What do languages tell us about time?

What do the languages of the world tell us about temporality and its nature?Anything unusual about tenses or lack of tenses in a language that might have an insight into time and our neurological perception of time?
Also, peripherally, is there a way to make a “timeless” language? One that is understood beyond time and tense, so to speak?

Ah, good old Sapir-Whorf again.

Where Sapir-Whorf relates to the OP about time perception and language: Whorf made some assertions based on the Hopi verb tense system. Stephen Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, disputes S-W’s claim that Hopi people perceive time differently just because of their verb tenses (which do not differentiate past from future). Does it mean that Hopis don’t notice a difference between past and future? That sounds absurd. “Whorf never met an actual Indian.” Personally, I have little patience with ivory tower theories that don’t even pay attention to the actual people they make assertions about.

“the Hopi do have a concept of time very similar to ours – and in fact have units of time, and a sophisticated calendar.”

Mmmm… it was my understanding that Whorf viewed Hopi verb tense usage not as failing to differentiate but as not mandating a definite statement referencing past/present/future or completeness/ongoingness. “He says that he will remodel the house he grew up in, where he’s been living for 30 years, which he had formerly been loath to do.” That sentence is replete with tense information – and it would be awkward to convey the same non-temporal information without the additional data about time. But, though I’ve never studied Hopi, it’s my understanding that Hopi tense structure doesn’t require specifying order along a temporal sequence the way that English does. It’s not that Hopi cannot express “The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled” but that it doesn’t require spelling out the pluperfect datum, or the intricate temporal information implicit in whether Joe had been getting drunk up until last month and then joined A.A. Not that the Hopi can’t convey detailed temporal information, but that they don’t have to.

Think of it as a parallel to grammatical gender in some languages such as Spanish. “The lawyer gave the accountant a picture taken by their first teacher.” That sentence conveys no indication of which sex the lawyer, acountant, and teacher are; a translation into Spanish would mandate filling in that detail.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerns only our ideas about matters such as time and the relationship of language and thought. The OP asks primarily about the nature of time itself, as revealed by thought and language. I would submit that thought and language tell us zip about time itself. For the nature of time, study physics, not language.

Walter von der Vogelweide says, “What IS time?”…

…THAT is time.

St. Augustine says “What then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

AKA Severin Darden - The Metaphysics Lecture, c. 1960

Heraclitus: “Time is like a river which flows endlessly through the universe, and you couldn’t step into the same river twice, Helen.”

Helen Heraclitus: “Don’t be an ass, Heraclitus. You could step into the same river twice if you walk downstream.”

He was amazed.


Aha, there you are, Benedetti!

op. cit.

I had never heard of Whorfiasnism. I mean, I had a concept of it but never knew the theory or the names behind it. Thanks for the links.

Although, I see there are many arguments against it. I believe there is some basis for Whorf and Sapir’s theory because of personal experience. Innately and intuitively, I feel as if my actual “hard wiring” and linguistic conceptualization was changed and expanded by my interest and attainment of some fluency in foreign languages, specifically German. If native language is a prison then the key to the cell is learning another language. Does anyone else feel what I’m saying? Is there a bit of logic that goes around this and disproves Whorfianism in this aspect?

[my bolding]

Irrelevant nitpicks:
You don’t feel this innately, but through experience.
“Hard wired” circuitry is, by definition, built in and unchangeable.

The problem with it is that it assumes a monodirectional link (or at last a predominantly monodirectional link). Being linguists, they failed the bone-obvious point that language expresses cultural values and ideas, and transmits them no more or less than any cultural value, and that it comes about because of cultural ideas. Just as people can grow, know more about their culture, and/or expand the scope of that ciulture in their own small corner, so too does language develop to fit every need we possess.

I admit, I despise Sapir and Whorf and their kind of linguist, too, so I may be biased.

Obviously, language is much less literal for me in concepualization. Hence, my apostrophic indicators.

Aren’t you admitting language is limited by cultural concepts? I don’t see what you are trying to say?

Wherewith, language may accommadate new or foreign concepts but it is analog to the language’s primal neurolinguistic structure. The idea may be expressed, but the language doesn’t precede the cultural concept.

Excuse me, I misspoke.


Since we’re on the topic of linguistics and time, how about this? The Russian historical linguist Vladimir Illich-Svitych wrote a little poem about historical linguistics and time. He wrote it using his reconstruction of the hypothetical protolanguage Nostratic.

KelHä we.tei ‘a.Kun kähla
.kalai palhA-.kA na wetä
s’a da ’a-.kA ’eja ’älä
ja-.ko pele .tuba wete

iazyk—eto brod cherez reku vremiani,
on vedët nas k zhilishchu umershchikh;
no tuda ne smochet priiti tot,
kto boitsia glubokoi vody.

Language is a ford through the river of time
It leads us to the dwelling of the dead
But he cannot arrive there
Who fears deep water.

The actual Nostratic text written in Illich-Svitych’s handwriting had various symbols that can’t be shown with the character sets available online. The redaction above is just an approximation with some symbol substitutions. Here is a page with an image file showing the actual symbols: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/6623/nostraticist.htm
Never mind about pronouncing it out loud. Reconstructed languages are not meant to be pronounced, only written. The English version is based on Illich-Svitych’s Russian translation of his poem. Some of the words can be seen to resemble their equivalents in Finnish. That was how I got the impression that reconstructed Nostratic is closer to Finnish than any other language I can think of. Finnish does seem the closest language to reconstructed Proto-Uralic, which is on firmer linguistic ground than Nostratic and nearer to us in time depth. The estimated time depth of Nostratic is >10,000 years BP, while Proto-Uralic goes back to about 6,000 YBP.

Historical linguistics is like making time run backwards.