Human Concepts of Time

Draft version: not for quotation or citation. for the final published version see Sanders, Theology in the Flesh (Fortress, 2016)

Human Concepts of Time

A great deal of research has been done on time in relation to conceptual metaphors, cross-linguistic comparisons, representations of time in gesture, and psycholinguistic experiments on the relationship between language, embodiment, and time.[1]

There is no single concept of time.

English alone has several conceptual metaphors for time.[2] For instance, we use the time is a commodity metaphor (e. g., Time is money, Don’t waste your time). However, this metaphor does not occur in all languages. Cognitive linguists have categorized three distinct understandings of time developed from our embodied experience of events. Sinha and Gädenfors argue that our experience of events and our ability to represent them is fundamental to thinking about time.[3] The conceptualization of time emerges from our experience of events which are fundamental to human thinking.

The three main models of time.[4]

The first is known as Ego-Reference Point (Ego-RP) or deictic time (D-time) by cognitive linguists and called the A-series or dynamic theory by philosophers. In this model events are understood as objects located on a one-dimensional plane (such as a path) in relation to an observer/Ego. What is mapped is the relation between a past or future event and the location of an observer whose position is the present (now). There are static and dynamic versions of this model.[5] In the static version distance between the ego and the event is noted but no motion is involved. Physical distance between objects on a plane is mapped onto temporal events relative to an observer (e. g., Summer is far away and The end of the school term is near). Transitive properties of spatial relations are mapped onto temporal events. If physical object A is closer to the observer than object B and object B is closer to the observer than object C, then A is closer to the observer than C. Similarly, temporal event C is further away from the observer than events A and B.

The dynamic version adds motion between an event and the ego. The dynamic version has two varieties: either the ego is moving (Moving Ego) and or events are moving (in the literature this is called “Moving Time” but I think Moving Object is more accurate since it is really an ego and event that is conceptualized). In Moving Ego the ego moves while the event is stationary (e. g., We are getting close to the holidays and We passed the deadline two days ago) while in Moving Event the ego is stationary and the event moves past the observer (e. g., The holidays are approaching quickly and The deadline has come and gone).[6] Some important entailments of this metaphor are that the observer is the canonical present, time is unidirectional (the observer or objects only move in one direction), and because the observer or events pass each other along the plane the person experiences a particular event only once. Another entailment is that just as distance can be measured so time can be segmented and the distance moved by the observer or the object is the amount of time which has passed.

The second pervasive conceptual metaphor of time is the Time-Reference Point (Time-RP) also known as the B-series (again, Event-Reference Point would be preferable). It deals with the sequence between two different events with one of the events serving as the reference point to understand their sequential relationship. Sequence highlights the earlier/later relation (e. g., Spring is before summer and February follows January). In this model no canonical observer (ego) is required. The sequence of objects on a one-dimensional plane corresponds to the chronological order of events (time is one-dimensional). If object A is located in front or behind object B then event A occurs earlier or later than event B.

A third common metaphor of time is the Block theory (called the Matrix by some cognitive linguists). Here time is understood as a whole—an entity such as a container or block which contains all events that ever occur in history (e. g., Time flows on, The space-time manifold, Time is the moving image of eternity—Plato, and Creatures are in time but God is outside of time.).

Each of the three models of time is developed from our embodied interaction with the world. Cognitive linguist Vyvyan Evans argues for three types of temporal understandings directly grounded in our experience of the world.[7] All humans are aware of duration, succession, and, what he calls, anisotropicity. Duration is the felt experience of events lasting more than three seconds—something endured for more than a perceptual moment. Succession is experience of some things occurring earlier and some things later than another. Anisotropicity refers to our felt experience that there is an asymmetry between events which occurred in the past, those which are occurring now, and those we anticipate will occur in the future. These experiences are the basis for the three major models of time discussed above. The Ego-Reference Point model is based on the distinction between past, present, and future. The Time-Reference Point model arises from our experience of succession (earlier and later). The Block/Matrix model depends upon our experience of duration but the Block conceptualization is much further removed from direct experience than the other two models because it requires the reification of duration as an entity itself—the ontological container of the whole of time.

Given that these models of time emerge from our embodied experience of events, are any of them panhuman (used by all humans in all languages)? Sinha and Gädenfors claim that though there is significant variation in how Ego-Reference Point (deictic) and Time-Reference Point (sequence) are expressed in different languages these two “schemas are almost certainly transculturally present.”[8] All humans experience duration, succession, and the distinction between past and future events. Though deictic time (past, present, and future) is panhuman this does not mean each of its variations is panhuman. The Ego-RP static concept (e. g., My vacation is far away) has been confirmed in widely divergent languages but it is not yet known if there are exceptions. The Ego-RP dynamic concept is also widespread but we do know of a few languages (e. g., Aymara and Amondawa) which do not employ the Ego-RP dynamic concept in either the Moving Ego or Moving Event varieties.[9] Evans argues that the Time-RP model (sequence of earlier/later) is panhuman because it is a primary metaphor and no language has yet been found in which it does not occur.[10]

Two other conceptual metaphors for time appear to be panhuman as well. Evans argues that duration is length (e. g., The lecture lasted a long time) will be found in all languages as well as the primary metaphor now is here (the present moment is the location of the Ego).[11] When people gesture to indicate Now they point to the location of the body. No languages have been found for which the present moment is systematically connected to a landmark external to the embodied ego.

If the location of the ego is now, in which direction is past and future? The front/back axis of the human body is pervasively used to map the direction of past and future.[12] Western and non-Western groups overwhelmingly use the front of the body as the direction of the future: future is in front of ego. We say the future is in front of us (e. g., Your future is ahead of you) and we gesture by pointing in front of the body to indicate the future and gesture behind us to demarcate the past. Some exceptions to this have been found. Aymara, a language in the Andean highlands of South America, uses the front/back axis as well but locates the future behind them.[13] In both speech and gesture they think of the future as behind the ego while the past is in front of the ego. Most humans use the metaphor of a journey on a path to conceptualize past/future so the past is where we have been (behind us) on the path and the future is where we are going. Aymara, however, thinks of past/future in terms of the knowing is seeing metaphor: you know what you see and the unknown is what you do not see. The past is known and so past is thought of as in front of the self where it is visible while the future cannot be seen and so is behind the ego. Both ways of understanding the direction of the future make sense once we understand the metaphorical reasoning involved. Though both make use of the front/back axis, they differ about the direction of past and future depending upon which conceptual metaphor (Journey or Vision) is dominant in the culture.

A few other languages, such as the cognate languages Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew, also construe the future as behind the self.[14]

The research shows that the vast majority of languages use the front/back of the human body to understand past/future even if they locate the past/future differently. However, there are a few known exceptions. The Yupno and Selepet peoples of Papua New Guinea inhabit a terrain with steep slopes and little level land.[15] Instead of the front and back of the human body they use up and down to conceptualize future and past. The location of the ego is the present but construe the future as uphill and past as downhill regardless of the direction their bodies are facing when speaking. The Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, also use an allocentric orientation to conceptualize past and future.[16] East is always the direction of the past and west is the future regardless of which direction the body is facing. Thus, when facing south one points to the left to indicate the past but when facing north the person points to the right for the past.

In sum, there are a few genuinely panhuman concepts of time, some widely used preferred options, and some fascinating divergences.


[1] For a helpful overview of the topics see Dancygier and Sweetser, Figurative Language, 168-179. On gesture see Cooperrider Kensy, R Nunez, and Eve Sweetser, “The Conceptualization of Time in Gesture,” in Body – Language – Communication, An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction, ed. Cornelia Müller et al., vol. 2 (Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014), 1781-1787.

[2] For detailed mappings of various time concepts see Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 137-169.

[3] Chris Sinha and Peter Gärdenfors, “Time, Space, and Events in Language and Cognition: A Comparative View,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1326, no. 1 (2014): 72–81.

[4] My typology draws upon the seminal work of  Kevin Ezra Moore, “Space-to-Time Mappings and Temporal Concepts,” Cognitive Linguistics 17, no. 2 (2006): 199–244.

[5] For an insightful analysis of the conceptual blends involved in the Ego-RP model see Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, “Rethinking Metaphor,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond Gibbs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 53–66.

[6] For examples of Moving Ego and Moving Time in various languages see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation, 47-54.

[7] Vyvyan Evans, Language and Time: A Cognitive Linguistics Approach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 65-70.

[8] Sinah and Gärdenfors, “Time, Space, and Events,” 4.

[9] On Aymara see Rafael E. Núñez and Eve Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time,” Cognitive Science 30, no. 3 (May 2006): 401–50 and on Amondawa see Sinha et. al., “When Time is Not Space.”

[10] Evans, Language and Time, 244. For the Time-RP in Aymara see Núñez and Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them,” and  Kevin Ezra Moore, “Ego-Perspective and Field-Based Frames of Reference: Temporal Meanings of FRONT in Japanese, Wolof, and Aymara,” Journal of Pragmatics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language Studies 43, no. 3 (February 2011): 759–76.

[11] Evans, Language and Time, 245.

[12] For an overview of the cross-linguistic research on these issues see Lera Boroditsky, “How Languages Construct Time,” in Space, Time and Number in the Brain: Searching for the Foundations of Mathematical Thought, ed. Stanislas Dehaene and Elizabeth Brannon (New York: Academic Press, 2011), 333–41.

[13] See Núñez and Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them.”

[14] Nick Wyatt, The Mythic Mind Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature (London: Equinox Pub., 2005), 125-150.

[15] On the Yupno see R Nunez et al., “Contours of Time: Topographic Construals of Past, Present, and Future in the Yupno Valley of Papua New Guinea,” Cognition 124, no. 1 (2012): 25–35. On the Selepet see Kenneth McElhanon, “From Word to Scenario: The Influence of Linguistic Theories upon Models of Translation,” Journal of Translation 1, no. 3 (2005): 29–67. 55. McElhannon was a Bible translator for the Selepet people.

[16] Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby, “Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community.,” Psychological Science 21, no. 11 (2010): 1635–39.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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