How deep are effects of language on thought? Time estimation in speakers of English, Indonesian, Greek, and Spanish

, , , , , , , , , and . Proceedings of the 26th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, page 186--191. (2004)


Do the languages that we speak affect how we experience the world? This question was taken up in a linguistic survey and two non-linguistic psychophysical experiments conducted in native speakers of English, Indonesian, Greek, and Spanish. All four of these languages use spatial metaphors to talk about time, but the particular metaphoric mappings between time and space vary across languages. A linguistic corpus study revealed that English and Indonesian tend to map duration onto linear distance (e.g., a long time), whereas Greek and Spanish preferentially map duration onto quantity (e.g., much time). Two psychophysical time estimation experiments were conducted to determine whether this cross-linguistic difference has implications for speakers’ temporal thinking. Performance on the psychophysical tasks reflected the relative frequencies of the ‘time as distance’ and ‘time as quantity’ metaphors in English, Indonesian, Greek, and Spanish. This was true despite the fact that the tasks used entirely non- linguistic stimuli and responses. Results suggest that: (1.) The spatial metaphors in our native language may profoundly influence the way we mentally represent time. (2.) Language can shape even primitive, low-level mental processes such as estimating brief durations – an ability we share with babies and non-human animals.

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