Spacetime and Linguistic Relativity

“Are our own concepts of ‘time,’ ‘space,’ and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages?”

This quote by Benjamin Whorf begins a fascinating article by Casasanto et al. on the concept of linguistic determinism, which first traces the evolution of this question before presenting new data that bear on it.

In recent years, strong forms of linguistic determinism have fallen out of favor in cognitive circles. Much of this can be traced to fallout from Whorf's often-ridiculed suggestion that Eskimos have seven different words for snow (or as many as 200 if you believe the popular press), and thus must cognitively represent snow in a different way than the rest of us. The authors note Pullman's observation that English may also have seven words for manifestations of snow ("slush, sleet, powder, granular, blizzard, drift, etc"), thus highlighting an inherent source of subjectivity in vocabulary-based arguments. The authors also cite Pinker's criticism of Whorf's circular logic: "[Eskimos] speak differently so they must think differently. How do we know that they think differently? Just listen to the way they speak!"

Casasanto et al. point out that non-linguistic evidence is critical to demonstrate that speakers of different languages "also think differently in corresponding ways." For example, it is perhaps unsurprising that language affects the kinds of thinking that ultimately lead to spoken responses. A task with non-verbal responses would make a much stronger claim about the broader influence of language on thought. (Chris at Mixing Memory came to the same conclusion: "there is still no nonlinguistic (i.e., non-circular) evidence that time is conceptualized metaphorically through mappings to space.")

To that end, the authors devised two experiments to elicit differences in time perception. These experiments were administered to English, Indonesian, Greek, and Spanish speakers. English and Indonesian speakers tend to express time in terms of distance: for example, "long night" or "long relationship." In contrast, these phrases are not usually directly translated into Greek or Spanish, because those languages express the equivalent thoughts along the lines of "big night" or "big relationship." In other words, they preferentially express time in terms of volume. Thus, speakers of each language may show different patterns of performance on time-estimation tasks that utilize the concepts of distance or volume.

In a first experiment, Casasanto et al. presented speakers of each language with pixels on a computer screen that slowly grew into a line of 9 different possible lengths. These lines grew at 9 different speeds, resulting in 81 possible types of line stimuli. On each trial, subjects had to estimate either how far the line grew (spatial judgment), or how long it took to grow (temporal judgment), by clicking on the screen with the mouse. Thus, in this experiment, time was represented at least partially by distance.

In a second version of this experiment, time was represented by volume - in terms of how long it took an animated jug to accumulate with water. As in the previous experiment, there were 9 different final volumes of water, and 9 different speeds of water accumulation, which were fully crossed to yield 81 possible stimuli.

The results showed that time estimation was strongly affected by line length, but only for English and Indonesian speakers. Time estimation was also strongly affected by volume, but only for Greek and Spanish speakers. Neither group differed in their overall time-estimation accuracy on either task; instead, the differences between groups emerged only in the strength of the effect distance and volume have on time estimation.

Casasanto et al. suggest that these results are compatible with at least one view of linguistic determinism. First, prelinguistic children all experience time in the same way, but as they begin to learn their language's particular conceptual mappings between other physical characteristics (such as distance, or volume) and time, these particular ways of viewing time become strengthened through repeated use and exposure. Notably, such effects are not limited to verbal responses, but may more deeply frame our experience and memory of reality.

Related Posts:
Time Perception I and II (at Mixing Memory)
On Time, Space, Metaphor (also at Mixing Memory)
Time Space Metaphors (at the Mouse Trap)
Language and Time (at Cognitive Daily)


Anonymous Sheryle said...

I started reading your most recent post first, not realizing that there is a continuum (I'll keep reading backwards). Good to see more (or rather, a prelude) on the intersection of culture, meaning, perception, and language. Whorf has so often been out of favor but he was on to something, I think, that is usually missed in the rush for more quantitative models and which-came-first arguments. Cassanto would agree, I think.

Rich for mining and thinking. I'll keep reading back through time.

10/10/2006 06:35:00 PM  

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