On Time, Space, and Metaphor

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.

More like this

Interesting that you should post this right now. I'm about half-way through "Metaphors We Live By" and just finished the section on homonyms last night. I was noticing in their afterword (2003) that they think their theory has taken center stage in cognitive science and is largely responsible for the progress the field has made in the past 30 years. I was wondering if you could direct me to a good review of their work.

Jeff, I hacven't read the 2003 afterward. They really said that? Oh... my... God! They haven't been responsible for ANY progress in the field, except in cognitive linguistics, where the progress has largely been empirically empty.

You made me spit my coke on the screen, damnit.

I had to go back to the book, just to make sure that I'm not putting words in their mouths:

"This small book has contributed to the study of the human mind in ways we could not have dreamed of when we wrote it two decades ago."

"It had far-reaching implications in field after field - not just linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy but also literary studies, politics, law, clinical psychology, religion, and even mathematics and the philosophy of science."

"In spite of the massive and growing evidence for them, our basic claims ahve nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agendas they still persue."

Ahahahahaha.... that's funny stuff. At least they're consistent. "People don't like us because we're not objectivists." The strange thing is, analogical mapping has been central to many research programs, and conceptual metaphor theory may not be entirely consistent with structure mapping theory or the work of people like Keith Holyoak on analogy. The difference is that Holyoak, Gentner, Markman, etc., have actually done experiments to test their theories, while cognitive linguists still deal primarily with linguistic data and shitty experiments like the ones by Nunez and his colleagues described in this post (Boroditsky's experiments were actually innovative; Nunez' makes no real sense -- it's prediction really has nothing to do with its manipulations).

Your point about priming spatial/temporal meanings is good, but didn't Nunez use a nonverbal prime? Or are you saying that the word "forward" is activated anyway?

Heather, that's a good question. Boroditsky, Gentner, and Nunez all used nonlinguistic primes (some sort of motion). However, the motion would prime certain spatial interpretations, and since the words used are also spatial words (e.g., "foward" in "next wednesday's meeting has been moved forward two days"), merely activating the spatial meaning when we first encounter it (which we do -- see the end of the post) would serve to prime a directional interpretation of the ambiguous temporal statement.

Lakoff and Johnson have had influence in literary studies, but then English lecturers aren't all that interested in empirical proof! (disclaimer: I am an English lecturer). Anyway, L & J seem very inviting to humanities-trained people who don't know the wider field, or how the material is regarded by most other researchers. Most of us are quite good at talking about metaphor, and L&J give a (spurious) veneer of science to this all.

By grubstreet (not verified) on 21 Jun 2006 #permalink

grub, yeah, I'm aware of their influence in literary studies. It's a shame.

If you'd like, I can point you to some good work on metaphor and analogy in cognitive science. Steve, who's commenting over in the On Time, Space, and Metaphor II thread, could probably do so as well.

Does the language comprehension lit you're referencing indicate that seeing a spatial configuration would activate all possible meanings in the same way hearing a word would? That seems like a big jump. Generally speaking, I'm not comfortable assuming that encountering a spatial configuration activates the semantic representation(s) associated with that configuration. That may happen, but it doesn't necessarily happen, right?

What would be interesting would be to use spatial arrays or motions that aren't typically lexicalized, or at the very least, aren't described with words that carry a temporal meaning. Though it might be hard to come up with good stimuli.

hey Heather, seeing an image doesn't, but that's not the point i'm trying to make. When you read the word, the spatial meaning will be activated, and the priming effects will take place. The spatial meanging will then be suppressed, because it's irrelevant in the context, but the priming will have already had its effect.

I believe that in eastern cultures time (and life) is seen as a circular, rather than a linear, process. Do you know of any evidence of such a cultural difference? Thinking about that, I realize that westerners also use a circular metaphor for time sometimes (life cycle, year cycle). I wonder if it would be possible to manipulate the way people think about time (linear or circular) by activating one or the other metaphor.

You know, I've seen cognitive linguists mention circular conceptions of time, and even mention some of linguistic examples of such a conception, but I've never seen an in depth analysis of such examples. It'd be interesting to undertake, though.

Dear Chris,
It is true that, untill recently, evidence for conceptual metaphors was very scarce and that this evidence depended mostly on the linguistic analysis of patterns of idiomatic use in language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). As you pointed out, the "Time is Space" metaphor has received much attention. It has been demonstrated, with priming experiments, that the language used to speak about time can shape its conceptualization. You argued that "We would also predict these priming effects just by noting that temporal and spatial language use the same words" and you are right saying so. However, the conceptual metaphor theory is the only one that can explain why the left-right mapping of time is linked to the sensory-motor activity of reading. Effectively, left-to-right readers also conceptualize time flowing from left to right for past and future meanings, respectively, whereas it is the opposite for right-to-left readers (Tversky et al, 1991; Chan & Bergen, 2005, exp. 3; Fuhrman & Boroditsky, 2007).
Nowadays, empirical evidences extended to other domain than time are consistently growing:
- for Social Power: Powerfull is UP vs. Powerless is DOWN(Giessner & Schubert, 2007; Schubert, 2005)
- Emotions: Happy and Positive are UP vs. Sad and Negative are DOWN (Förster & Stepper, 2000, exp. 1; Meier & Robinson, 2004; Crawford, Margolies, Drake & Murphy, 2006; Tops & de Jong, 2006; Rothermund & Bak, 2000)
- for magnitude: Low numbers on the LEFT vs. High numbers on the RIGHT (Dehaene, Bossini & Giraux, 1993, the so called SNARC effect) or Low numbers are DOWN vs. High numbers are UP (Ito & Hatta, 2004).
I hope this will make you fell more friendly with the conceptual metaphor theory. ;-)