Posts Tagged ‘Linguistic relativity’

Language metaphors and time

February 20, 2011 6 comments

Few are convinced that Whorfianism has any credibility to it. The theory’s strongest claim, in basic terms, is that language has the ability to shape thought. Nonetheless, it was found that color perception does not depend on differences in how languages classify color, and that Eskimos do no not have nine ways of conceptualizing snow because their language allows them to do so (That was a hoax, by the way). Hence, it was concluded that Whorf got it all wrong.  Later, with the rise in popularity of UG, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis went into obscurity.

Still, maybe if Whorf framed his theory in lighter terms,  it would not become so discredited.

For example, Matlock, Ramscar, and Borodinsky (2005) found an experiential link between spatial and temporal language. When we use language to refer to abstract things that we can neither see or touch, there is a tendency to rely on experience-based domains. Hence, we sometimes talk about time as if it is coming (the time has come), as if we are having it (I don’t have time to complete the work), as if giving it (give me more time)…you get the picture.

The researchers were primarily interested in whether “thought about fictive motion (FM; as in The road runs along the coast) can influence thought about time.” If FM uses the same structures involved in thinking about actual motion, then it should influence the way people think about time. They performed three experiments to test that. I will go over two of them:

Experiment 1

In this experiment subjects were asked to read a FM sentence, such as the road runs along the coast, and a similar non-FM sentence, such as the road is next to the coast. After that, participants were required to demonstrate their understanding by drawing a picture of what they’ve read.

Fig. 1: Example of drawing from experiment 1

Once they completed the drawing, they were required to answer an ambiguous question:

“Next Wednesday’s meeting had been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now that it has been rescheduled?”

If you carefully read the sentence, you will notice that it could have two answers since “forward two days” is ambiguous. The answer can be either Friday or Monday. If language has no bearing on how we conceptualize the world, then there would be no difference in the number of responses for Friday and Monday. Nevertheless, there was. Participants who read fictive motion metaphors were more likely to answer Friday (70% of the time), while those who read non-FM sentences showed no preference (51% for Friday). The results suggest that when people think about FM, they apply the motion perspective to their conception of time. Hence the highway runs along the coast primes subjects to think that they move forwards in time.

Experiment 2

The purpose of experiment 2 was to see how much FM metaphors can influence our understanding of time. The layout was similar to that in experiment 1, except that participants were required to read “FM sentences that varied on the number of scan points along a path (e.g., Four versus Eight versus Twenty versus Over eighty pine trees run along the edge of the driveway).” It was predicted that the larger the number of pine trees in the FM sentence, then the number of responses for Friday for the ambiguous Wednesday question would go up. The results matched the predictions for 8 and 20 pine trees (80%, 61% response rate for Friday), but not for 4 and 80 pine trees (55% and 50% response rate for Friday). The reason why participants were more likely to answer Friday for 8 and 20 pine trees and not for 4 and 80 pine trees is because for a very small or a very large number of trees they would not develop a ego-moving concept of time. Imagine that you are told to scan your driveway for the number of trees. Four trees can be scanned almost immediately, while 80 trees are not scanned individually. If you look at the example drawings the subjects made (Fig. 2), it becomes clear that 80 trees are lumped together and are likely scanned as a clump.


Fig. 2: Example drawings from experiment 2


…is simple. FM metaphors seem to have an influence on how we perceive time.

And in case you are wondering, further experiments done in this area demonstrated that it is not the act of drawing that influenced the connection between FM and perception of time.


Pinker and Chomsky might not like Whorf’s theory, but it is essential to remember that Whorf came up with it when psycholinguistics was largely non-existent and when there was not a lot of data from which one could derive plausible hypotheses. Therefore, it is important to keep a non-judgmental attitude and give Whorf the proper credit for at least asking the question, “Does language influence thought?”.

And, in anticipation, when I think of linguists and psycholinguists in 2050, I imagine that they would also ask themselves, “How the heck did Chomsky come up with his theory when he had so little empirical evidence by his side?”.
Matlock, T., Ramscar, M., & Boroditsky, L. (2005). On the Experiential Link Between Spatial and Temporal Language Cognitive Science, 29 (4), 655-664 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_17