On space-time-emotion metaphors

Nov 3, 2011 by

In earlier postings, I discussed the use of metaphors in language and the role that metaphorical extension plays in semantic change. There is, however, a whole area of language where such metaphorical extension is crucial: the space-time relations.

As noted in the excellent book by Guy Deutscher The Unfolding of Language (pp. 133-134), the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the concept of ‘space-time’ in Einstein’s theory of relativity begins with the following declaration:

Space-time. In physical science, single concept that recognizes the union of space and time, posited by Albert Einstein in the theories of relativity (1905, 1915). Common intuition previously supposed no connection between space and time…

However, even though physicists may not have identified the relation between space and time in their theories until very recently, “everyday language proves that ‘common intuition’ has in fact recognized this link for many thousands of years (even if not exactly in Einstein’s sense)” (Deutscher, p. 134). In fact, no two domains in language — any human language — are more intimately related than space and time. This way of thinking and speaking is so ingrained in us that we no longer notice it, but we invariably speak of time in terms of space.

Take, for example, spatial prepositions such as from, to, in, at, before, after, behind, by, within, through, outside and around. In addition to spatial uses as in from New York to Los Angeles, in San Francisco, at Stanford, the king rode before the army, first house after a stop sign, a mile behind us, by the door, within the four walls, through the forest, outside North America and around the campfire, these prepositions have developed temporal uses, as in from Monday to Friday, in time of war, at 5 o’clock, before the battle began, after the hostilities ceased, an hour behind us, by noon, within a year, through the month, outside business hours and around midnight.

Nor is English the only language to recycle spatial prepositions for temporal uses. Consider, for example, the following Russian prepositions:

  • v Katare ‘in Qatar’ — v janvare ‘in January’
  • okolo okna ‘by the window’ — okolo poludnja ‘around noon’
  • pered domom ‘in front of the house’ — pered bitvoj ‘before the battle’
  • cherez les ‘through the forest’ — cherez mesjas ‘in a month’
  • vne Rossii ‘outside of Russia’ — vne vremeni i prostranstva ‘outside of time and space’

If you speak another language, I bet you can find examples where spatial terms are similarly used to describe temporal relations.

However, temporal relations are not the only domain to which spatial terms are commonly extended by metaphor. For example, the same spatial prepositions discussed above can be used to describe causes and reasons, as in he shivers from cold, at my request, by your authority and through your stupidity. Other spatial prepositions that can be used for temporal or causal relations include: about (about the town, about midnight, this election is about the economy) and out of (out of Africa, out of term, out of despair).

Perhaps even more interestingly, we metaphorically extend spatial terms to describe physiological and psychological states and other subjective evaluative scales, by associating up/above with the good end of the scale and down/under with the bad end. Thus, one can be above suspicion or beneath contempt. A person who’s unwell can be under the weather or more specifically down with the flu; in fact, one falls ill (curiously, one also falls in love, which may well betray the society’s contempt for infatuation). And of course, some people pop uppers and downers. The winner is said to have an upper hand, and members of the royal family are addressed as Your Highness.

The association of ‘up’ with ‘good’ and ‘down’ with ‘bad’ is further highlighted by the ordering of elements with these connotations in binomial expressions (that is, idiomatic expressions in the form “X and Y”): in such expressions the element with the positive connotation comes before the one with the negative connotation, and similarly, the element with the ‘up’-connotation precedes the one with the ‘down’-connotation, as in good and bad, day and night, but also up and down, head and tail (it is possibly, although by no means proven, that the ordering in the phrase north and south also has to do with the up/down dimension).

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from one of my all-time favorite books, A.A.Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh, which highlights a metaphorical use of a spatial preposition under:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.

(“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin. “It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”

[Thanks to Olga Kagan for help with this post.]

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