The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass

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Abstract

How do humans construct their mental representations of the passage of time? The universalist account claims that abstract concepts like time are universal across humans. In contrast, the linguistic relativity hypothesis holds that speakers of different languages represent duration differently. The precise impact of language on duration representation is, however, unknown. Here, we show that language can have a powerful role in transforming humans’ psychophysical experience of time. Contrary to the universalist account, we found language-specific interference in a duration reproduction task, where stimulus duration conflicted with its physical growth. When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity. These patterns conform to preferred expressions of duration magnitude in these languages (Swedish: long/short time; Spanish: much/small time). Critically, Spanish-Swedish bilinguals performing the task in both languages showed different interference depending on language context. Such shifting behavior within the same individual reveals hitherto undocumented levels of flexibility in time representation. Finally, contrary to the linguistic relativity hypothesis, language interference was confined to difficult discriminations (i.e., when stimuli varied only subtly in duration and growth), and was eliminated when linguistic cues were removed from the task. These results reveal the malleable nature of human time representation as part of a highly adaptive information processing system.

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