Which Direction Is Your Future?

Direction of Time in Language

Everyone has past and future. But not everything has a direction. Thus we can’t travel through time as we like. To refer to a point of time, we have to make use of spatial metaphor to reason it. We convince ourselves, time is on a line: up & down, left & right, front & back. And, here comes interesting cultural difference.

In English, we’re used to past on the left, future on the right. See how dates are arranged in our calendars. Because our words are written from left to right. But that’s not universal. You may heard that, Chinese language is traditionally written from top to bottom. That influenced the Chinese’s mindset of past is on top of now, and future’s lower. Sounds strange? In practical Chinese writing, previous month is referred as ‘the month above’ (上個月), and next month is ‘the month below’ (下個月). Likewise, Hebrew speakers treat time from right to left.

It’s all about how your brain builds the time-space model. There was a research by Stanford University asking people a seemingly simple question: ‘Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. What day will the meeting be on?‘ Monday? Friday? The sequence of dates in your mind already has the answer.

Further reading:
How We Make Sense of Time, Scientific American MIND, Volume 27, Issue 6


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