Structuring time


In English, when we create a timeline, it tends to move along the horizontal axis, the past to the left, the future to the right. The left/right orientation is easily explained by the fact that the language is read from left to right, so we naturally want to follow that progression in an image. But why the horizontal orientation? As long as we’re envisioning time as a linear progression, why can’t we imagine it vertically, or diagonally, or spirally (linear doesn’t have to equal a straight line, right?).

History of English

With my admittedly limited understanding of Mandarin Chinese, I think that the structure of time’s idioms in the language would cause a native Mandarin speaker to envision time in a different way. I think that Mandarin facilitates a vertical conception of time, where the past is at the top and the future at the bottom. This is just conjecture, but if I’m right I think it’s interesting to consider the implications of these differing orientations.


reality is always more complex than you want it to be

Before we get into that, though, let me just say that I know I’m oversimplifying here. English can be written and read in a vertical orientation (think neon motel signs). There are also plenty of vertically oriented timelines in English. And while Chinese is traditionally written in vertical columns from top to bottom, it is still legible when arranged horizontally. I’m going to ignore these subtleties for now because I can and it’s convenient to my thesis.

see what I mean?

What I’m talking about

In English, if I want to talk about the month after this one, I can say “next month,” or “the following month.” Likewise, for the month before this one, I can say “last month,” or “the previous month.” The language is the language of the queue; one month after another after another, all lined up waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

In Mandarin, by contrast, “next month” becomes xiàgèyuè (下個月/下个月); basically “the month underneath,” or “the month below.” In the same way, “last month” becomes shànggèyuè (上個月/上个月), or “the month on top”/”the month above.”


What I want to do is play these colloquial metaphors out further and examine their corollaries.

Arranging time horizontally effectively levels the playing field. The past, the present, and the future all share the same “geographical” elevation and, by extension, the same hierarchic elevation; one is not more important than the other.

In addition, things on a horizontal surface tend to sit still until some force acts on them to get them moving (thanks, Newton). This means (1) that to get from the past to now, our ancestors had to do some work, and to get to the future, we have to do some work; and (2) the rate of progression through time is not constant (Einstein, anyone?).

And what about time along the vertical axis? (When I first mentioned this idea to Chloe, I had a few things in mind, but she pointed out that there were other possibilities I hadn’t thought of, so these ideas aren’t all mine.)

Situating the present between the past above and the future below lends a certain feeling of inevitability to events. You can’t fall upwards. It also means that there is both a constant acceleration and a terminal velocity at which we objects fall through time.

The past being above, you have to crane your neck upwards to see it, and when you do you probably see the tread of its boots. The future, you look down and see the top of its silly, futuristic hat. What I mean is that vertical time could possibly lend itself to a degree reverence for the past and disdain for the future, due to the hierarchic arrangement.

Having the future beneath you also means that you don’t have to do any work to get there. Life becomes a little easier in this light, and nostalgia becomes a little more futile.

So what?

Assuming that most other “Western” languages conceptualize time as English does (I don’t know if they do), and given that China is the largest nation in “the East,” I wonder if any of the larger cultural divides between East and West are the result of simple linguistic differences like these? I think it’s not impossible.

For the skeptics, here are some TED resources that talk about language’s capacity to affect the way we think:

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