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The language of time

By David, 5 October 2017 News

A sand timer on a road.

Is time a road to walk down, or grains of sand in an hourglass?
Image: ©iStock.com/underworld111

How do you imagine time? Is it a road, with the future fading off into the distance? Or is it an ocean, slowly draining as we spend our precious seconds? Surprisingly, the way you imagine time might affect the way you experience it!

The English language uses both of these metaphors. We talk about spending a long time on something, but we also talk about having heaps of time to spare. However, in English, describing time as a distance is much more common. The same is true for Swedish, where they say lång tid, which literally means ‘long time’. But some languages are different. For example, Spanish often uses the term mucho tiempo or ‘much time’, which is more about volume than distance.

Professor Emanueal Bylund and Professor Panos Athanasopoulos wondered if these language differences could affect how people experienced time. They developed a computer timer with different animations. Some animations were of lines growing longer, and others were of containers filling with liquid.

When they showed the timers to Swedish speakers, they found something interesting. When looking at the line timers, if the line was longer, the volunteers thought the time was longer. When they showed the timers to Spanish speakers, they found a different effect. When the timer showed a container filling up, Spanish speakers thought larger containers took longer to fill.

As a final experiment, they tried the same timer videos with bilingual volunteers who spoke both Swedish and Spanish. In this experiment, the researchers noticed a similar effect, which depended on the language used to explain the activity. When duration was explained in Swedish using the word tid, the volunteers were tricked by long lines. With Spanish instructions including the word duración, the volunteers overestimated the big volumes instead.

Humans don’t have a clock-like body organ that detects time. We have to use our other senses to be able to perceive time. And as this experiment shows, our language might play a part too!

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