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Aliens and Hopi Time: Understanding the Influence of Language in Human Perception

The clip below is from the Youtube channel NativLang (if you’re language nerd, you’re gonna want to subscribe!) and it explores how some languages across the world approach the subject of Time very differently than how we in the West talk about it. It also explains how the book Hopi Time written by Ekkehart Malotki was used by many academicians to disprove the controversial Sapir-Whorf theory of Language.

[Spoilers] If you watched the 2016 movie Arrival, then this Sapir-Whorf theory probably rings a bell. The movie tells the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist designated by the US government to try to communicate with a group of alien beings whose massive, seed-like ships have unexpectedly appeared in various places around the globe.

The film is based on the 1998 Sci-Fi novella Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang, and uses the Sapir-Whorf theory as a plot element when Louise’s comprehension of Time is so radically altered by her immerssion into the alien language, she actually starts to ‘see’ into the future –my friend Greg Bishop and I are great fans of the film BTW, and we gushed about it in two separate podcasts.

As explained on the clip at the top, the ideas of ‘linguistic relativity’ surrounding the theories of Edward Sapir and his protegé Benjamin-Lee Whorf, are based on how the Hopi language doesn’t share our concept of Time, making room for speculation that ‘Time’ itself doesn’t really have any true objective reality. Malotki’s book seemed to contradict these radical ideas, but as the NativLang video also points out, there are other examples of ‘tenseless’ languages out there in the world.

Besides, modern physics is quite comfortable with the idea that past, present and future are nothing but constructs utilized by the human mind to make sense of our surroundings. So even if we may not be able to come up with a language that would actually permit us to ‘remember’ the future and affect the past the same way Amy Adams’s character does in Arrival –although I’m sure my ritual magicians friends would beg to differ– it wouldn’t hurt in trying to understand how a particular way of speaking about Time may have a direct or indirect impact in a given culture. Did the Mayan Yukatek’s lack of terms like ‘before’and ‘after’ had any significant influence in the collapse suffered by their civilization, for example? Could it be that the Westerner way of talking about the ‘arrow of Time’ is the reason why our culture is so obsessed with the concept of ‘Progress’, which in turn rules almost all aspects of our social, political and economic systems?

And as final note, it would also be interesting to compare how language affects the way we address the paranormal. A UFO occupant once asked a witness for the time of day. “It is 2:30” answered the startled man. “You lie –it is 4 o’clock” was the blunt response of the UFOnaut. Such nonsensical dialogue, according to Dr. Jacques Vallee, may have had the veiled objective of making us aware of the relativistic nature of Time –not from an Einsteinean POV, but as a cultural artifact. Will we be forced to alter our language in order to better understand phenomena like UFOs and other mysteries, not to mention the true nature of Reality.?We will probably find out… in due time.

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