Which direction is your future?

By Marie Rogers

There are thousands of different languages spoken in the world today. Each one has a unique way of expressing thoughts through sounds. But does the language you speak affect the way you think?

Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that language determines thought; this came to be known as the Whorfian hypothesis. For example, he claimed that the Hopi language has no words for time, and because of this, the Hopi tribe’s thoughts about time are considerably constrained and inferior to English speakers’. Of course this logic doesn’t hold up: if we could not conceive of things we have no words for, then how would we learn anything new?

This extreme position is now generally disregarded, but the question of whether language can bias and facilitate thought is still debated. We are able to express a huge amount through language. We often use metaphor to help us express difficult and abstract concepts such as “time” or “love”.



Many cultures use space to talk about time, but these metaphors are not always consistent. In English, the future tends to be in front of the speaker whereas the past is behind, e.g.:

“I’m looking forward to the party”

“Think back to yesterday’s lecture, what do you remember?”

However, speakers of Mandarin use vertical spatial terms to talk about time. They use the terms xiá (up) and sháng (down) to talk about the past and future, respectively. Speakers of Mandarin might say that the future “lies below them”.

This difference in metaphors provides an opportunity to look at how differences in language might influence the way people think. That is, do English speakers think differently about time than Mandarin speakers?

One study tested this by showing English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking participants pairs of pictures of celebrities taken at different times. They were asked to indicate whether the second picture was taken earlier or later in the celebrity’s life by pressing the corresponding button. Mandarin speakers were quicker at getting the correct answer than English speakers when the “earlier” button was vertically below the “later” button. This finding suggests that an up/down metaphor for time might facilitate quicker responses to up/down position in real space.

It is fascinating to think that the reality we feel that we live in is not just the result of input from our eyes and our ears and so on. It may also be constructed by the language that we speak.