of other posts, and it was the focus of a conference paper I mentioned, but I thought it was worth briefly summarising in one post what exactly linguistic relativity means (to me in any case), and what position I take on this often controversial topic. I’ll break it into two posts to keep it from being too long, so expect the second part to follow shortly. I’ve briefly explained linguistic relativity before, but here in more detail is the summary I originally wrote (in slightly modified form) for a conference paper, with special focus on some recent research on the topic by Lera Boroditsky.

Linguistic Relativity Thesis

Linguistic Relativity Thesis

The idea of a relationship between language and thought was touched on to some extent by such early 20th century anthropologists as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, but is was really due to the systematic treatment by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Sapir, that it became a focus of attention. Though Sapir himself never directly argued for a strong causal link between language and thought, Whorf’s bold claims about such a connection have led to the idea being often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Simply put, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that differences in linguistic features (and that could be anything from words to the kinds of grammatical information expressed in a language, like verb tense, to syntactical structures used) from one language to the next determine or at least influence the ways in which speakers of those languages think about the world. For instance, Whorf made the observation (largely incorrectly as it turns out) that “the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time,’ or to past, present, or future” (57) and thus he concluded that it was “gratuitous to assume that Hopi thinking contains any such notion as the supposed intuitively felt flowing of ‘time’” (58).1 There have come to be two versions of this hypothesis, the strong and weak versions, sometimes distinguished as linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. The strong determinism version maintains that the particular linguistic categories available to a speaker determine and constrain what the speaker is able to think, whereas the weak relativity version states only that language differences can lead to differences in thought. While few scholars still hold to the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the weak version has remained an open question.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, this notion fell out of favour and has been strongly rejected, especially after Noam Chomsky first proposed the notion of a universal grammar, which has since become the mainstream position. Chomsky specifically rejected Whorf’s idea of linguistic determinism, and instead held that language differences were surface-level only, and that all humans shared a common grammar driven by a common faculty of language acquisition. More recently, Steven Pinker states unequivocally that the theory is “wrong, all wrong”, and instead argues for an underlying language common to all people, which he calls ‘mentalese’, and further proposes that humans possess an innate instinct for language which has evolved through natural selection.2 Indeed the mainstream view for the past half century has been to search for universals in human language, and to assume that human cognition too is universal regardless of linguistic differences. As Whorf’s linguistic observations had fallen through, and in the absence of much real evidence in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the notion of linguistic relativity remained either a fringe view or one of mistaken popular conception only.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

However, in more recent years, perhaps only the past decade or a little more, many of these mainstream notions in linguistics have been challenged. For one thing, linguists are more and more starting to challenge the idea of a universal grammar,3 especially in the light of cognitive linguistics which seeks to explain linguistic phenomena on the basis of general cognitive principles rather than specialised language mechanisms. Furthermore, new experimental evidence in support of linguistic relativity is being generated by a number of cognitive scientists, most notably Lera Boroditsky, along with her various collaborators and other researchers working along similar lines.

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Boroditsky’s research is based mainly on experimental procedures, often involving cross-linguistic evidence, generated by conducting controlled lab experiments on native speakers and measured by very quantitative results such as response times. She has conducted research on such phenomena as colour perception, demonstrating that possessing particular colour categories in one’s language improves one’s performance in non-linguistic colour discrimination tasks. Thus Russian speakers can more quickly distinguish between two distinct and mutually exclusive shades of blue, goluboy ‘light blue’ and siniy ‘dark blue’, than English speakers, who collapse all such shades under the one umbrella term blue. Boroditsky has also shown the effect of agentive language on eye-witness memory, with speakers of languages that grammatically require an agent even for accidental events having better memory of the agent involved in an action which they have witnessed; this is the case with English, which uses more agentive language, as opposed to Japanese or Spanish, which use less agentive language, for instance. The quantity of agentive language also correlates with the assignment of blame and even harshness of penalties, both in laboratory experimentation and in analysis of court transcripts. Boroditsky has also demonstrated that grammatical gender has an impact on how we think about objects, assigning gendered qualities to them and influencing how abstract concepts are allegorised in art, a result that will be of little surprise to most art historians.

goluboy & siniy

goluboy & siniy

Boroditsky has also done a considerable amount of work on time cognition, particularly the use of spatial metaphor for describing and reasoning about time. She has demonstrated, for instance, that different languages use different spatial metaphors, front/back in English, and up/down in Mandarin. It turns out that people use these varying spatial-temporal metaphors even in non-linguistic cognitive tasks, and thus think about time in different ways. Also in terms of spatiotemporal metaphor, one can think of either time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, for instance, as in “the holidays are approaching”, or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path “we’re rapidly coming to the end of term”. And it turns out you draw on spatial reasoning actively, and being primed with one spatial arrangement or another can affect your performance of temporal reasoning. Furthermore, whether you conceive of time as moving left to right, as English speakers do, or right to left, as Hebrew speakers do, seems to be dependent on the writing direction in your language; as well, different languages conceive of the future either in the front, as in English, or behind, as in Aymara. And in reversing the perspective, ego-moving or time moving, we also reverse the directionality, such as front/back. Thus, in ambiguous statements such as “We moved the meeting forward a day”, forward can be taken to mean more in the future or less in the future. Perhaps most striking are the differences between languages which use body-relative indications of space, as in right and left in English, and languages which use only absolute directions such as cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). The Pormpuraaw languages of Australia, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, are such languages. Speakers of these languages are always aware of their absolute spatial orientation, and furthermore draw on this spatial reasoning for reasoning about time, always arranging pictures in temporal order east to west regardless of the orientation of their own body. Differences in metaphors used for duration of time are also cognitively significant, such as with linear distance in English as in “a long time” and amount in Greek “poli ora” or “much time”.

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

With many of these effects, Boroditsky has demonstrated that not only does the brain seem to use language online for non-linguistic tasks, which can be demonstrated by running language interference tasks which disable one’s ability to use language in the moment, but also that the effects of language differences are also long-term. Thus bilingual speakers perform differently depending on the linguistic context – they essentially think differently depending on which language they are using. But also, learning a new language can change your cognitive performance even when you are currently using your old language, and can even change how you speak your own language, and thus speakers of languages in which tense-marking is optional have been shown to mark for tense more often if they speak another language which requires tense marking. Of course Lera Boroditsky is not the only scholar working on the question of linguistic relativity, but I mention her work in detail since much of it focusses on language and temporal reasoning, which is of particular interest to me.4

In the next post I’ll touch on some of the more recent reactions to this research and talk a bit about my own take on it.

1 Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought & Reality (MIT Press, 1956). [back]

2 Pinker’s book The Language Instinct was so persuasive to me, in spite of the fact that I now think he is in many ways fundamentally wrong on this, that I think I was rather too timid in the position I took in my doctoral dissertation. [back]

3 A very broad debate that I can’t go into here but see this article for a thorough treatment of the topic. [back]

4 There is of course much I’ve left out here, such as the “thinking for speaking” model of Dan Slobin, but I wanted to focus mainly on the aspects that are most relevant to my own interests. If you want more information on this topic, you would also be well advised to read Boroditsky’s entry on linguistic relativity in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, as well as this more detailed and somewhat more critical account from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In future posts I’ll also go into a bit more detail about Boroditsky’s work on time which I’ve summarised above. [back]

Categories: linguistic relativity | 1 Comment

Time off and time on

As is no doubt obvious, this blog has gone dormant for a time due to the busy-ness of life, what with kids home for the summer and then a busy academic year. But after this unfortunately extended time off from this blog, I want to pick up where I left off.

As promised ages ago, I first want to write (or rather finish writing) a post that both explains and lays out my position on the the concept of linguistic relativity, and how I think language, thought, and culture are interrelated. I also have few one-off ideas on topics such as semantics, memetics, and the formulaic nature of language, as well as some hopefully fun and light-hearted posts (which I’ll keep under wraps for the moment).



But my big plan is to go back to the topic which I’ve been working on, on and off, for over 15 years now, time in language and thought. My doctoral dissertation was on the coneptualisation of futurity in Old English, and came out of an interest in how English developed from a language that didn’t originally have a systematic way of expressing the future, and how this might relate to the Latin language which does have grammatical future tense, the adoption of a new religion, Christianity, which has important conceptual foundations involving a notion of future time, new philosophical concepts such as the free will/predestination debate, etc. So first of all, I’ll review some of that research (and how my thinking may have changed in some ways since then), but also much of the attendant background to this topic, about time in general in thought and language, which will give me a chance to write about some of the stuff that was too tangential or just didn’t fit with the dissertation.

There has also been an explosion of work over the past decade or so, and particularly in the last couple of years, on topics that relate to this, such as the work by Lera Boroditsky and a number of other scholars on how we use space to think about and talk about time (and also in particular the research by Daniel Casasanto and Vyvyan Evans), or by David Eagleman on time perception, and even popular nonfiction books on time, such as Claudia Hammond‘s Time Warped and physicist Adam Frank’s About Time. My own most recent conference paper dealt in large part with spatio-temporal metaphor in Old English. But in an attempt to keep these posts fairly informal, easily approachable, and not overly wrought, as was my original intention when I started this blog, I’m going to try to write about these topics in an off-the-cuff manner without putting a lot of advanced planning into organization. So they’ll be a little haphazard as I jump from one topic to another as I think of them in an attempt to get the ideas down quickly.1

It’s often pointed out that time is the most common noun in the English language (and is similarly high ranking in other languages too), and that three of the top five nouns are time-related words (the other two being year and day). Personally, I’ve always been interested in and maybe even obsessed with the notion of time, how we think about time, how we talk about time. I’ve always been fascinated by clocks and watches,2 and I’ve always been drawn to stories about time and especially time travel, such as the tv show Doctor Who and my favorite children’s book The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit. Even before I started in on my graduate school work I became fascinated in the free will / predestination debate and as an undergraduate read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and the debate on free will between Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. Indeed even now I often include a number of texts in my regular teaching rotation that pick up on themes and motifs of time, such as Alice Munro‘s “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, Stephen Leacock’s “The Retroactive Existence of Mr Juggins”, Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps”, and the Christopher Nolan film Memento, so I also want to post about literary representations of time, including more popular forms of literature and entertainment.

So if you’re interested in a somewhat chaotic series of reflections on time in language, thought, and culture, then watch this space…3

1 Organizing these ideas into something more cohesive may be a project for a later time. [back]

2 An antique Waltham pocket watch given to me by my mother is one of my prized possessions. [back]

3 I’m hoping that having posted this, I will now be more motivated to follow through with it and do it, but any words of encouragement will certainly help give me a kick in the complacency. [back]

Categories: General, time | 1 Comment

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