Picture, in your head, a timeline of your life. Your birth at one end, your death at the other, today somewhere in the middle.
The night you burnt that clown's body, buried safely behind you.
We're going to take a wild guess and say that you imagined that line running horizontally, your birth on your left, your death on your right. Most English speakers imagine time that way, and then when we talk about events we picture ourselves moving along it like we were walking down a path. We talk about how we've put that terrible relationship "behind us," about that miserable physics exam we have "coming up" and how in few years "down the road" no one will care that we failed that exam just because a hasty drawing of a swinging dick does not, as it turns out, qualify as an answer to all 20 multiple choice gravitational rotation problems.
It might be enough to get you through freshman philosophy though.
Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, imagine time in a vertical sense. They'll sometimes talk about whether an event was "up" (already happened) or "down" (coming up in the future). The difference appears to relate back to how their text runs -- English reads from left to right, but Chinese text used to read vertically from top to bottom (and still does in some parts of the world). So it became second nature in the language to picture events unfolding in the same direction as in a story they were reading.
Now here's where it gets weird: They did an experiment at Stanford where they'd try to trip up this process by taking Mandarin speakers and having them arrange objects horizontally in a certain order, then asked them a series of time-based questions ("Does April come before or after March?").
The act of getting them thinking horizontally with the object puzzle made it harder for them to answer the time-based questions. Take an English speaker and make them do a puzzle where they have to stack objects vertically, and they'll then find it harder to answer the same questions having to do with chronology. In other words: Make them think in the wrong physical direction, and they find it harder to think about time.
Perhaps weirder than that, Indonesian people often don't use terms to explain the passage of time at all. That is, in English if you're reporting a crime, you're either going to say, "Mel Gibson shot my dad," "Mel Gibson is shooting my dad" or "Mel Gibson is about to shoot my dad." There's no way to relay that information without giving away where in the shooting process we currently are chronologically. But in Indonesia they have a way to just convey that without any tense at all, and they often do it.
They also often do this, whatever it is.
In experiments they were told to describe three photos of a guy approaching a soccer ball, kicking it and then watching it sail away. The Indonesians would often use exactly the same terms to describe all three, something like "man ball kick." Quiz them later on what was different about the three photos and they often can't tell you. Because their language doesn't require them to state the time sequence, they tend to not notice it. The language drives their thinking.
How does this affect everyday life in Indonesia? Science is just beginning to understand (one researcher joked that Indonesians always seem to be running late).
"Late again, Sue? How Indonesian of you."
Quick psychological test: If this ladybug could talk, what would her voice sound like? Would she be sultry and sexy? Motherly and nurturing? Bitchy? What's she thinking about -- her eggs? Getting food for her larvae?
Whoa, what's this?
Holy shit! She totally has a dick! It's almost like there are ... male ladybugs.
Of course, on some level you knew this (the angry dude ladybug was a running joke in A Bug's Life, after all) but the point is there are a few things in life you instinctively think of as being male or female, even when it makes no sense. Some of you are always surprised when you find out a poodle is male, for instance. Sailors think of their ships as female.
Despite the obvious wang-like shape.
Some languages do this with everything, however. Spanish and German assigns gender to every word. In Spanish, la cocina (kitchen) is female. You can tell because of the "a" sound at the end. Burrito is male. The "o" marks it as such (when they're talking about people, they always mark the sex -- in English you can say "my neighbor stopped by" but in Spanish you need to say "vecino" or "vecina," depending on whether the neighbor had a dong).
Just as the ladybug arbitrarily wound up with a name that makes you assign feminine qualities to it, inanimate objects in these languages suffer the same fate. And it is arbitrary -- in Spanish, their word for bridge is masculine. In German, it's feminine. Just like with the ladybug, on some level you know it makes no sense for them to all be women, and Germans know their bridges don't have vaginas. But experiments show they instinctively assign feminine qualities to them -- show a German speaker a picture of a bridge and they're more likely to describe it as "elegant" or "slender." The Spanish lean more toward "strong" or possibly "hung."
"What a slutty bridge."
In a different experiment, they sat a fork on a table and told the subject to imagine it could talk, the same as we did with the ladybug earlier. Like if they decided to do a really boring Pixar movie starring forks. French speakers (who refer to the object by the very feminine and delicate "fourchette") immediately assigned it a woman's voice. Spanish speakers (for whom this utensil is the very manly "EL TENEDOR!") cast it as a man, probably voiced by Chris Rock.
The same fork. Once their language started referring to the object as "he" or "she", they couldn't help but think of it that way.
Wait ... does this somehow explain the rubber testicles people put on their pickup trucks?
Ah, probably not.
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