Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan


How Time Works

It’s interesting how engrained time is within the language you speak, and how we take for granted our concept of time. When referring to past events, we often point behind us.  Likewise, if asked to lay cards out with temporal events on them, it is likely they would go from left to right, with the future being rightmost.  When teaching english, it is common to draw horizontal timelines on the board to teach tenses, marking the present as somewhere in the middle and the past to the left.  Learning a new language opens your eyes to how other people think, and how stupid your own language can be.  Today I learnt that the Chinese concept of time is vertical rather than horizontal.  What I mean by this is that If you were to give the same set of event cards to a speaker of Chinese, it is likely they would put the oldest even at the top, furthest away from them, and the newest event at the bottom, close to their chest. I have also read that Hebrew speakers would order the cards from right to left.  This all stems from how the language is written. Chinese is commonly written from top to bottom, therefore, past events are closest to the top.  Likewise, Hebrew is written from right to left, so old events are to the right.  There are even some tribes that have no concept of time at all, or regard it very differently to all of us.  The same experiment on a certain tribes-person found that placing cards from oldest to newest depended on where they sat relative to the sun, always going from east to west, no matter what direction they faced, and consequently changed the position of the cards to respect this. This shows that no only do they have a more circular approach to time, with the rising and setting of the sun, but also a very impressive internal compass.

We might say, “good times are ahead”, or “the bad times are behind us”.  However, Chinese is ordered vertically, so they say “The month above” 上個月 for last month, and the month below 下個月  for next month.  This is very confusing until you realise the vertically arrangement of time.  Another confusing aspect is this.  The word for “in front of” is 前面 (qian mian) and “behind” is 後面 (hou mian).  The root terms qian and hou are also used as time particles, so “the future” is yi hou  (behind) and the past is yi qian  (in front).  Thus, when referring to the future, you would normally point behind you.  I managed to get my head round this by imagining i’m standing on the vertical time line looking to the past.  The past has already happened so you can see what you’ve done, therefore it is “in front of you”.  The future is unknown, so I imagine walking backwards (down the line) and and thus can imagine it as “behind” me.

On an unrelated but interesting note, when Western people refer to themselves they point towards their heart, whereas the majority of people here would point to the nose.  Strange.

P.s. this picture has nothing to do with the post but might get people to click my blog more.