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Language, Culture & Cognition


Learning Objectives
By the end of the lecture, you should be able to
understand the conceptualization of TIME in terms
of two types of temporal experience;
learn four lexical concepts of TIME;
appreciate the universal and cross-linguistic
variation on the cognitive models for TIME; and
substantiate our understanding of linguistic
universality and relativity of TIME through in-depth
reading of Boroditsky (2001).

Conceptualization of Time
Vyvyan Evans (Bangor University): The Structure of
There is no analogous apparatus dedicated to the
processing of temporal experience (unlike visual
system responsible for assessing spatial experience).
Yet, human beings are aware of the passing of
time. This is an introspective/subjective experience.

Evans (2004): Temporal experience can ultimately be

related to the same perceptual mechanisms that
process sensory experience.
Perceptual processes are underpinned by temporal
intervals, or perceptual moments, which facilitate the
integration of sensory experience into perceptual
Perception is a windowing operation, which presents
and updates our external environment.
The updating occurs as a result of timing
mechanisms which hold at all levels of neurological
processing and range from a second to around three
seconds in duration.

Temporal experience exhibits TWO levels of

1) Lexical concepts for time
This is the meaning (sense) that is represented by
a lexical form or word.
E.g., time, past, present and future

2) Cognitive models for time

This is a level of organization in which various
lexical concepts are integrated, together with their
patterns of conventional imagery.
Evans (2004a) calls this process concept

(1) Lexical concepts for TIME

Primary lexical concepts
They relate to common aspects of human cognitive
processing temporal universals

Secondary lexical concepts

Culture-specific lexical concepts

Secondary lexical concepts

Culture-specific lexical concepts
E.g., the concept of TIME as a valuable commodity
is only present in the languages of the
industrialized world and absent in the languages of
non-industrialized cultures.

Two lexical examples that demonstrate four

primary lexical concepts for TIME

Time drags when you have nothing to do.
protracted duration

Time flies when youre having fun.

temporal compression

My first thought was, Where did that car come from? Then
I said to myself, Hit the brakes.. . .I saw her look at me
through the open window, and turn the wheel, hand over
hand, toward the right. I also [noticed] that the car was a
brown Olds. I heard the screeching sound from my tires
and knew . . . that we were going to hit . . . I wondered what
my parents were going to say, if they would be mad, where
my boyfriend was, and most of all, would it hurt . . . After it
was over, I realized what a short time it was to think so
many thoughts, but, while it was happening, there was
more than enough time. It only took about ten or fifteen
seconds for us to hit, but it certainly felt like ten or fifteen
minutes. (Flaherty 1999: 52)

Protracted duration is caused by a heightened

awareness of a particular stimulus array, either
because the interval experienced is empty, as in a
boring class, or because the interval is very full due
to a great deal being experienced in a short space of
time. This is illustrated in the near-death experience
involving a car crash.
Protracted duration: special effects in movies

(b) Moment
Human beings have the ability to assess time in
terms of discrete moments.
The time for a decision has come.
Now is the time to address irreversible environmental

Here, TIME is conceptualized not in terms of an

interval, whose duration can be assessed, but instead
as a discrete point.

(c) Event
Evans (2004a) suggests that events derive, at the
perceptual level, from temporal processing, which
binds particular occurrences into a temporally
framed unity: a window or time slot.
With the first contraction, the young woman knew her
time had come.
The man had every caution given him not a minute
before to be careful with the gun, but his time was
come as his poor shipmates say and with that they
console themselves. (British National Corpus)

In each of these examples a particular event,

childbirth and death respectively, is lexicalized by
time. This suggests that the conceptualization of an
event is closely tied up with temporal experience.

This concept underlies the fact that temporal events
can be enumerated, which entails that distinct events
can be seen as instances or examples of the same
With that 100m race the sprinter had improved for the
fourth time in the same season.

Here, time refers not to four distinct moments, but to

a fourth instance of the improvement event. This
example provides linguistic evidence that separate
temporal events can be related to one another and
counted as distinct instances of a single event type.

Protracted DURATION
Christmas seemed to drag this year.

Temporal compression
Christmas sped by this year.

Christmas has finally arrived/is here.

This Christmas was better than last Christmas.

Christmas is a festival that takes place at the same

time each year, traditionally on the 25th of
While the festival of Christmas is a cultural construct
deriving from the Christian tradition the
expression Christmas can be used in contexts that
exhibit the same dimensions of temporal experience
we described above for the expression time:
dimensions that appear to derive from our cognitive
abilities, and therefore from pre-linguistic experience
of time.

Spatial Metaphors of Time

Lexical concepts for TIME are often elaborated is in
terms of motion.
E.g., it is almost impossible to talk about time without
using words like approach, arrive, come, go, pass, etc.


In Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and
English, lexical concepts for TIME are
systematically structured in terms of motion.


time NOM flows

La Noche Buena viene muy
The night good
come very
Christmas Eve is coming very soon.


(2) Cognitive models for TIME

A cognitive model is a level of organization in which
various lexical concepts are integrated, together with
their patterns of conventional imagery.
Evans: three main cognitive models for TIME
a) Moving time model
b) Moving ego mode
c) Temporal sequence model


(a) Moving time model

In this model, there is an experiencer, who may be
implicit or linguistically coded by expressions like I.
The experiencer is called the ego, whose location
represents the experience of now.
In this model, the ego is static.

Temporal moments and events are conceptualized as

objects in motion.
These objects move towards the ego from the future
and then beyond the ego into the past.
It is by virtue of this motion that the passage of time
is understood.

Many languages, including English, conceptualize

the ego as facing the future with the past behind.
At least one language, Aymara, spoken in the
Andean region of South America, conceptualizes the
ego as facing the past, with the future behind.

The passage of time is understood in terms of the
motion of a temporal entity towards the ego:
Christmas is getting closer.
My favorite part of the piece is coming up.
The deadline has passed.

(b) Moving ego model

In this model, TIME is a landscape over which the
ego moves, and time is understood by virtue of the
motion of the ego across this landscape, towards
specific temporal moments and events that are
conceptualized as locations.


Were moving towards Christmas.

Were approaching my favorite part of the piece.
Shes passed the deadline.
Well have an answer within two weeks.
The meetings were spread out over a month.

In these examples TIME is conceptualized as a

stationary location or bounded region in space. It
is through the motion of the ego that times
passage is understood.

(c) Temporal sequence model

This model relates to the concepts EARLIER and
Unlike the previous two models, this one does not
involve an ego.
Instead, a temporal event is understood relative to
another earlier or later temporal event.

Monday precedes Tuesday.
Tuesday follows Monday.
In these examples, LATER follows EARLIER: the
earlier event, Monday, is understood as being located
in front of the later event, Tuesday.


a) in the weeks ahead of us
b) Thats all behind us now
PAST/FUTURE (time is conceptualized relative to
the speaker)
c) in the following weeks
d) in the preceding weeks
EARLIER/LATER (time is conceptualized relative
to some other event)


Lera Boroditsky

University of California, San Diego

For a long time, the idea that language might shape

thought was considered at best untestable and more often
simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford
University and at MIT has helped reopen this question.
We have collected data around the world: from China,
Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal
Australia. What we have learned is that people who
speak different languages do indeed think differently and
that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how
we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift,
central to our experience of being human. Appreciating
its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step
closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.