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Time imagery

Posted by R. Berg on September 08, 2008 at 16:48

In Reply to: Time imagery posted by pamela on September 08, 2008 at 03:43:

: : : : : Time - "Time is not an object but an abstraction, hence it does not lend itself to imagery, which is why filmmakers are forced to represent the passage of time with contrivances that involve visible objects, such as calendar leaves blowing in the wind or clocks spinning at warp speed. And yet, predicting our emotional futures requires that we think in and about and across swathes of time. If we can't create a mental image of an abstract concept such as time, then how do we think and reason about it?... Studies reveal that people all over the world imagine time as though it were a spatial dimension, which is why we say that the past is 'behind' us and the future is 'in front of us'." From "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006. Page 128.

: : : : There's at least one culture, I don't remember its name, where people reverse this front/behind metaphor. They explain that you can see the past--you know what happened--whereas future events are unknown. ~rb

: : : When I have to visualize the past, present and future in my mind, I also go left to right, the past on the left, then the present to the right of it, then the unknowable future on the right. This is the way I read, left to right. I wonder how the Chinese or Semitic cultures, in which one reads right to left, visualize past, present and future.

: : : Rb must have in mind the mugwumps--frequently derided as birds that straddled the fence, with their mug on one side and their wump on the other--and who flew backwards to see where they'd been, rather than forwards to see where they were going.
: : : SS

: : I believe rb is thinking of the South American Aymara people who point behind themselves to indicate tomorrow or next year and linguistically go forward to the past or back to the future.

: The left "past" and "right" future question interests me, since this is how I visualise time. I found an article ("Time (also) flies from left to right" Santiago, Lupiáñez, Pérez & Funes. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14 2007). And found the following interesting tidbits: The back (past) and forward (present) spatial imagry for time in language is very common (e.g. "back in the 60's" "in the months ahead"), although in Toba and Aymara, the past is in front of speakers because it can be "seen," whereas the future is behind because one cannot know ("see") clearly what will happen. The authors suggest this front and behind imagry (either way) is because people visualise time as a horizontal path along which they are moving, or themselves as static with time moving past them. The up-down axis is used to a limited extent in Western languages (as in the weeks coming up) but extensively in Chinese. Radden did a cross-linguistic review of the spatial metaphores of time and found no evidence whatsoever for any use of the left- right axis in lexical items, syntactic constructions, or any other kind of conventional linguistic marker of time and concluded: "[The left-right axis] does not seem to offer any sensible spatial basis for our understanding of time at all". Although languages often talk of the "approaching month," no language uses expressions like "the rightward month" Apparently, the only exception to this claim are signed languages, which conventionally refer to the left-right axis to place sequences of events (Emmorey, 2001). The fact that people do seem to visualise it as a left-right continuum may be because of the number line (because people think of time as ordinal) which they visualise as going from left to right, although this seems to be linked with the direction of writing, since the effect fades and even reverses with users of right-to-left languages. Sadly, I didn't really grasp the outcome of their experiment, but judging by the title, I think they found that "left" and "right" are common visualisations for time (the subjects were Spanish). Pamela

RRC is right, I probably was thinking of the Aymara, although I didn't remember the name. I don't mentally organize time as le ft to right unless I'm reading (or drawing) a graph with time on the horiz. axis or using a vague kind of calendar imagery that puts, say, Friday two days to the right of Wednesday. However, when I made up a personal shorthand in college to take notes faster, I signified the past tense of any verb by adding, to the right of the root, a curved downward stroke like a descender whose free end pointed to the left. This replaced "-ed" and was versatile enough to turn my "is/are" symbol into "was/were." So it seems that I represent past as "left" only when already thinking within a linear system, such as writing. Then the past is opposite to the direction of travel. ~rb