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Today we discuss how languages talk about time. Particularly, how do we map time onto space metaphorically.

Top of Show Greeting: Duojjin

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14 Responses to “Conlangery #104: Spatial Metaphors for Time”

    • admin

      In gesture and picture arrangment tasks they seem to, but we didn’t find any information on the actual linguistic metaphors they use, like whether their words for “before” and “after” are derived from “east” and “west”. That would be interesting to investigate.

      • admin

        To me, “light” and “heavy” in that example refer to some sort of intensity (either in the volume of the sound, or the difficulty or complexity of the music).

    • Stim

      (1)”Te voy llevar hasta la luna” – “I’m going to take you up until the moon.”
      (2)”Lleva me hasta la casa” – “Take me up until the house”
      (3)”Lo podemos hacer hasta cuando necesitamos ir” – “We can do it up until whenever we need to leave”

      In Spanish, the word “hasta” means “up until”, whether it be “up until” a moment in time (3), or “up until” a point in space(1,2).

      Since one cannot go backwards in time, “hasta” always relates to a point in the future (3), but can be used to mean “in an upwards direction (1)”, or over some “flat” direction (2).

      I read a book once about how we Indo-European language speakers perceive the world in regards to matter, form, and time. I wish I could remember what it was called…

      • Roman Rausch

        Mhm, but that looks like hasta is just terminative, without a specification of direction.

        Haspelmath writes: However, I know of no language whose regular ‘before’ or ‘after’ expression is derived from ‘above/on top’ and ‘below/under’.

        I want to do exactly that in my language Talmit, especially since it already abuses the vertical axis a lot (for example, ‘to raise’ is polysemous with ‘to cause’ and ‘to lower’ with ‘to settle (a dispute/problem)). The natural choice seems to me FUTURE IS UP, since there are more and more events which can be thought of as piling up in time. Haspelmath also gives French Sur ce bon mot, il partit. ‘After this good word, he left.’ which is consistent with this, I think.

        But then I was really surprised to see FUTURE IS DOWN in Chinese; or in English ‘descendant’, ‘to be passed down’ etc. So maybe another question would be: What is the underlying metaphor for FUTURE IS DOWN?

        • admin

          This is my own speculation, but I really think that the underlying metaphor is gravity. Gravity is a universal, undirected, natural motion that always goes the same direction (within human experience), and gravity itself mostly defines what “down”.

          This, for me, makes me wonder what metaphors might develop in a future space-faring civilization, where up and down would become less intuitive concepts, and there might be newly familiar kinds of motion to think of, such as the spinning of a centrifugal artificial gravity ring.

      • admin

        Looking to what Roman Rousch said — be careful how much you rely on English translations. We might say “Take me up to the house”, but that is metaphorical language on the part of English, too — the house need not be “up” from me in any way.

        Are you a native speaker of Spanish? If so, how does the following example work for you?

        “Bajé de las nubes hasta la tierra.”

  1. Greg Pandatshang

    Great episode, guys! I was thinking that compass-directions metaphors for time might be interesting to do, even though my language does not use absolute direction. i.e. the most common metaphor would be, perhaps, “east is past” and “west is future”. Certainly, the progress of the sun in the sky is vividly familiar to everyone, not just people who speak absolute direction languages.

    I find time metaphors quite perplexing because it seems that they can almost always be flipped around to mean the opposite thing if I prefer to look at it that way. For example, to me, personally, it seems more intuitive to think “east is future” because the sunrise seems like a potent symbol of newness. One looks at the eastern horizon at daybreak to see the new day that’s about to happen there. When the son is in the west, the day is over. But, when I think about it, the opposite metaphor works, too, and maybe it would even be more intuitive to someone who isn’t used to the “future is forward” metaphor: during the day, the east is where the son used to be, and the west is where the sun will be. The sun is always in the east prior to being in the west.

    So, I have a question. I got to thinking about words for north-east-south-west and it occurred to me that if I based those words on right and left, then I could do relative directions, cardinal directions, and time metaphors all in one go. My question is: what do we know about how language pair left-right directions with NESW directions? I know that the name of the Dzungars means both “left” and “east” in Mongol; i.e. this must be based on a metaphor of facing southward. Is there a pattern crosslinguistically?

    It seems to me that the rising sun would tend to be a Schelling point in the sky, so I would expect east-facing metaphors to be most common (modern people probably spend more time looking at the setting sun, but the rising sun strikes me intuitively as more appealing for metaphors). Assuming I go with this metaphor, a bonus would be that it could motivate the typologically rare left-right time metaphor. The people who speak my language live in the southern foothills of the Himalayas, so I imagine they would have strong associations with the directions north and south (or “left” and “right”). They might see the spring as coming up from the south and then passing over into the desolate high mountains. So, the metaphor might be “the distant future is on the right (south)” and “the distant past is on the left (north)”. Or maybe they other way around.

  2. Sayf Asad al-Satya

    Hmmmm … Etymonline advises me that Germanic, Irish, and Arabic all have a word for “north” that also means “left” (the Germanic and Irish words do not appear to have a common IE origin).

    I found a source (“Spatial frames of reference in Egyptian” by Matthias Müller, which has a lot of interesting etymologies) that confirms the Semitic root for north/left but states that in early Egyptian, left was east and right was west, i.e. it assumes the speaker is facing south (there was possibly also an ancient word for “south” that meant “front”). So it seems that both the east-facing and south-facing systems are attested in multiple places … not sure about west-facing or north-facing.


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