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Clock talk: Metaphors show how ethnic groups view time

By Song Xuanqi, Zhang Jijia | 2016-07-01
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Aymara of the Andes have a reverse concept of time: The speaker indicates space ahead of himself when referring to the past. This is contrary to an understanding that had been thought universal among humans–a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind.


Figures of speech are common to language and are a mode of cognition shared by all ethnic groups. In a metaphor, the association between the signified and the signifier is determined by culture, language and life experience. To describe time, different ethnic groups use metaphors derived from their own lifestyles and languages.


Cultural values
The concept of space is widely used in metaphors expressing time. In one type of metaphor, the self moves forward toward a fixed point of reference, e.g. “We are approaching the end of summer.” The other type of metaphor depicts time as being in motion, while the self remains fixed, e.g. “Winter is coming.”

In English culture, people emphasize reason and are keen on exploring the unknown, which makes them future oriented. Guided by such values, Americans and the British are inclined to see themselves as moving through time.

Influenced by traditional culture, Chinese people tend to see time as being in motion. Confucius and Song poet Su Shi spoke of time figuratively as running water.

In many languages, when people say something is behind them, they generally mean it is in the past. When they say something is before them, they are talking about the future. In a phenomenon psycholinguists term “facing the future,” people tend to view time as moving from a fixed reference point ahead of them through the present to the past. Studies have shown that this way of conceptualizing time crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries.

However, in his studies of the Aymara, and indigenous people who live in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist from UC San Diego discovered a peculiarity. After conducting interviews and analyzing body language, Nunez found that the Aymara tend to gesture toward the front when talking about the past and to the back when speaking of things that are to come.

Researchers found that Moroccans were the same in this regard. Though the Arabic language in general faces the future, most Moroccans adopted the opposite gestures when their body language was studied. The investigation of Chinese language users shows that 56 percent face the future, while 44 percent face the past, which is different from English speakers, who overwhelmingly face the future. This is because Chinese people respect tradition while regarding history as a mirror that can shed light upon the present.


Life experience
Researchers find that different writing and reading habits also influence metaphors for time.
People accustomed to writing and reading from left to right tend to use left to represent past and right to represent the future. The opposite is true of Hebrew people, who write and read from right to left.

China is a multiethnic country. Throughout the nation’s long history, the coexistence of different living environments and lifestyles has given rise to diverse ways of thinking and communicating. Naturally, different metaphors have developed to describe time.

Mongolian people say the grass has grown green to mean that one year has passed because their lifestyle has traditionally been dependent on herding on the grassland. Based on the change of vegetation, Mongolians have created expressions related to grass to indicate the concept of year.

Mongolians name each month based on activities that traditionally take place in that month. For instance, the first lunar month is called the month of Tsagaan Sar, which means “white moon.” Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian lunar New Year’s festival, during which Mongolians visit friends and family while exchanging gifts. The second lunar month is called the month of water and grass because it marks the time when nomadic people would seek out the two vital resources. The third lunar month is called the month of dairy cows.

Mongolian people divide the day into five periods based on the sun’s position: morning, when the sun shines on the top of the mountain in the east; forenoon, when the sun rises high in the sky; high noon when the sun reaches its zenith; afternoon, when the sun goes down to the horizon, and nightfall, when the sun sits on the top of the mountain in the west.

A number of shorthand expressions for other divisions of time also originate from the nomadic lifestyle. For instance, the time it takes to install a yurt is slightly more than one hour. The time required to milk a goat is about 10 minutes. The time needed to saddle a horse is two to four minutes.


Influence of language
Research on cognitive linguistics shows that ethnic groups incorporate their life experiences and concept of time into language in different ways. Even though life experiences may differ due to environment, time metaphors ingrained in languages influence the cognition of language users.

Take the Chinese language for example: Ancient Chinese people read and wrote from top to bottom, so time relationships were expressed within this spatial framework. Users of modern Chinese language scarcely retain the ancient habits of reading and writing, but 36 percent of time metaphors in written language reflect a vertical relationship.

In English, time is rarely expressed as a vertical relationship. Han Chinese and people speaking English in modern times read and write from left to right. However, compared to English speakers, more Han people adopt time metaphors that use the vertical relationship. Though the differences between life experiences of ethnic groups are fading against a backdrop of cultural globalization, people speaking different languages diverge from one another in the way time is conceptualized figuratively due to cultural differences in the understanding of time.

Moreover, Han people view time as part of a spatial cycle, while English-speaking people emphasize that time is linear. Studies show that Han people see the four seasons as rotating along a circular ring, while English-speakers believe that the four seasons move along a left-to-right horizontal trajectory. When describing age, Han people also use the concept of size. For instance, they use the Chinese words for “big” and “small” to mean older and younger. However, there are no such metaphors related to the concept of size in the English language.

Also, grammatical differences influence time metaphors. In the English language, nouns are classified into countable and uncountable. The word “day” is countable, which indicates that people perceive a day as a separable entity composed of different parts. The word “time” is uncountable, which indicates that they regard time as an indivisible entity. However, there is no such classification in the Chinese language. In the cognition of Chinese people, time is separable like a pearl necklace that can be divided into different sections.


Song Xuanqi is from the School of Chinese Language and Culture at Nanjing Normal University and Zhang Jijia is from the Department of Psychology at Renmin University of China.