Claire Cameron in Nautilus (image The Discussion by Harry Wilson Watrous):
A Language Where Time Flows East to West
Stanford linguist Lera Boroditsky and Berkeley’s Alice Gaby studied the language Kuuk Thaayorre, spoken by the Pormpuraaw people, also in Queensland, Australia. Like Guugu Ymithirr, it uses cardinal directions to express locations. But Boroditsky and Gaby found that in Kuuk Thaayorre, this also affected a speaker’s interpretation of of time.
In a series of experiments, the linguists had Kuuk Thaayorre speakers put a sequential series of cards in order—one which showed a man aging, another of a crocodile growing, and of a person eating a banana. The speakers were sat at tables during the experiment, once facing south, and another time facing north. Regardless of which direction they were facing, all speakers arranged the cards in order from east to west—the same direction the sun’s path takes through the sky as the day passes. By contrast, English speakers doing the same experiment always arranged the cards from left to right—the direction in which we read.
For the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers, the passage of time was intimately tied to the cardinal directions. “We never told anyone which direction they were facing,” wrote Boroditsky. “The Kuuk Thaayorre knew that already and spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.”