Archive for the ‘Time’ Category

Time and Language

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

Having had this site pointed out to me, I was rather struck by this phrase;

For instance, both Chinese and Anglo-American culture regard time as a continuum, but when referring to the past and the future in terms of “back” and “ahead,” they adopt different starting points. A traditional Chinese stands facing the past, perceiving what just happened as ahead of him and what is yet to come as behind him. A native English speaker, however, assumes the opposite viewpoint.

Not especially surprising, given the traditional importance of ancestors in Chinese culture, but what is interesting here is how it reminded me of this:

I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. In particular, he has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or, in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future.

Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality.

Another topic that leaves me reminded somewhat of the Sapir/Lee Whorf hypothesis then, though the Chinese conception is precisely what one would expect of a collectivist society characterised by long-term orientation. As before, I’d suggest that the discovery of language formation by a group of deaf children in Nicaragua should have ended these debates. Given that the discovery made it abundantly clear that a genetic basis for language formation exists, it seemed fairly clear that the notion of the signifier is logically prior to the sign. The other problem is that the Lee Whorf hypothesis has little explanation of language change. The entire basis of socio-linguistics is the observation of language change in response to social change; it doesn’t easily work in reverse.

That said, there is some evidence for the weaker aspects of the linguistics relativism hypothesis, though if language and thought could be described as having some form of interactive relationship, proving the nature of that relationship is fraught at best. One final point is that the connection between Chomsky’s transformative grammar and Fodor’s Mentalese (i.e. both advance an innate inner propositional representation language as opposed to natural language and have correspondingly been advanced by the evolutionary psychologist Pinker against the Lee Whorf hypothesis) seems imprecise, especially given Fodor’s antipathy to the kind of evolutionary psychology perspective advanced by Pinker.