Last week’s article on the Aymara language and metaphorical depictions of time generated a lot of discussion. I think part of the confusion there had to do less with the specific example and more with basic questions about metaphorical representations of time, so today I’m going to cover some of the research that led up to the Aymara research.
In the article, we conducted a poll where we asked participants a simple question: If your Wednesday meeting is “moved forward two days,” what day is it on now? About half the respondents said “Friday,” and the other half said “Monday.”
How is that possible? It seems like a very simple question and a common situation, yet there’s little agreement on the answer. The answer, say language researchers, is that English-speakers have two conflicting representations of time. The “ego-moving” metaphor suggests that we are moving forward through time, so “forward” implies a later date. The “time moving” metaphor suggests that time is like a conveyer belt, on which events move from the future to the past, so “forward” implies an earlier date. In English, both metaphors are used equally often. In fact, researchers have been able to manipulate responses to the “meeting moved forward” question by priming respondents. If the preceding statement uses the ego-moving metaphor, then people are more likely to answer “Friday.”
But do people really use these metaphors to understand time, or are they just artifacts of our language? In an unambiguous statement like “Christmas is before New Year’s day” (which is consistent with the time-moving metaphor), do we really make use of a metaphor to represent time? It doesn’t feel like I’m thinking of a conveyer belt when I parse this simple sentence.
A team led by Dedre Gentner devised a test to see if we do. Volunteer participants were shown three sentences, each of which consistently used either the ego-moving or time-moving metaphor. For example, here are three ego-moving statements:
I am looking forward to the concert.
In the weeks ahead of him, he wanted to finish the project.
We are coming into troubled times.
Next they were shown this sentence:
Dinner will be served preceding the session.
Their test was to place the “dinner” on the following timeline:
Sometimes the fourth sentence used the same metaphor, consistent with the preceding sentences, but other times (as in this example), the metaphor was changed. The researchers measured reaction times in each case. Here are the results:
Whether the test was on an ego-moving sentence or a time-moving sentence, reaction times were significantly slower when the metaphor was inconsistent with the preceding sentences. It appears that we are slower process the task when we have to use a different metaphor.
In the real world, however, we don’t often place items on timelines. Perhaps in a more realistic task, the metaphors aren’t important. To see if we behave differently in more everyday situations, research team member Lera Boroditsky, posing as a traveler herself, interviewed travelers at O’Hare airport in Chicago. She asked the same question of interviewees, but in two different ways: “Is Boston ahead or behind us time-wise?” (ego-moving) or “Is it later or earlier in Boston than it is here?” (time-moving). This set the stage as in the first experiment. Then she followed up with the question “So should I turn my watch forward or back?” (ego-moving). At this point, she started her digital stopwatch. She stopped it when the travelers gave the answer. They never suspected she was performing a psychological experiment, and assumed she was actually setting her watch.
Here are the results:
In this realistic situation, the effect was even more dramatic.
Gentner et al. conclude, based on this and other research, that spatial metaphors for time are real, and are actively used in thinking about linguistic concepts. The chosen metaphor matters, because if we shift from one metaphor to another, processing becomes more difficult.
What makes the Aymara language so remarkable, then, is that unlike other languages, which utilize different metaphors time but typically present it as moving forward or ego as moving towards it, their conception of time has it moving backwards towards ego. As Gentner et al.’s research shows, the precise metaphor being used is a subtle concept, so it’s difficult to establish which metaphors are being used in a given language. Whether the Aymara’s system is unique may not be established by the research we cited last week, but uncovering the system and exploring it in such detail is nonetheless an impressive accomplishment.
Gentner, D., Imai, M., & Boroditsky, L (2002). As time goes by: Evidence for two systems in processing space — time metaphors. Language and Cognitive Processes, 17(5), 537-565.