In some cul­tures, to­mor­row is to the left

FOR­GET THE GEARS OF A WATCH. THOSE COL­LEC­TIONS OF COGS AND springs might help us track the pass­ing hours, but the way we vi­su­al­ize tempo is far more nu­anced. “Time is ab­stract. It can’t be tall or short or big or small,” says Emanuel By­lund, a lin­guist at

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Write Way, Write Time

To un­der­stand this page, you need to read from left to right. That’s how the Greeks set up their al­pha­bet, one of the pre­cur­sors to our own. But in writ­ten Ara­bic, words flow in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, and in Chi­nese, char­ac­ters run top to bot­tom. Re­searchers have found that the di­rec­tion of your writ­ing de­ter­mines how you ori­ent the ar­row of time. When asked to or­ga­nize events in a line from ear­li­est to lat­est, English read­ers ar­ranged them left to right, Ara­bic right to left, and Chi­nese top to bot­tom. Peo­ple with­out writ­ing sys­tems, like Pa­pua New Guinea’s Yupno, had a free-form ap­proach.

Clock Half-Full

Swedish days are “long,” but Span­ish ones can be “full.” These metaphors help us see time, but they can also mess with our heads a lit­tle. In one ex­per­i­ment, peo­ple watched a short line grow on a screen for three sec­onds, fol­lowed by a longer line over the same du­ra­tion. The length­ier line tricked Swedish sub­jects into think­ing ex­tra time had elapsed. The same thing hap­pened when Span­ish­s­peak­ers watched a cylin­der fill up: To them, a fuller cylin­der meant more time had passed. They had no trou­ble with the line ex­per­i­ment, and vice versa for the Swedes. Words re­ally do mat­ter.

It’s All Up­hill from Here

Lo­ca­tion isn’t just a buzz­word for real es­tate agents; ter­rain can con­tour speech. Pa­pua New Guinea’s hilly land­scape has helped shape the indige­nous Yupno peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of time. To them, the fu­ture is up­hill and the past down. Cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Rafael Núñez from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego says that, while rare to­day, other ge­og­ra­phy­based time sys­tems may have ex­isted once, based on fea­tures like plains or wa­ter­ways. But mi­gra­tion to dif­fer­ent lands—and land­scapes —likely erased their use­ful­ness. “Per­haps this is not a sys­tem that trav­els well,” Núñez says.

Your Fu­ture Is Be­hind You

Time seems to come at us head-on: the fu­ture in front, the past be­hind. Not so for the Ay­mara peo­ple of the An­des. Be­cause the past is what they have ex­pe­ri­enced, it lies ahead, where they can see it. The fu­ture re­mains hid­den, so it is be­hind them. That’s be­cause vis­ual ev­i­dence is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to the Ay­mara. Their gram­mar, for in­stance, in­di­cates whether you per­son­ally saw Joe go to the store (-vna), or learned he was go­ing there (-tayna). You’d also use

-tayna if you saw Joe leav­ing while you were drunk, so your eye­sight can’t be trusted. This em­pha­sis on vi­sion frames their view of time.

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