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Review of  Space and Time in Languages and Cultures

Reviewer: Stephen Stanley Lucek
Book Title: Space and Time in Languages and Cultures
Book Author: Luna Filipović Kasia M. Jaszczolt
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.2640

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Drawn from the ‘Space and Time across Languages, Disciplines, and Cultures’ conference, held in 2010 at Newman College, Cambridge, this volume and an accompanying volume (“Space and Time in Languages and Cultures: Linguistic Diversity”) aim to demonstrate that “an all-encompassing understanding of space and time in language is not achievable in isolation” (p. xi). The need for an interdisciplinary study of space and time in language is exemplified in this volume, with contributions from researchers in linguistics, psychology, economics, anthropology, medicine and neuroscience.

Filipović and Jaszczolt begin by introducing the interface between language, culture and cognition. Language “impacts cognition by providing the most efficient system of categorisation, aid to memory, or spatial orientation. ... [while] culture impacts cognition through entrenching culture-specific preferences for the understanding of the environment” (p. 1). Thus, the interrelatedness of language, culture and cognition provides for the opportunity to approach each discrete unit by way of the other two. The study of these topics together offers vast cross-linguistic variation which, in turn, “appears to undermine claims that all languages are the same underneath” (p. 4). This line of research is summarized by the authors by stating that “the search for language-specific features informs in turn the search for language universals and provides insights into how to tease these two apart” (p. 5). The reader is invited to explore, in this volume, “diversity and universality ... on the level of human behaviour” (p. 9).

Chapter 1
The first chapter, ‘Event-based time intervals in an Amazonian culture’, introduces time as expressed and understood by speakers of Amondwa, a language of the Amazonia of Brazil. It is by describing the culture of the Amondwa that da Silva Sinha, Sinha, Sampaio and Zinken are led to the hypothesis that Amondwa does not possess a reckoning of the progress of time nor does it structure years or even times of day in the same way as Western cultures do. Amondwa does not have a single word that corresponds with the notion of a ‘day’. These aspects extend to the human lifecycle, during which an Amondwa person will change their name -- as designated by their place in society -- as many as five times. The Amondwa notions of time and counting (there are only four words that are used to count things) are not related, and this low level of organisation seems to have an impact on the seasonal and diurnal cycles, which subdivide quite extensively. Amondwa divides Kuaripe (‘time of the sun’) into periods of new-born Sun to burning sun and small sun and Amana (‘time of the rain’) into falling rain, heavy rain and small rain. There are matching transitional phases of Akyririn Amana (‘almost rain’) and Akyririn Kuara (‘almost sun’) that call to a close the sunny and rainy seasons, respectively. It is important to note that “No participants attempted to create a circular, cyclic representation” (p. 26) of the sunny and rainy seasons. The authors then propose that a “cultural-historical precondition for the schematisation of time-based time interval systems is the material anchoring of quantified time intervals in symbolic cognitive artefacts for measuring, segmenting, and reckoning time, such as calendar notions and clocks” (p. 32).

Chapter 2
Minyao Huang’s ‘Vagueness in event times, An epistemic solution’ claims that the vagueness of starting points and end points of events is a reflection of the vagueness of time. Huang states that event boundaries are vague, “partly because, given the intentional character of events, the conception of event times represents a cognitive parsing of the physical time, and partly because the epistemic process underlying the online conception of times takes on a lagging character” (p. 38). Thus, epistemic vagueness is “a gradation of epistemic awareness towards the occurrence of real-world states of affairs” (p. 38). The nature of events as the basic building blocks of space and time must mean that any study of the vagueness of event times is really the study of time in general. The vagueness of event times could be due to the fact that “events could be regarded as *mental representations* of external states of affairs as perceived in one way or another” (p. 42). The question then becomes how much of an event is ‘mind-dependent’, which is to say “relative to the way external states of affairs are comprehended in the mind” (p. 43). Three theories of temporal vagueness (Supervaluationism, Fuzzy logics and Epistemicism) are investigated to explain the temporal vagueness of events and a conclusion is reached that “vagueness in event times could be construed as the gradation of epistemic awareness towards what is happening in the external world” (p. 52).

Chapter 3
In ‘Aspectual coercions in content composition’, Asher and Hunter take a formal compositional semantics approach to their research, which examines aspectual coercions in English and French. Aspectual coercion refers to a shift in the semantic nature of an argument that “affects the temporal interpretation of a sentence of text” (p. 55). In order to do this, the authors must address this issue “within a larger view of how context affects interpretation” (p. 58). This is done by first examining selectional restrictions of an expression ∈ which “pertain to the type of object denoted by the expression with which ∈ must combine” (p. 58). These selectional restrictions are similar to presuppositions in dynamic semantics which rely on input contexts to limit the options available to the speaker. Type composition logic (Asher 2011) is used as the framework within which “coercion is constrained ... by the lexical entries for predicates and the coercion functors they license” which therefore “reflect more basic facts of natural language metaphysics” (p. 80).

Chapter 4
Alan Wallington’s ‘Back to the future’ looks at where future events are located. In questioning a commonly held belief, Wallington states that “there is no direct mapping from locations in space to points in time” (p. 84). To test his hypothesis, Wallington looks at where the future is happening and when. Using Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 44), the future is generally thought to be ahead of us and the past behind. However, “it is not time per se that is being described and thought about when we use language pertaining to motion through space and locations in space. What it is is epistemic modality [...,] the degree to which the speaker has full or direct knowledge of an event” (p. 89). Wallington performs an internet search to consider where Christmas and Easter occur (e.g. is Christmas approaching or is it ahead of us?). It is discovered that future events can occur behind Ego as well as various other examples of the future approaching Ego from behind (of the “creeping up” type (p. 96)). The final proposition then is that “space is not mapped directly onto time ... but rather that it is used in conjunction with common sense knowledge concerning the ability of an individual to move through space and interact with objects therein and to infer Ego’s potential knowledge of the reified events” (p. 97).

Chapter 5
In ‘The “Russian” attitude to time’, Valentina Apresjan tells us that cultural attitudes to time in Russian differ considerably from those of English. This is exemplified in Russian, which features the “key idea that events are frequently controlled by some outside forces, rather than by the will of the agent” (p. 104). Apresjan seeks cultural data from the 150 million word Russian National Corpus which shows speaker attitudes to the timing of events and relative brevity and longevity of time spans. Her hypothesis that “speakers are prone to drawing attention to the abnormally long rather than abnormally short duration of situations” (p. 107) leads to analysing interpretations of punctuality, simultaneity and succession as they occur with different time intervals. This reveals elements of the Russian linguistic worldview, namely that “1. It is unusual and therefore noteworthy when something happens exactly at the time previously set in schedules, plans or expectations; ... [and] 2. It is unusual and therefore noteworthy when two unrelated events occur at the same time” (p. 116). These elements of the Russian linguistic worldview are then tested against an English corpus (Corpus of Contemporary American). While the corpus data show a capacity for the same temporal expressions as those in Russian, the results are nearly the inverse of the Russian results. Semantic and pragmatic conclusions are drawn from these data: “[w]hile semantics is frequently language-specific, there are numerous semantic universals in the sphere of temporality” (pp. 119-120) and “the idea of event timing correlates with the idea of fateful driving forces behind these events” (p. 120).

Chapter 6
Bernard Charlier presents ‘Two temporalities of the Mongolian wolf hunter’. This study of how the Mongolian language reflects cultural beliefs about luck and fortune in wolf hunting gives us a window through which to view Mongolian notions of temporality. Charlier examines how time is divided and what cultural value is placed on times of the month to reveal attitudes to luck and fortune. Most important to wolf hunting (and therefore, to a connectedness to nature and goodness of spirit) is the notion of hiimor’ which “resides inside humans and animals, especially the wolves” (p. 122). Hiimor’ can be attained by living a good life. One can only kill a wolf if they possess enough hiimor’, though the capacity to attain hiimor’ changes during the course of a month. This allows a view into the notions of morality and goodness, “in Mongolia, [where] interpreting time not only reveals co-existing temporalities but also different ways in which subjects constitute themselves as moral persons” (p. 139).

Chapter 7
Carol Priestly’s ‘Koromu temporal expression’ introduces a new line of enquiry in this volume. Priestly’s work deals with semantic primes, as set out in the ethnolinguistic tool ‘Natural Semantic Metalanguage’ (Goddard and Wierzbicka 2002). Priestly identifies 64 semantic primes which are lexicalised in Koromu, a language spoken by approximately 600-700 Papuans. Koromu has a “linear sequence of time-based intervals ... linked with counting in a number system” (p. 151). Yesterday, tomorrow and subsequent days in the future are morphologically linked to the Koromu word for ‘day’ oto, and the number system (see Chapter 1). Koromu counts longer spans of time in terms of asi, or moons. The terms for each asi incorporate some element of climatological phenomena or agricultural necessity (e.g. asi hotu ‘the month of rain and cold’; asi seka ‘the month when crops are ready to eat’).

Chapter 8
Continuing with the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, in ‘Universals and specifics of ‘time’ in Russian’, Gladkova offers a semantic analysis that makes it possible to identify “cultural attitudes to time associated with [time] words” (p. 175). Russian uses two words, primarily, to talk about time: vremja and pora. While vremja fulfils most of what English uses to convey ‘time’ concepts, pora “collocates with words referring to yearly cyclical events, parts of the day, or significant stages of human life” (p. 176). Essentially, pora is used for bounded events; vremja for unbounded events. We hear an echo of Apresjan’s (Chapter 5) thesis that pora “embeds the idea that things can be different at different times and that things happen regardless of people’s will” (p. 178). A similar analysis is conducted into the Russian words for ‘now’, sejčas, teper’ and nynče. According to Gladkova, sejčas most closely resembles the English ‘now’ and can also be used for the immediate past; teper’ is used to refer to “now as juxtaposition to recent past” events (p. 182); and nynče “implies time that is psychologically perceived as longer than sejčas” (pp. 183-4). Gladkova’s analysis suggest that Russian collocations of time and now carry meanings that are differentiated along the lines of “‘change’, ‘persistence’ and ‘things being outside people’s control’” (p. 185).

Chapter 9
Langacker begins ‘Linguistic manifestations of the space-time (dis)analogy’ with a distinction between two levels of experience: “basic experience is fundamental, directly reflecting our biological potential as organisms with certain properties who inhabit the physical world ... [and] interpreted experience is non-fundamental, the product of cognition in a sociocultural context” (p. 191). This dichotomy is reflected in language which possesses universal features and variability. The roles of space and time are immediately obvious in the grammatical roles of nouns and verbs. Nouns represent “bounded objects ... which have both spatial extension and a spatial configuration” while verbs “typically designate bounded events that extend and unfold through time” (p. 194). Objects are thought of as existing in space while events are expressed as temporal changes. By looking at different types of nouns and different types of verbs (e.g. mass versus count nouns; perfective versus imperfective verbs) with regards to bounding, spatial and temporal properties are evident. The universality and variability of language is ultimately evident in concepts of time and space, as “conceptual and grammatical asymmetries suggest that time is not just a fourth dimension of space, having special status if not a fundamentally different nature” (p. 214).

Chapter 10
Bohnemeyer and O’Meara’s chapter covers ‘Vectors and frames of reference’, which are fundamental concepts in the study of the language of space (see, inter alia, Tversky 2003; Levinson 2003). Frames of reference are “coordinate systems that partition space into distinct regions that serve as search domains for the interpretation of spatial relators in language and cognition” (p. 218). Using the Nijmegen classification system of relative and absolute frames of reference, Bohnemeyer and O’Meara look at the role that frames of reference play in orientation and location. Empirical tests are carried out on Seri and Yucatec speakers, yielding locative and orientational results which lead to the notion of vectors and their role in frames of reference. They define vectors dually as “an ordered pair of places, head and tail,” and more broadly as “an ordered pair of a place, usually a tail, and an angle between the vector and the axis of some coordinate system” (p. 239). These two definitions are dealt with in English by the terms ‘towards/away from’ and ‘uphill/downhill’ respectively. Vectors give languages the ability to orient the speaker and work in conjunction with frames of reference which provide location. It is through comparing different types of languages, such as English, Seri and Yucatec, that we can gain insights into how vectors and frames of reference actually work at a cognitive level.

Chapter 11
In ‘Verbal and gestural expressions of motion in French and Czech’, Fibigerová, Guidetti and Šulová examine “how language influences gestural and cognitive representations of motion events” (p. 255). Empirical tests show an interrelatedness between gestures and the complexity of the verb used to express complex motion (those involving path and manner). Manner is encoded in Czech verbs, whereas French separates the path and manner, requiring two clauses, so one would expect the gestural realisation to be different for Czech and French speakers. And this is confirmed: Czech speakers were found to express both path and manner in their gestures while French speakers have a tendency to express the path only. Thus, Czech is found to be more congruent than French, expressing both path and manner in one gesture. The French phenomenon can be explained as a gestural attempt to “compensate for the near-impossibility of expressing path and manner within a single verbal unit” (p. 266). A multimodal approach to further research is urged by the authors “in the domain of language impact on conceptualisation of general categories” (p. 267).

Chapter 12
We move on to an empirical study in Filipović and Geva’s ‘Language-specific effects on lexicalisation and memory of motion events’. Here, English and Spanish speakers were tested on their memory of motion events to test the hypothesis that “English speakers would have better recognition memory with regards to motion events as a result of their language-specific verbalisation, which facilitates the expression of manner and entrenches habitual focus on that event component” (p. 274). The results confirm this hypothesis and lead the authors to further claim that the results “support the weaker version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis and Slobin’s thinking-for-speaking hypothesis” (p. 279).

Chapter 13
In ‘Space and time in episodic memory’, James Russell and Jonathan Davies test children on their ability to remember a simple pattern that has no semantic basis in order to evaluate their hypothesis that “semantic content can be experienced without its being conceptually grasped” (p. 289). Russell and Davies describe an increase in the full completion of their task at around 2.5-years-old, which holds with recent psychological theory that “infantile amnesia (Freud’s term for our inability to think back to early childhood) fades away some time around the age of two-and-a-half” (p. 301). Russell and Davies claim that “the only limitation on studying the role of the spatiotemporal and of the synthesis of memory elements in episodic memory is that of the investigator’s own ingenuity” (p. 302).

Chapter 14
In ‘Conceptualizing the present through construal aspects’, Drożdż states that the boundaries of English temporal constructions are not always clear. In particular, there is considerable fuzziness around the present tense and its temporal bounds. Using Langacker’s (2008) approach to cognitive grammar conceptualisation, Drożdż intends to “shed more light on the concept of present time encoded in English grammar” (p. 306). Drożdż examines English tenses to establish if there is any definite bounding between Past/Present and Present/Future. He finds that the past tense boundary is far better defined than the future tense boundary in consideration of the present tense. This adds credence to long-held beliefs that English has only two tenses: past and present.

Chapter 15
In the final chapter of this volume, ‘From perception of spatial artefacts to metaphorical meaning’, Marlene Johansson Falck looks at metaphorical and non-metaphorical path and road constructions. A corpus search and an empirical study show some tendencies in restrictions for metaphorical path and road constructions that reflect the perception of roads versus paths. The author finds “both similarities and differences between people’s mental imagery for paths or roads and the patterns of metaphorical path- and road- instances” (p. 345). The origins of metaphorical language in “embodied sensorimotor-based simulations” (p. 348) and “perceptions of the world” (p. 348) are shown to influence how speakers approach path- and road- constructions.


The Human Cognitive Processing imprint of John Benjamins has consistently provided top quality volumes for cognitive linguists, and this volume is no different. While not all chapters will be of interest to linguists, there is more than enough content that provides vital empirical tests and theoretical expositions. There are numerous cross-references to the accompanying volume (Space and Time in Language and Cultures: Linguistic Diversity) which shows a great cohesion of these two volumes which form the proceedings of the conference (Space and Time across Languages, Disciplines, and Cultures, April 2010, Newman College, Cambridge).

The chapters in Part 1, ‘Linguistic and conceptual representations of events’ provide insight into typological issues of time and space (Chapter 1) and theoretical treatments of time and space events (Chapters 2-4). While da Silva Sinha, Sinha, Sampaio and Zinken give us a great deal of information about how the Amondawa structure time and how that relates to their counting of objects and age, there are numerous areas for expansion into how, for example, Amondawa structures the vertical and horizontal axes and how these notions can similarly impact spatial reference in metaphor in Amondawa. One weakness in Wallington’s paper is the reliance on an internet search as a primary test for locating Christmas and Easter. The theory and the hypotheses of this chapter are well-formed and well researched, so to use an internet search is a disappointment.

The focus shifts to cultural perspectives on space and time in Part 2. The emphasis on Russian temporal expressions leads to a degree of overlap between Chapters 5 and 8. However, given the size of the corpus used in Chapter 5 (the 150,000,000-word Russian National Corpus), one could easily draw two chapters from just this material. Chapter 8, on the other hand, is a formal semantic reading of similar Russian temporal expressions. Priestley’s description of Koromu temporal expressions pairs nicely with da Silva Sinha, Sinha, Sampaio and Zinken’s description of Amondawa.

The final part deals with conceptualizing spatio-temporal relations. As Part 3 represents nearly half of this volume, the main emphasis of the volume is on these conceptualisations. Here, we have the three cross-linguistic examinations (Chapters 10-12) as well as five chapters concerning theoretical approaches to space and time (Chapters 9 & 12-15). Bohnemeyer and O’Meara build upon the work of the Nijmegen methods and classification structure of cross-linguistic spatial reference which is very much at the forefront of cognitive studies in spatial language. Amongst the theoretical chapters, the emphasis on conceptualisation shines through semantic, syntactic and developmental psychological chapters that reflect the overall focus of this volume.

The quality of the contributions and the span of sub-disciplines across cognitive linguistics provide a broad base of appeal. However, several of the chapters could provide more analysis and the reader is directed to previous findings on which the chapters are based. That being said, outstanding typological treatments (Chapters 1, 5, 7 & 8), cross-linguistic analyses (Chapters 10, 11, 12) and theoretical approaches (Chapters 2, 3, 4, 9, 13, 14 & 15) will give any researcher in these areas food for thought. These are all evolving areas of research and the papers in this volume are certain to influence future studies.

While there are some copyediting and proofreading errors in the text, it would be churlish to point out the minor flaws in what is, on the whole, an excellent publication.


Asher, N. 2011. Lexical Meaning in Context: A Web of Words. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Goddard, C., and A. Wierzbicka, eds. 2002. Meaning and Universal Grammar: Theory and Empirical Findings, Vol. 1. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Gumperz, J., and S. Levinson, eds. 1996. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langacker, R. 2008. Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levinson, S. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tversky, B. 2003. “Structures of Mental Spaces: How People Think about Space”. Environment and Behavior 35, pp. 66-80.
Stephen Lucek is currently a PhD candidate in the Centre for Language and Communication Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where he is carrying out a sociolinguistic and cognitive study of the language of space in Irish English. His research interests include language change, dialect contact, global Englishes, communities of practice, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics and cognitive semantics. He has previously worked as an editor.