April 23, 2013 | Mandarin

On Chinese Time

Do Americans think differently about time than Chinese people do?

Today in a discussion of time in Beginner’s Chinese by Yong Ho (second edition), I read:

When asked to visualize the movement of time from past to present and then to future, most American students would say time moves horizontally from left to right, with left being the past, the midpoint that meets the eye the present and the right being the future. In Chinese however, time is perceived of as moving vertically from top to bottom, with the top being the past, the midpoint at the level of the eye the present and the bottom being the future. 

(Thus was it written, by the way.)

This, Ho says, explains Chinese terms such as shàngwŭ (morning) and shàng ge yuè (last month), where shàng is “up,” and xiàwŭ (afternoon) and xià ge yuè (next month), in which xià is “down.”

Yong Ho's Book, Complete with Time Philosophy!

Yong Ho’s Book, Complete with Time Philosophy!

First of all, I find it fascinating that people in different cultures could think differently about time. But does this really describe the differences between Americans and Chinese correctly? I am curious. 

In fact, I’ve wondered for years about how other people visualize time. I have images in my head for all kinds of time units—with a a blend of left-to-right and up-and-down layouts.

For days of the week I automatically picture a row of little lozenges running from Sunday to Saturday, left to right.

For decades I go vertically—so more Chinese style, according to Mr. Ho. If I think of the twentieth century, I picture it as a big grid with 10 rows, with each decade accorded a row and divided up into years. The first decade of the 1900s is at the top, followed by 1910 to 1919 in the second row, 1920 to 1929 in the third, and so on. 

When I think of World War II, I automatically scroll up and right to 1939 in my century block and see a kind of shading of that year and the first half of the next row. If I think of the Civil War, I scroll back to the page allocated to the previous century—which works just like the twentieth century but in more sepia tones overall—and promptly land in the 1860s row.

If I take a larger view and consider five centuries at a time starting with the eighth, then the century pages run left to right, with the eighth century on my left, followed by the ninth, tenth, and eleventh, and then ending with the twelfth.

I know birth years for all my grandparents and parents (which I have noticed is not all that common among my friends and acquaintances), in part because they are pegged to my mental twentieth-century board, which also includes birthdays for me, my sisters, and many other people. If I think of Bach (which, as a not very musical person, I don’t do all that often), I mentally mark 1685, his birth year, on the seventeenth-century board and then scan through to the next century board, where 1750, the year of his death, is shaded.

Months, too, are images in my head. The months of the year form a messy mental circle. If I read the circle like a clock (which I don’t normally), the three summer months run from about 11:00 to 1:00, and the three fall months are crammed into the space running from 1:00 to 3:00. January is right after 3:00, and maybe early February, and then suddenly winter slides off the bottom of the circle like wet snow off a tree and ends up with the rest of February at 9:00 and March at 10:00. Somehow April and May get squished in there before 11:00.

I doubt I ever think of a date without picturing it on this weirdo wheel. I did not intend to be so self-indulgently prolix with this description, but I find this kind of visual mapping very relevant for language. I have wondered before how common it is and whether it relates to my love of learning languages, of spelling, of grammar. 

I am less conscious of how mapping occurs in my head with language, unfortunately, but I think things get sliced and diced into categories and stored that way, sometimes more effectively and sometimes less so. I get very frustrated, I know, when I don’t understand a piece of grammar and can’t put it in the right pocket somewhere. It disturbs the preferred mode of functioning of my brain.

When I try to speak a new language, I feel sort of as though I am retrieving from different grammar drawers in my brain as I go through a sentence. I do not feel it slows me down to do it in this way. In fact, I think the process speeds up the learning process for me, because I draw on patterns rather than individually memorized phrases.

I would love to hear from other language lovers about more language-y types of concept mapping they have noticed in their own brains.

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