Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Linguistics Prof Analyzes Perception of Time

Daniel Casasanto, a professor of cognitive psychology at the New School for Social Research, explained differences in the way people express time through hand gestures across cultures Friday.

Casasanto, whose presentation was part of a speaker series sponsored by the Linguistics Department, focuses his research on metaphors people use to compare space and time through gesture and language.

He has found that although both native English and Arabic speakers use the time-space metaphor, they use it in different ways.

“We talk about time all the time. In fact, the word ‘time’ is the most commonly used noun in the English language,” Casasanto said. “The way we study people’s conception of time is to look at spatial gestures.

Casasanto observed that English and Spanish speakers tended to gesture with their right hands to describe future events, while Arab speakers used their left hands.

He said the difference could be attributed to the differing direction of written Arabic and Spanish.

“Simply reading and writing forces you to travel through space and through time, one direction or the other,” Casasanto said.

However, the correlation of the direction of time being described and the direction of the gesture does not necessarily translate into a causal relationship.

In the third portion of his research, Casasanto examined how the mindsets of people’s native cultures affected how they gestured. He found that cultures and individuals’ perceptions of the future and past depended on focus
“Focusing on the past — situationally or habitually — can make people more likely to think past-ahead or future-behind,” Casasanto said. “It raises the question, how many more cultures out there think about time backwards, and we don’t know it, because they don’t talk about it that way?”

According to Casasanto, recent events might be described on a vertical axis while those far in the past would be described laterally.

Colleen Diamond, a first-year doctoral candidate studying theoretical linguistics, appreciated the inter-disciplinary nature of the Linguistics Department speaker series.

“It’s really interesting that they bring people from so many different disciplines,” Diamond said. “It keeps you updated on all the current research that’s going on.”

Ava Irani (GRD ’14) expected the connection between gestures and verbal descriptions to be similar across all cultures.

“A lot of it was cultural, that took me by surprise,” she said.

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