Language and time: More on whether the future is literally in front of us

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifLast 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.

More like this

To toss more directional thoughts into this....

What about moving a meeting "up"? Do most people see this as moving it closer?

By Dave Solimini (not verified) on 19 Jun 2006 #permalink

Here's another example: I asked a taxi driver to pull up BEHIND another car that was parked ahead of us and facing in the same direction. He immediately zoomed past it and parked at the front of the vehicle. When I said BEHIND, I meant "at the rear of." When he heard BEHIND, he heard "on the other side of."

Similarly, photocopiers have LIGHTER and DARKER settins without saying whether lighter means you are putting in a lighter copy or whether you want a lighter output; and a calendar shows a full moon as... a completely dark circle or a completely light circle. Welcome to the wonderful world of assumptions in communication. The skill is to be aware of them and frame the communication so that it can't be misunderstood: so instead of moving a meeting forward and back or up and down, you move it earlier or later. And cross your fingers.

This is pretty tangential, but I've been really annoyed at the LA Metropolitan Transit Authority. They recently stopped selling transfers, and instead started selling day passes($3). But they never said whether a day pass was for a calendar day or a 24 hour day, so you are left to wonder if it's ever worth buying a pass if you (for instance) work a night shift.

By whomever1 (not verified) on 19 Jun 2006 #permalink

Dave Solimini, "up" probably wouldn't work in the U.S., but it might work in China, where the spatial language used to talk about time is often in the vertical axis. I posted on that work a while back, but I'm too lazy to look it up. However, if you go to Lera Boroditsky's homepage, you can find papers on the topic.

I've done some work on this myself, though telling you which work would give away my identity, and as a cognitive science superhero, I can't do that ;). Anyway, the time-space connection is really cool, but the role of the metaphorical language is limited relative to our time concepts. For example, if you throw goals (e.g., approach or avoidance) into the mix, things go against the linguistic data.

I've heard that in Ancient Greek their conception of time was that we are walking backwards towards the future, since we can see what has already happened (i.e. what's in front of you).

By Owen Jones (not verified) on 20 Jun 2006 #permalink

Owen, the Ancient Greek bit is in the literature, but it has been pretty thoroughly debunked over the last 20 or so years.

Interesting that you can move a meeting up but not down.

Years ago I heard that the Lubicon in northern Alberta (Canada) viewed the future as being behind you, on the grounds that you can see what is in front of you but no-one can forsee the future. I've no idea now what my source was or how reliable it is.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 25 Jun 2006 #permalink

Chris, moving a meeting "up" is used in the US. I know, because I currently work in an office and do scheduling, and the use of "up" and "forward" in reference to meetings actually became a problem lately. I understood the words "up" and "forward" in terms of the ego-moving representation, and apparently my entire office (except myself) seems to understand them in terms of the time-moving representation. "Up" or "forward" referred to an earlier time to them.

However, it might be worth noting that there is a context for our differences in metaphor: the office is largely populated by long-time employees who are used to looking at daily schedules as events listed vertically, earliest to latest, while I, the office newbie burning time while applying to grad school, was not as familiar with the calendar system. Note, this explains the differences as to the meaning of "up", but not so much the meaning of "forward," except in that "up" and "forward" in this usage are treated as synonymous.

Another apparently cultural distinction involving language of directionality is what we say when someone knocks at the door and we are somewhat delayed in being able to answer it. In English, we tend to say something like, "Just a minute, I'm coming." However, in Spanish it is more common to say, "Horita me voy." or "Ja voy." both of which translate as I'm going. The distinction seems to be whether we mentally see ourselves going to the door from where we are now, or imagine ourselves at the place of the person knocking and see ourselves having to come there.

By Bil Harshbarger (not verified) on 03 Apr 2007 #permalink