LINGUIST List 7.1272

Thu Sep 12 1996

Sum: Spatio-temporal metaphors

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Lera Boroditsky, Spatio-temporal Metaphors Summary

Message 1: Spatio-temporal Metaphors Summary

Date: Wed, 11 Sep 1996 15:30:34 PDT
From: Lera Boroditsky <>
Subject: Spatio-temporal Metaphors Summary
A little while ago I posted a query to the Linguist List about the way
spatial terms are used to talk about time. Thank you to everyone who

Alan Dench/Robert Beard/Vincent DeCaen/Wendy C. Nelson/Charlie
Rowe/Dara Connolly/Marion_Kee/Mark Hansell/Ivan A Derzhanski/Markus
Hiller/Mark Sicoli/Balthasar Bickel/Gary Morgan

a quick paste-together summary follows:

My question was in three parts (responses follow each part):

1. Are there any languages in which spatial terms are not imported
into the domain of time?

> While I am not sure if there are any languages which use
>orientations other than forward-behind, front-back, I'm certain that
>there are no languages which do not use spatial terms for temporal
>ones. This is an interesting quirk of languages which to me
>demonstrates the arbitrariness of grammatical categories vis-a-vis
>semantic ones. No language, for example, confuses spatial and temporal
>lexical terms, i.e. I have found no language which consistently uses
>words like 'state' for 'year' and 'city' for 'month'. The concepts are
>clearly distinct in conceptual structure but never (as a class) in
>grammarical structure.

>According to BL Whorf (`The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior
>to Language', 1939), Hopi is such a language. He reports that there
>is an absolute ban on the use of words expressing spatial relations in
>Hopi when no such relations actually exist; and that the laws of
>grammar are not suited for drawing an analogy between time and visible
>space. Yet I understand that his analysis of Hopi spatial terms has
>been subjected to critical review in more recent years.

>It's been claimed that Hopi does not import spatial terms into the
>domain of time. Whorf (1939) wrote "The absence of such metaphor from
>Hopi speech is striking. Use of space terms when there is no space
>involved is not there. . ." 

>A look into Hopi verb tense might also help with your third question
>about the order of events. Modal clause linkage is reportedly used
>in Hopi to denote later and earlier events talked about in the same
>utterance. Whorf talks about Hopi "verb categories," and "modes,"
>handling the work of English "tenses" but without the
.objectification, or materialization, of the temporal element. 

2. Are there any languages that import spatial terms that use
primarily up/down, left/right, or in/out or any relations other than
front/back to talk about time.

>Mandarin Chinese uses up (or above) and down (or below) in some
>contexts to indicate what in English would be "last" and "next":

>last (week, month, time) shang4 ("up/above")
>next (week, month, time) xia4 (down/below")
>They are not used for days or years. The only explanation I've heard
>offered for this is that it is based on the traditional top-to-bottom
>direction of written Chinese, and the perception that what's at the
>top of the page comes earlier than what's at the bottom (much as
>English speakers tend to draw time lines from left to right). I don't
>really buy that explanation, it seems to assume a strong influence of
>literacy on a very basic category of colloquial language. Another
>possibility is that the metaphor is based on the idea of time as going
>downward-- time moves by itself with no motive force, and most
>phenomena in nature that seem to move on their own are moving from
>higher to lower position by force of gravity (flowing rivers, falling
>objects, etc).

>Well, `up/down' makes one think of Mandarin, where that opposition is
>somehow associated with the oppositions `past/future' and
>`before/after', cf. _shang4wu3_ `am', _xia4wu3_ `pm'; _shang4nian2_
>`last year' (lit. `up year'); etc. There's also Kala Lagaw Ya, a
>Pama-Nyungan language, on which Lesley Stirling
>(<lesley_stirlingMUWAYF.UNIMELB.EDU.AU>) is working; there seems to
>be an analogy there between `windward/leeward', `front/back',
>`up/down' and `before/after' and `backwards/forwards in time', the
>idea being that one is floating in a canoe with one's back in the
>direction of the motion, having, as it were, the past before one's
>eyes and the future still behind one's back. But you should check the
>details with LS herself.

>names of seasons:

>english: up/down: spring fall

>german dialects (*):

>...: in/out: auswaerts einwaerts
 out-ward in-ward
 ``spring'' ``fall''

>...: (temporal): fruehling spaetling
 early+DERIV late+DERIV
 ``spring'' ``fall''

>(*) the dialectal data is what i recall from some isogloss
> map in
> dtv atlas zur deutschen sprache. ...: dtv.
> unfortunately i do not remember what areas were marked for
> the pattern i have quoted. standard german has ``fruehling''
> for ``spring'', but ``herbst'' (cognate to ``harvest'' but
> no longer analyzed) for ``fall'.

>In reply to Lera Boroditsky's recent query on spatio-temporal
>metaphors, I may draw attention to the languages of the Kiranti family
?of Sino-Tibetan. In at least one of these languages, Belhare (spoken
>in Eastern Nepal), temporal relations are primarily referred to by
>'up/down/across' terms -- rather than 'front/back' terms. For
>instance, 'after Monday' is 'Manglabar yolleng' 'on the further
>traverse side of Monday', where 'yo-' is the root for a further
>position on a horizontal line (such as the traverse direction on a
>hill) and '-leng' a directional case. Front/back terms only appear as
>recent borrowings from Nepali, the Indoeuropean lingua franca of

>The Belhare system is discussed in:

>Bickel, Balthasar, 1994. 'Spatial operations in deixis,
>cognition, and culture: where to orient oneself in
>Belhare'. Working Paper No. 28, Cognitive Anthropology
>Research Group at the Max-Planck-Institute for
>Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

3. In what other ways do languages differ drastically in the way they
talk about the order of events in time?

>Afor what it's worth, in Biblical Hebrew you face or see the past while
>your back is to the future: that is, "behind" is in the future. I'm
>not sure why, though children come after their parents in succession;
>so while "behind", they're still the future generation.

>BTW, my work on tense-aspect strongly rejects a "future tense" in
>natural language; I wouldn't expect, therefore, much consistency in
>this area. it might be interesting to know roughly how many languages
>are forward-looking and how many backward-looking.

>German--in the unmarked word order--lists events from general to

>a) Wir fahren heute um 3:00/
> we are-going today at 3 o'clock.

>b) ??um 3:00 heute

>The (b) sentence is only grammatical if the general adverb is focused
>or an afterthought.

>I believe that in Quechua and Aymara those events and times which are
>in the past are referred to as being 'ahead of/in front of us', while
>future events are 'behind us'. Why? It has been rationalised for me
>as follows: That which has not yet happened is invisible, like what is
>behind us; that which has already transpired is known to us, and so is
>like what is ahead of us and within our field of vision.

>This would seem to imply that the analogy in European languages is
>that of a journey, e.g. a train journey along the time-line from past
>to future. Therefore we think of the past as 'behind us' and the
>future as 'ahead of us'.

>Please consider this information to be anecdotal - I am not a
>professional linguist and I speak neither of the two languages
>mentioned above.

>The Sumerian terms _u[d]-kur_ (lit. `foreign day') `future day' and
>_u[d]-ria_ (lit. `runaway day') `past day', as well as the Akkadian
>_mahriu_ `front; past' and _warkiu_ `rear; future', are sometimes
>thought to show a world-view in which the past is what has already
>overtaken us and gone in the same direction where we're going also.

Musical notation:

>Much of the metaphoric conveyance was apparent in preposition choice
>but some of the utterances were more overt. Here are some examples
>from my notes:

>Throw in a chord there. Throw in a chord here.
>It's just like dropping notes on the rhythm.
>The urge to solo over that song.
>I'd have more space for ideas to put in.
>But you can use that in the middle of some other thing.
>Music, like conversation, is an intangible entity which exists
>over a span of time. The English speaker uses the material
>domain of space to approach this as a topic of discourse. We
>also refer to a specific discourse as a space or place when we
>can ask ourself, or our partner, "Where was I? or Where were we?

>at a talk at UC Santa Cruz I was
>asked about going through something. I made it through final's
>week. You have to go through it to understand it. This is one
>way that events in, or periods of time, can be talked about in
>English without resorting to metaphors that involve the front
>back relationship. You might also look into Chinese languages.
>I remember hearing how Chinese time moves (a metaphor we also use
>in "time flies" but not as frequently as how we move through
>time). Other related materials would be found in sociological
>and Anthropological scholarship pertaining to "the body" and the
>human experience of the body. I'll try and find some sources to
>refer. Also note that in "linguist's speech" we talk about
>temporal events with left and right metaphors as we see our data
>as written on the page.

Once again, thanks to everyone who responded.

Lera Boroditsky

Michael Yopp
Northwestern University
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