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Spatio -Temporal Metaphors and Time Estimation. Panos Athanasopoulos (University of Reading) Collaborators: Emanuel Bylund (Stockholm University) Alina Schartner (Newcastle University Ifigeneia Athanasiadou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)

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spatio temporal metaphors and time estimation

Spatio-Temporal Metaphors and Time Estimation

Panos Athanasopoulos

(University of Reading)


Emanuel Bylund (Stockholm University)

Alina Schartner (Newcastle University

Ifigeneia Athanasiadou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)

Trolle Carlsson (Stockholm University)

Tin Carlsson (Stockholm University)

sapir whorf hypothesis
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
  • Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941)

“The linguistic relativity principle…means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.”


“Language infects and inflects our thought at every level. The structures of grammar enforce a discipline on our habits of thought”

Daniel Dennett

“No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims”

Steven Pinker

“utterly boring, even if true” Geoffrey Pullum


Modern ‘neo-Whorfian’ approaches

Evidence for Linguistic Relativity

colour(Athanasopoulos et al., 2010; Gilbert, et al., 2006; Kay & Kempton, 1984; Roberson, Davies & Davidoff, 2000)

number(Casasanto, 2005; Frank, et al, 2008; Gordon, 2004; Pica, Lemer, Izard, & Dehaene, 2004; Spelke & Tsivkin, 2001)

motion (Athanasopoulos & Bylund, 2013; Gennari et al., 2002; Papafragou & Selimis, 2010)

space(Levinson, 1996; Levinson et al., 2002; Li & Gleitman, 2002; Majid et al., 2004)

time(Boroditsky, 2001, 2008; Chen, 2007; January & Kako, 2007; Miles et al., 2012; Núñez& Sweetser, 2006)



  • “a concept around which our whole existence revolves“
  • “a system to sequence events”



Time as an abstract concept

  • Crosslinguistic differences in the encoding of time
  • Grammatical (e.g., tense, aspect) and lexical (e.g., adverbials) devices
  • Focus of today’s talk: Time metaphors


  • Spatio-temporal metaphors
  • Crosslinguistic differences in time perception
  • The conditions of such differences
  • Time perception in bilingual speakers

Talking about the time thatis yet to happen…



(‘front time’)

ie ahead of us, to come




Talking about the time thatis yet to happen…

  • Commonalityof Swedish and Aymara:

Succession on horizontalaxis



(‘behind time’)

ie can’t be seen, unknown




Talkingabout the timethatis yettohappen…


  • Chineseusesverticalmetaphors

in addition tohorizontalmetaphors


shàng (‘up’)

earlier, past

xià (‘down’) later, future;



Talking about time…

  • Commonality between these ways of talking about time:

Spatial reference

”A long rope”

”A long meeting”

”They moved the car forward two meters”

”They moved the meeting forward two hours”

(e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1980)

Source domain:



Target domain:




Talking about time…

  • Different types of spatio-temporal metaphors are used to talk about duration:


Waiting for a long time

long night

long party


perimeno poli (’much’) ora

megali (’big’) nychta

parti pou kratise poly [’party that lasted much’]

Distance (Germanic languages); Quantity (Spanish, Greek)








Talking about time…

Black bars indicate the proportion of Google ‘hits’ for expressions meaning long time, and white bars for expressions meaning much time in English and Greek.

Casasanto, et al in prep


Thinking about time…

Talking about time…

  • What are the implications of these linguistic encodings of time?
  • Do we think of time in terms of space?
  • If so, do speakers with different spatial time metaphors think differently abouttime?

Thinking about time… Duration

  • What are the effects of these linguistic encodings on time perception?
  • One way of investigating this is to have speakers of these languages looking at animationsthat depict different symbolic figures, and estimate their duration (Casasanto et al., 2004; 2005; 2008; 2013)

Thinkingabouttime… Duration

  • In the test, the participant is given two different kinds of information:

1) temporal information (the duration of the stimulus)

2) spatial information (the length/growth of the stimulus)

  • If the spatial metaphors that we use to talk about time actuallyinfluenceour thinking about time, then we would expect an effect of spatial information on time perception

Thinkingabouttime… Duration

  • Speakers of languages with length metaphors would be influenced by line length when estimating the duration of line animations, i.e:

Theywouldtendtothinkthatlongerlineshave a longer duration

  • In contrast, speakers ofquantitymetaphorlanguageswould be influenced by the degreetowhich the containers arefilled, i.e:

Theywouldthinkthat the more a container is filled the moretime has passed

experimental design
Experimental design

Two measures are calculated:

  • Accuracy of duration estimation
  • Spatial interference

Spatial interference

Estimated duration (ms)

slope = 0

Length/Growth (pixels)


Spatial interference

Estimated duration (ms)

slope = 1.39

Length/Growth (pixels)


Casasanto (2005, 2008, 2013)

  • Speakers of English and Indonesian (distancelanguages)
  • Speakers ofGreek and Spanish (quantitylanguages)

Casasanto (2005, 2008, 2013)

  • Crosslinguistic differences in spatial interference in the line task:
  • Crosslinguistic differences in spatial interference in the container task:

Casasanto (2005, 2008, 2013)

  • Speakers of English and Indonesian were influenced by line distance when estimating time, but not by filling container growth
  • The oppositepatternwasfound for speakers ofGreek and Spanish
  • Thesefindingsseemtoindicatethattime perception indeeddiffersacrosslanguagegroups, and it does so in a waythatcorrespondstospatiotemporalmetaphors for duration

The conditionsoflanguage-specificity

  • In Casasanto et al. (2005, 2008, 2013), lines and containers werepreceded by a prompt thatindicated the task, i.e.



  • Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep) removed the linguisticlabelof the prompt, leavingonly the symbol

Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • Spatial interference, containers

[+ linguisticlabel]

  • Spatial interference, containers

[– linguisticlabel]

p < .05

p > .1


Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • Spatial interference, lines

[+ linguisticlabel]

  • Spatial interference, lines

[– linguisticlabel]

p < .05

p > .1


Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • Crosslinguistic differences in spatial interference are reduced in the [– linguistic label] condition
  • The linguistic prompts trigger a set of perceptual distinctions learnt through and associated with language, thus leading the individual to attend to perceptual attributes in a language-specific way

Accounting for the influence of metaphor on thought

  • Associative learning: when people use a linguistic metaphor for time, they activate the corresponding mental metaphor. In doing so, they would strengthen this particular associative mapping.
  • As people use the dominant and less-dominant metaphors in their language according to their distributional statistics, they activate one mental metaphor more frequently than the other(s).
  • This should strengthen one mental metaphor, and at the same time weaken the alternative mapping(s).

Does language shape the way we think?

  • If specific space-time associations are strengthened by frequency of use, then bilinguals might be influenced by the language they use most often

Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • L1 Spanish – L2 Swedish adult bilinguals, living in Sweden

Age of L2 acquisition: 11.5 (7.8) years

Frequency of L1 use: 21.8 % weekly

Frequency of L2 use: 78.2% weekly

Length of residence: 20.4 (6.1) years

  • Experimental conditions:


Linguistic labels (Swedish: tid)


Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • Spatial interference, lines
  • Spatial interference, lines

p < .05

p < .05

p > .1



  • Frequency of language use affects spatial interference
  • Spatial interference in bilinguals using Spanish more frequently converges with Spanish patterns (i.e., L1 patterns)
  • Spatial interference in bilinguals using Swedish more frequently converges with Swedish patterns (i.e., L2 patterns)
  • How early in language development do mental space-time associations appear? Frequency of exposure? Learning context?

Language and Thought

Linguistic relativity:

  • People who talk about time differently also think about it differently
  • What is the extent of the influence of linguistic structure on cognitive processes, and what conditions suppress or promote this influence?

Conceptual representation

  • Learning and using a specific language can shape mental representations by strengthening specific space-time associations

Bylund & Athanasopoulos (in prep)

  • Spatial interference, containers
  • Spatial interference, containers

p < .05

p < .05

p > .1


Modern ‘neo-Whorfian’ approaches

Linguistic diversity: Languages encode reality in different ways

Thinking for Speaking: Speakers structure information differently when they prepare content for speech

Linguistic relativity: Speakers of different languages think and perceive the world differently

Indexed by verbal and co-verbal behaviour

Indexed by non-verbal cognitive behaviour