European Culture: The Language of Time

Generally speaking, the speakers of European languages treat and express time as a long horizontal line. Minutes, hours, days, and weeks flow out of the future, through the present and into the past. This linear flow of time is exemplified in expressions such as ‘moving backwards’ or ‘forward in time’ and ‘our past is behind us and our future ahead of us’. All the same, and even though this linear concept of time is maintained throughout the languages of Europe, there are several subtle differences to be observed amongst each and every one.

A good example can be demonstrated when referring to the amount of time passed on a given random occasion.  English, French and Dutch speakers would prefer to use the expressions ‘a long time’/ ‘longtemps’/ ‘ lange tijd’ which give time the spatial attribute of distance. However, the speakers of Spanish, and Italian would find the exact translation equivalent to be awkward and would instead prefer ‘mucho tiempo’ / ’tanto tempo’) which roughly translate to ‘much time’ and thus deal with time as though it possessed physical quantity.

A greyer area is the perception of time as a valuable yet perishable good. In English, for example, time is a resource that we can spend in a productive way, or waste. In Spanish and Italian, time can be used or dedicated to something or it can be lost ‘perder el tiempo’. Greek speakers often speak about the expense of time ‘δαπάνη’.

Interestingly so, the question is then posed as to whether these minor linguistic differences of expression manage to have an effect on the thought image of time as perceived by the average native speaker of a given European language.

How is time expressed in your language? I look forward to your thoughts in the comment section.



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