The long-hypothesized time machine still eludes scientists, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to manipulate time. While the consistent ticking of a clock may confirm that time’s passage is constant, numerous studies, from mind-bending physics research to deep psychological analyses, suggest that the same doesn’t hold true for the experience of time. Across people and cultures, the perception of time varies greatly — and scientists have found that it’s largely because of the words they use to conceptualize time in the first place.

This strangely effective theory for warping time was first conceived by the legendary linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, and it’s still being investigated today. In a July 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, two linguistics researchers probed the depths of the Whorfian time warp, finding uncanny support for its validity.

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The linguists’ research is built on the work of Whorf, who in the 1950s began to question universalist theories of language. Instead of subscribing to the idea that abstract concepts were common across the whole of humanity, Whorf proposed that language itself shaped our perception of the world, effectively creating different temporal strokes for different folks.

In their paper, Emanuel Byland and Panos Athanasopoulos, both Ph.D.s in linguistics, point out what experts already know about linguistic differences in terms of time. English and Swedish speakers, for example, like to talk about time in terms of distance. (Just ask George Lucas, author of the Star Wars opening crawl. (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”) But those who speak Spanish or Greek prefer to talk about time in terms of size, who are more like to say “mucho tiempo,” or much time.

Assessing the credibility of the Whorfian time warp theory in controlled experiments has proven to be difficult, but Byland and Athanasopoulos managed to do so in their study. They did so by recruiting participants fluent in Swedish and Spanish, who watched computer-generated animations that showed either a line growing longer or a bucket being filled with water. The researchers hypothesized that Swedish speakers, who think about time like a line growing longer, would struggle to track time when watching a bucket filled with water, and the opposite would be true for Spanish speakers. The results showed their predictions were correct, though the effect was often minimal.

But even more interesting were the results of a second part of the study in which the researchers asked people fluent in both Spanish and Swedish (yup, those people exist!) to take the test. These bilingual people had different perceptions of time depending on what language they were thinking in, suggesting that they have a cognitive flexibility monolinguals like us lack. In other words, they were just as comfortable thinking about time as a line stretching out to the horizon and as the drip-drip-drip of rain into a bucket.

“The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with a growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, our visual perception and now, it turns out, our sense of time,” Athanasopoulus wrote in a discussion of his work on The Conversation.

So if you want to transcend the Whorfian time warp and control your own experience of time, you might want to download Duolingo stat.


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Photos via Flickr / Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Ireland