I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: conceptual metaphor theory sucks. Why does it suck? Well, because there’s no experimental evidence for it (and plenty of evidence against it). Except, that is, in one domain: time. Specifically, the work of Lera Boroditsky, along with Dedre Gentner and her colleagues, has provided interesting demonstrations of the influence of the way we talk about space on the way we conceptualize time. I’ve talked about their work before, and now Dave’s talking about Gentner’s work over at Cognitive Daily, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. Instead, I’ll give you an idea of what’s going on with the time-space metaphors in their work, and then discuss some recent work by Rafael Nuñez and his colleagues which introduces new types of time-space metaphors. The conclusion generally drawn from this work is that time is conceptualized metaphorically through mappings onto space. At the end of this post, I’m going to argue that no current evidence actually supports that position. So, let’s get started.
Next Wednesday’s Meeting Has Been Moved Forward Two Days
When is the meeting now? Chances are, you answered Friday, but some of you may also have answered Monday. The reason is, in English, the statement is ambiguous. In the language of congnitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory, this is because we use two metaphors to conceptualize time: the ego-moving metaphor and the time-moving metaphor. In the ego-moving metaphor, we are moving toward the future. Examples of this include, “We’re coming up on the first day of summer,” and “We’ll soon reach the end of June.” In the time-moving metaphor, the future is moving toward us. For example, “The Fourth of July is fast approaching,” or “The deadline will soon be upon us.” This figure, from Gentner et al. (2002, p. 539) illustrates the two metaphors1:
If we’re using the ego-moving metaphor, then we’ll interpret the ambiguous sentence above as meaning that the meeting has been moved to Friday, because Friday is forward for us, but if we’re using the time-moving metaphor, we’ll interpret it as meaning Monday, because Monday is in front of time moving for us. In the typical experiment, some display of, say, a person moving toward an object (ego-moving) or an object moving towards a person (time-moving) will prime the corresponding metaphor, and result in individuals tending to answer Friday or Monday, respectively2.
In English, time-space metaphors are always on the horizontal axis: things in the past or future are either behind or ahead, but never above or below. However, Mandarin is not so limited. It also uses vertical space-time metaphors, and priming these metaphors can facilitate temporal reasoning in Mandarin speakers, even when Mandarin-English bilinguals (for whom Mandarin is their first language) are primed in English3
The Future Is Behind Us & Ego-less Time
Recently, Nuñez and his colleagues have argued that there are other types of time-space metaphors. In one example (via Richard), Nuñez and Sweetser found evidence that in Aymara, a language spoken by several native groups in and around the Andes, the primary time-space metaphors are “FUTURE IS BEHIND EGO” and “PAST IS BEHIND EGO”4. The evidence comes from two sources. The first is the use of two words, nayra, which means “eye, sight, front,” and qhipa, which means “back,” in temporal contexts. For example (from p. 15):
- nayra mara = “last year,” or literally, “eye/sight/front year”
- qhipüru = “a future day,” or literally, “back/behind day”
To supplement the (sparse!) linguistic data, they also analyzed gestures used while Aymara-speakers talked about time. The gestures were consistent with the past being in front and the past behind, as you can see (sort of) in these photos (p. 29):
Now, I’m usually skeptical when cognitive linguists start to talk about metaphorical gestures, not because I don’t believe gestures can be metaphorical, but because cognitive linguists manage to find their metaphors in just about any gesture (see this post for examples). But gestures that use space-time metaphors are pretty straightforward. If you move or point your hand forward when talking about the past, then it very well could mean that you conceptualize the past as being in front of you. So, I’m willing to buy this, combined with the linguistic data, as preliminary evidence for a “reversed” conceptualization of time in Aymara.
Notice that in the Aymara metaphors, the ego is still involved, as it is in the ego-moving and time-moving metaphors — the ego still serves to mark the present, i’s just that the future and past are reversed relative to the ego. In another recent paper, Nuñez et al.5 proposed a new type of space-time metaphor: the ego-less metaphor, or Time-Reference-Point metaphor, as illustrated in this figure (p. 134):
A quick question for the cognitive psychologists among us: does anyone actually take anything published in Metaphor and Symbol seriously? Just asking.
Anyway, examples of the time-reference-point metaphor include, “Febuary is before March” and “Spring is after Winter.” These examples use spatial language to talk about time, but there is no ego used as a reference point. As evidence for the existence of this type of time-space metaphor, they conducted a priming experiment in which they had to interpret “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days.” The priming stimulus was “Ego-free lateral movement” (I’m thinking that Nuñez should read this paper), which consisted of a train of cubes moving across a computer screen either to the right or the left, which they predicted would prime participants to interpret “forward” as “earlier.” Consistent with this prediction, participants who viewed the “Ego-free lateral movement” (say that five times fast) tended to answer that the meeting had been moved to Monday, rather than Friday. In a second experiment, they found the same effect for the statement, “Yesterday’s 12:00 p.m. (noon) meeting got moved forward two hours.” People who’d viewed the “Ego-free lateral movement” (sorry, I just wanted to type that one more time) tended to answer 10 a.m., rather than 2 p.m.
But Is This Really Evidence of Conceptual Metaphors for Time?
So, that’s the evidence for the existence of time-space conceptual metaphors. And it’s just about the only experimental evidence for conceptual metaphor theory in any domain. This is a theory that’s approaching its 30th year, people! But is this really evidence of conceptual metaphors for time? If you haven’t guessed, my answer is no. Sure, that’s one interpretation, but it’s a generous one. It’s very clear that the language we use to talk about time is mostly drawn from the language we use to talk about space. And this is what conceptual metaphor theory would predict: space is, at least in a sense, more concrete than time. But the priming procedures that all of these experiments use may provide evidence of nothing more than, well, priming. We would also predict these priming effects just by noting that temporal and spatial language use the same words. Sure, at some point in the distant past these words may have been used metaphorically, but now the metaphors are “lexicalized,” or put differently, “dead.” The words used to speak about time are now only about time, but are homonymous (or polysemous, which amounts to about the same thing6) with the words used to talk about space. We would predict the priming effect because, as research on suppression in language comprehension has shown, when we read/hear a word, we activate all of its common meanings, and then suppress those that are irrelevant in the present context7. However, simply activating the irrelevant meanings can lead to priming effects. Therefore, after viewing a spatial prime, reading a word that can have a spatial or temporal meaning will lead to priming effects even in temporal domains. So, the results of the experiments by Boroditsky, Gentner, Nuñez, and others may say nothing about how time is conceptualized. This doesn’t mean that time isn’t conceptualized metaphorically, it just means we don’t actually have any evidence that it is. And to be honest, given how basic the experience of time is, even within conceptual metaphor theory (which argues that less directly experienced concepts are represented through mappings to more directly experienced concepts), it wouldn’t make much sense for time to be conceptualized metaphorically.
So, in the final analysis, there is still no nonlinguistic (i.e., non-circular) evidence that time is conceptualized metaphorically through mappings to space.
1Gentner, D., Imai, Mutsumi, & Boroditsky, L. (2002). As time goes by: evidence for two systems in processing space-time metaphors. Language and Cognitive Processes, 27(5), 537-565.
2E.g., Gentner et al. (2002), & Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75(1), 1-28.
3 Boroditsky, L. (2001) and Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1), 1-22
4Nuñez, R.E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30, 1-49.
5Nuñez, R.E., Motz, B.A., & Teuscher, U. (2006). Time after time: The psychological reality of the ego- and time-reference-point distinction in metaphorical construals of time. Metaphor and Symbol, 21(3), 133-146.
6Klein, D.E., & Murphy, G.L. (2002). Paper has been my ruin: conceptual relations of polysemous senses. Journal of Memory and Language, 47(4), 548-570.
7E.g., Gernsbacher, M.A., Faust, M.E. (1991). The mechanism of suppression: A component of general comprehension skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 17(2), 245-262.