LINGUIST List 15.2430

Wed Sep 1 2004

Review: Semantics/Cognitive Science: Evans (2004)

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  1. Thora Tenbrink, The Structure of Time: Language, meaning and temporal cognition

Message 1: The Structure of Time: Language, meaning and temporal cognition

Date: Tue, 31 Aug 2004 12:00:36 -0400 (EDT)
From: Thora Tenbrink <>
Subject: The Structure of Time: Language, meaning and temporal cognition

AUTHOR: Evans, Vyvyan
TITLE: The Structure of Time
SUBTITLE: Language, meaning and temporal cognition
SERIES: Human Cognitive Processing 12
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany


This book advocates a view of time which acknowledges the subjectivity
of time experience, while nevertheless assuming that time is a real
and independent phenomenon, instead of being derived (metaphorically)
from other, more concrete experiences. In Evans' view, time appears
ultimately to derive from perceptual processes. However, it may be
difficult to represent in its own terms, which is why the language
used for expressing temporal concepts is often based on other (mainly
spatial) domains. Evans investigates the lexical concept of ''time''
employing the approach of ''principled polysemy'': there is a central
lexical concept (the Duration sense) from which other senses are

Part I. Orientation

The main ideas and outline of the book are presented in the
introductory Chapter 1. Chapter 2 starts by pointing out that language
about time invokes other domains, such as motion events and spatial
relations, as exemplified by expressions like ''the passage of time''.
Following this motivation, approaches are presented that take this
phenomenon as evidence that time itself is derived from the comparison
of external events, i.e., cannot itself be perceived. To counter this
approach, Evans reviews empirical evidence proving that time is
phenomenologically basic, though subjective and biased through the
experience of events. For instance, research has identified a
''perceptual moment'' that constitutes a cognitive mechanism to which
our experience of duration and temporality can be related. Chapter 3
is a brief summary of two accounts (by Jackendoff and Grady) of how
subjective concepts (such as time) can be elaborated in terms of other
kinds of concepts related to sensory experience.

Chapter 4 explores how meaning expresses our cognitively mediated view
of our experience of the world. Linguistic associations between
different domains, such as ''verticality'' and ''quantity'' in ''The
stock prices went up'', can be explained systematically by the notion
of experiential correlation (cf. Grady 1997), since it is a natural
experience that adding something (in quantity) leads to greater height
(in verticality). Meaning is not contained in the lexemes themselves,
but rather is construed in each situation of occurrence of a lexeme,
using the lexeme as a ''prompt'' for using our stores of knowledge and

Chapter 5 examines two metaphorical mappings commonly assumed in the
literature, namely, the ''moving time'' (as in ''The deadline is
approaching'' and the ''moving ego'' (as in ''We passed the
deadline'') metaphors of time. Evans claims that, contrary to Grady's
(1997) assumption, the concept of time underlying these metaphors
cannot be viewed as simple and basic, because there are several
distinct meanings associated with different usages that fit into these
two patterns.

In Chapter 6, the general approach of ''principled polysemy''
(developed in Tyler and Evans 2003) is introduced and discussed in
relation to other, especially homonymy and monosemy, approaches to
lexical semantics. Evans advocates the view that the lexeme ''time''
is constituted of a number of distinct but related senses, of which
the Duration sense is central. The other senses are derived from the
central sense by pragmatic strengthening. Together, these lexical
concepts constitute the complex cognitive model of time.

Part II. Concepts for time

In Part II, each of the assumed distinct lexical senses of the noun
''time'' are addressed in turn. Chapter 7 describes the assumed
central sense, Duration. It is motivated by our experience of onset
and offset delimitations of temporal intervals, which can then be
described in terms of temporal values, as in: ''The meeting lasted for
two hours''. The equivalence of this experience with spatial
linearity leads to the option of elaborating the duration sense in
terms of physical length, as in ''a short time''. Further elaboration
options of the duration sense are quality of experience (''a brilliant
time''), temporal compression (''Time flies'') and protracted duration
(''Time crawls''). These options correspond to our subjective
experiences of time as discussed in Chapter 2.

>From this central sense, other lexical concepts are derived. Chapter
8 addresses the Moment Sense, which is exemplified by ''What time is
it''. Based on our experience that time can be perceived as
pointlike, the Duration sense has vanished in such usages of the noun
''time''. In Chapter 9, the Instance Sense is described, where an
instance of an event or state etc. is referenced, as in ''He did it 50
times in a row.'' Chapter 10 deals with the Event Sense, which is
distinguished from the Moment Sense in that the latter references a
temporal point, while the former references ''an experiential point in
an event-sequence'' (p135), as exemplified by ''The barman called

Starting with Chapter 11, ''secondary temporal concepts'' are
described, which are distinguished from the previously addressed
''primary temporal concepts'' in that they do not relate directly to
phenomenological experience, but are derived from socio-cultural
imperatives. One such secondary concept is the Matrix Sense, which is
described in Chapter 11. Here, time is conceived of as an unbounded
entity independent of events and experience. It is often elaborated in
terms of motion, as in ''Time flows''. Chapter 12 addresses a concept
that has previously often been described in terms of metaphorical
processes, namely, the Agentive Sense, as in ''Time is the great
physician.'' Evans claims that conventionalised usages of ''time'' in
this sense are due to typical experiential correlations which
reinforce the impression that changes arise with time that can
otherwise only come about due to the influence of an agent. Chapter 13
summarizes the ways in which time can be interpreted in the
Measurement-system Sense, as exemplified by ''They performed the dance
to waltz-time'', and ''Eastern Standard time is five hours behind
Greenwich Mean Time''. Finally, Chapter 14 explores the Commodity
sense, which has also often been viewed as being metaphorical in
nature, as in ''Time is money''. Evans claims that this sense has come
about because of the experience that, in some situations, only a (too)
brief period of time (in its original sense of Duration) is available,
which can make it valuable.

Chapter 15 briefly explores the lexical concepts of past, present, and
future, which according to Evans are directly related to cognitive
processes. The concept of Present is related to the perceptual moment
already addressed in Chapter 2, while Past concerns memory of such
moments, and Future their anticipation. Furthermore, the well-known
conceptualisations of the Future being in front of us and the Past
being behind are analysed as being based on experiential correlation:
we can usually see what is approaching us, and we turn ourselves to
objects that we wish to deal with. Things past cannot be perceived. In
contrast, in the Andean language Aymara the conceptualisation is just
the other way round. This proves that such conceptualisations are
culturally mediated.

Part III. Models for time

Chapter 16 addresses the relation between motion and time, which are
tightly correlated in experience. While time is perceived to pass even
without motion, all motion events are associated with the passage of
time. Since motion is highly salient in human experience, time is
often elaborated in terms of motion. This happens in either one of two
ways, depending on agency: either the Ego is perceived as Agent, in
which case the Ego is conceptualised as moving through time, or time
itself is moving, while the Ego is perceived as stationary and
passive. These two options are reflected in the two well-known
concepts of Moving Time vs. Moving Ego. Chapter 17 elaborates these
two concepts in the framework developed in this book, integrating the
various senses into the overall picture.

Chapter 18 introduces a third complex model of temporality which
concerns temporal sequence. Here, events are related to each other,
rather than to the Ego. Past, present, and future do not occur in this
model. Evans claims that events are conceptualised as ''travelling''
in an in-tandem alignment. He then compares this model with Hausa
where (according to Hill 1978) events can be conceptualised as being
''before'' an earlier event if the present moment is even earlier,
i.e., closer to the first event than to the second. In contrast,
according to Evans, in English the Ego is conceptualised as positioned
in a mirror-image alignment with respect to the moving events.

Chapter 19 attempts a leap into a very different area of research,
namely, 20th-century physics and its relativistic view of time. Unlike
previous (mechanistic) accounts, Einstein proved that time depends on
the speed of the observer and is thus interlinked with
space. According to Evans, this view entails that ''if simultaneity is
relative, then events in the past potentially have the same status as
those in the present and as those in the future'' (p. 243). In
contrast to this counter-intuitive view, he follows Bergson in
assuming that time ultimately depends on the presence of
consciousness, which accounts for its phenomenological nature. Thus,
''there can be no mind-independent objectivist world in which there
are multiple times'' (p. 249).

Chapter 20 sums up the basic claims of this book: We experience time
through perceptual processes in relation to the external world, and we
elaborate this experience via language within our cultures.


Although building on many previous accounts of the (so-called)
metaphorical nature of time which is most suggestively reflected in
the two concepts of Moving Time vs. Moving Ego, this book proposes an
innovative approach to these concepts that is less focused on the
notion of metaphor. Its main achievement is the systematic exploration
of the lexical concepts of the lexeme ''time'' with its various
interpretations according to context, and the well-founded motivation
of the diversity of conceptualisations of Time in terms of
experiential correlation and pragmatic strengthening. As is often the
case in similar work, Chapter 2 starts with the assumption that
temporal language is (almost) completely based on other domains. In
exemplifying this view, expressions are focused on that do invoke
spatial associations, while ignoring other terms that do not, such as
''soon'', ''early'', German ''nach'' (after), etc. In my view, the
question asked should not be whether temporal language is based on
spatial concepts, but rather, why so many spatial concepts are used
for temporal aspects, in addition to the linguistic repertory that is
specific to the temporal domain. Such a view would support Evans'
claims because the existence of solely temporal expressions naturally
underpins the assumption that time is a self-containing domain, albeit
a subjective and complex one.

In later chapters, it becomes clear that essentially no difference is
made at all between expressions that are used solely or primarily (at
least in present-day language) for time (such as ''earlier'',
''later'', ''before'', ''after''), expressions that are also (and
arguably primarily) used for space (such as ''long (time)''), and
expressions that are figurative in nature (such as ''time is a
river'', or ''time flows''). The failure to appreciate such
fundamental differences leads to the tacit assumption that humans
using such expressions truly believe that time is a river, or that
time is one-dimensional space. In my view, these are simply highly
conventionalised ways of talking about time, grounded on our
experience, but nonetheless not what we believe to be literally the
case. In contrast, we truly believe one event to happen ''earlier''
than another, since this is language reserved for just this

While it is not difficult to follow Evans' train of thought in
describing the various lexical concepts, which are all intuitively
appealing, the question arises what criteria are adopted for ascribing
the senses to the examples involved. For instance, in principle it is
not difficult to get the two readings of Moment vs. Event Sense as
described in Chapters 8 and 10. But it is unclear from Evans'
methodology to predict why the sentence ''The time for a decision has
come'' (Moment Sense) should be fundamentally different from ''His
time has come'' (Event Sense). The objective criteria Evans proposes
are used to describe the characteristics of each category, based on
his categorization of the given examples. But there are no hard
criteria for establishing this categorization in the first place. In
contrast to the work on prepositions in Tyler and Evans (2003) no
specific caution is taken that the diverse readings do not stem from
contributions of the other lexical items in the examples, rather than
the underlying concepts of ''time''. In general, my impression is that
the categorization is based to a high degree on the author's intuition
with respect to which usages of ''time'' are more or less similar in
some respect, rather than criteria which could be adopted
straightforwardly by other analysts.

Unfortunately, apart from the discussion of Aymara with regard to its
expression of Past and Future, and the ideas taken from Hausa, there
is almost no reference to other languages, which would have been a
fruitful source for differentiating lexical concepts: for instance,
some examples of the Measurement Sense would in German be expressed in
terms of rhythm, not time. Likewise, the Instance Sense is expressed
by a completely different lexeme in German (''Mal'').

In Chapter 12, Evans claims that the Agentive Sense is not
metaphorical in nature. This entails that utterances like ''Time is
the great physician'' are supposed to be interpreted literally,
mirroring the speaker's concept of an agent that produces similar
effects as other kinds of agents. However, in spite of the number of
examples Evans gives, there is no evidence for such literal
conceptions. In ''Time has aged me'', I think it would be intuitively
clear that it is not time itself that does the aging, but rather the
physical aging processes that develop while time passes. Thus,
metaphorical extensions that put ''time'' in the place of an agent can
be read as an intuitively appealing shortcut to more complicated
concepts. The claim that the Complex Temporal Sequence Model (Chapter
18) is based on the conceptualisation of an experiencer in
mirror-image alignment is not convincing to me. Already Traugott
(1978), for example, points out that the relative relation of two
events is expressed non-deictically, i.e., independent of an
observer. This becomes obvious considering that an earlier event is
closer to an experiencer only at a specific point in time (not
generally, as Figure 18.5 seems to convey, page 234). Later in time,
the later one of two events is closer to the present moment - but the
second one still happens ''after'' the first. Thus, the difference to
Hausa is not the direction of alignment with respect to the
experiencer, but rather, Hausa seems to elaborate temporal sequence in
deictic terms (using a conception of tandem alignment peculiar to that
language), while English does not.

The excursion into the area of physics in my view overlooks one
central aspect of Einstein's theory that makes it far less relevant to
the concerns of the book, namely, its being highly abstract and based
on phenomena remote from our experiences. There is no sense in which
past, present and future can potentially merge for people on Earth,
regardless of Einstein's theory, and regardless of whether there is an
objectivist world out there containing a multitude of times, or
whether time itself is based on conscience. Time (one objective
time-line, as far as this goes) can be approximately measured in a
unified way everywhere on Earth; any discrepancies from this basic
time are extremely small and can safely be ignored in our everyday
lives - and certainly in our language, which is why language usually
does not account for such abstract potentialities.

As a whole, in spite of these cautions, I consider this book thought-
provoking and inspiring. It is a valuable interdisciplinary source for
insight in several domains, including at least lexical semantics,
conceptual metaphor theory, and cognitive science in the area of time.


Grady, Joseph. 1997. Foundations of meaning: Primary metaphors and
primary scenes. Doctoral dissertation, U.C. Berkeley.

Hill, Clifford Alden. 1978. Linguistic representation of spatial and
temporal orientation. Proceedings of the fourth annual meeting of the
Berkeley linguistics society, 524-538. Berkeley Press.

Traugott, Elizabeth C. 1978. On the Expression of Spatio-Temporal
Relations in Language. In: Greenberg, Joseph H. (ed.): Universals of
Human Language, Vol III: Word Structure. Stanford UP.

Tyler, Andrea & Vyvyan Evans. 2003. The semantics of English
prepositions: Spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Thora Tenbrink is a research assistant in the DFG Collaborative
Research Center SFB/TR8 "Spatial Cognition: Reasoning, Action,
Interaction" (Bremen & Freiburg, Germany). Her dissertation project
deals with the question how objects and events are localised relative
to other objects and events using spatial and temporal expressions in
natural discourse. Previous work has dealt with discourse relations
and information structure, presuppositions and non-temporal
implications of temporal connectives, especially 'before' and
'after'. Her current focus is on empirical research on spatial
reference systems in human- robot interaction.
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