LINGUIST List 15.2430

Wed Sep 1 2004

Review: Semantics/Cognitive Science: Evans (2004)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in.

If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  • 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 derived.

    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 experience.

    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 time''.

    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 phenomenon.

    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.