culture and thought

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 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 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

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

A page from (recent) history

Today’s post is a quick example of the kind of language-culture connection that can be made by using the Google ngram tool I mentioned in the last post. It features some wildly unsupported hypothesizing, but sometimes that’s the way we do things here.1

Pager or beeper?

Pager or beeper?

It had actually occurred to me years ago that there had been a shift in the use of the terms pager and beeper (to refer to the portable electronic paging device). This observation was based completely on subjective impression. It seemed to me that the word beeper used to be more common, an impression I formed from things like television and film, but that the word pager to refer to the same device was becoming increasingly common. I attributed this to the increasing use of the devices by the general public, not just those in special niches, such as doctors or plumbers. The word beeper calls attention to external impression of the devices — they make beeping noises. The word pager calls attention to the function of the devices. Of course in the years since, the devices themselves have largely disappeared with the advent of the cell phone.

Now with the ngram tool (and a little background research) I can test this observation. Pagers were invented in 1950 (as you can read about in the Wikipedia entry). The devices were not initially referred to as beepers or pagers. As you can read in this early Popular Science article, the service is referred to as a radio paging service and the unit itself is referred to as a pocket ratio or portable receiver. As it turns out, the words pager and beeper both predate the device which they have come to refer to. The OED lists the first attestation of the word beeper in 1946 to refer to any machine which makes a beeping sound. According to Merriam-Webster, the first use of the word with its current more restricted use is 1970. The word pager was originally a printing term, referring to someone who makes up type into pages (dating from the 19th century). The first use of the word to refer to the radio device is not until 1968.

Now these other senses of the words beeper and pager may cause some ‘noise’ in the Google ngram search results, particularly in the earlier years before the current uses become more common, but these other uses are rather uncommon and are soon drowned out. In any case, some general trends are quite clear.

pager & beeper 1950-2008 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to enlarge)

pager & beeper 1950-2008 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to enlarge)

pager & beeper 1950-1980 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to englarge)

pager & beeper 1950-1980 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to englarge)

Initially beeper has the edge on pager. Then in the early 1990s, as the devices become more commonplace, the word pager surges ahead, and beeper starts to level off and eventually decline. Of course both words drop off dramatically in the early 21st century as the devices themselves become uncommon. So now, thanks to the Google ngram tool, I’ve easily been able to support this casual supposition I’ve been making all these years. It’s a fun game to play. If anyone reading this wishes to play around with the ngram tool, I’d love to hear about your results in the comments.

1 It’s my blog and I can do what I like! Obviously one could do a little more digging and consider things like regional variation, other terms beyond the two I consider here, and other influencing factors, but this is just a quick example. Do also have a look at the Culturomics website, and in particular the Cultural Observatory for more details about this kind of analysis. Also, have a listen to this podcast from Lexicon Valley about the analysis of the language used in such historically-set tv shows as Downton Abbey and Mad Men. [back]

Categories: culture and thought, linguistics | Leave a comment

Kalamazoo Time

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Between end-of-term grading and preparing a conference paper, I haven’t had much time. But speaking about time…



I’ll be attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. It’s the biggest specifically medieval academic conference. I don’t have time to write much more about it now, but here’s a summary of my paper, titled “Linguistic Relativity Revisited: Language and Thought in Old English”:

Ever since Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that there was a connection between language, thought, and culture, the concept of linguistic relativity has been a highly controversial topic. The famous (or notorious) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposed that differences in linguistic categories from one language to the next determine or at least influence the ways in which speakers of those languages think about the world. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, this notion fell out of favour and has been strongly rejected. For instance, 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’. However, in the past decade new evidence has come to light, pioneered in particular by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, that reopens the debate on linguistic relativity. Boroditsky’s research, bolstered by extensive experimental data, suggests that language differences can have profound differences on the way speakers think about the world.

This paper will explore the implications of this research for the understanding of Old English language and thought. In particular, I will focus on linguistic categories involving time and tense, including the use of spatiotemporal terms for time. Old English speakers were powerfully influenced by the very different language and culture of the Latin speaking Christian missionaries. I argue that exploring the differences between these languages helps explain the development of the language, literature, and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

In the paper, I’ll not only be drawing on Boroditsky’s work, I’ll also mention the recent controversial paper by M. Keith Chen which I’ve blogged about before (here and here), and looking back at an old book by Ernst Bauschatz on Germanic notions of time. So though short on time, I’ll be speaking mostly about time.

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics | 3 Comments

Numbers Count: Thought, Culture, and Number Systems

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an excellent talk by Dr. Geoffrey Saxe titled “Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas: Papua New Guinea Studies”, part of the Thought and Culture Seminar at Laurentian University. This lecture touched on a number of interests of mine relating to thought, culture, and language. Here’s the abstract for the talk:

Psychological studies of cognitive development are often conducted without regard for the interplay between the cognitive activities of individuals and the cultural histories of communities. In my talk, I illustrate a heuristic research framework that illuminates this interplay through studies drawn from a program of work conducted in a remote Mountain Ok community in Papua New Guinea, the Oksapmin. Traditionally, the Oksapmin like their neighboring groups use a 27-body part counting system to represent quantity. Over three periods of fieldwork that stretch 23 years, I trace the shifting organization of the system and the shifting functions it serves as it is reproduced and altered in collective practices of daily life. Though the focus of the talk is on the Oksapmin case, I point to ways that the framework is useful for understanding the dynamics of culture-cognition relations more generally.

The research page of Dr. Saxe’s website has a good brief summary of the two lines of his research, and the publications page has this more detailed account of his research into the Oksapmin 27-body part counting system.

Geoffrey Saxe and the Oksapmin

Geoffrey Saxe and the Oksapmin

To summarise, Saxe looked at the counting system of the Oksapmin, in which numbers correspond to 27 body parts of the arms and head, as in this illustration taken from the website:

The Oksapmin counting system

The Oksapmin counting system (rollover for detailed caption)

These are cardinal numbers that are used to count, but Saxe found that traditionally they were not used for arithmetical calculation. In this brief video clip, on Saxe’s website, you can see this counting system being demonstrated.

The Oksapmin were first contacted by westerners in 1938, and gradually western culture has influenced Oksapmin society since then. Saxe has made three visits to study the Oksapmin and observe the changes in their traditional counting system, in 1978, 1980, and 2001. Two major influences on change are financial transaction, as the Oksapmin became more and more integrated with western economy, and education, as western-style schools were established in the region. For basic counting tasks, the traditional system could be used for counting out money, but more complex arithmetical calculations novel adaptations of the system began to be developed, many of them quite ingenious workarounds. Unsurprisingly, Saxe found that the more integrated a person was with western culture, the better they would be able to perform such arithmetical tasks, especially without a physical object to count, such as coins. In terms of education, initially the educational policy was to ban the use of any language other than English in the classroom. Saxe reports, therefore, that the traditional use of the body-part system was on the wane by his 2001 visit. However, educational policy had changed, and greater value was attached to traditional culture and practices, and attempts were being made to bridge traditional and western culture, rather than simply suppress the traditional. Thus the body-part system began to be used in the classroom. However, as the body-part system was no longer in much use in traditional contexts, the use in the classroom was somewhat divorced from the older tradition.

I am, of course, summarising and simplifying here, and no doubt I am missing many of the subtleties and complexities of Dr. Saxe’s research, as I only had a chance to briefly look over the article before the presentation, though I look forward to reading it more carefully now. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend you read for yourself the article itself (as well as his other research).

Some particular questions / areas of interest I have about this research include the issue of bilingualism. Greater knowledge of western culture goes along with differences in use of the number system. Do bilingual speakers perform differently when performing the same tasks in different linguistic contexts, and does learning a different number system change the way one uses the traditional one? The evidence here seems to suggest yes. Another small question I have is do the Oksapmin use words for right and left — the counting system outlined above seems to use an expression (‘tan’) meaning “on the other side” — and does this have any bearing on things.

Ultimately Dr. Saxe’s work seeks to develop a framework for dealing with the complex cultural and cognitive interplay at work here, and how this leads to changes in knowledge systems over time. He noted the lack of inclusion of social history in the study of cognitive development, for which he thus tried to develop a working model. Obviously this could have very broad implications and utility to other situations, and is particularly relevant to my own interests in the interplay between culture, cognition, history, and language change, and so I look forward to learning more about his work.

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought | 2 Comments

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