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» Wednesday Linguistics: Space and Time


Wednesday Linguistics: Space and Time

2006-06-14 @ 6:05

Guess we figured it out way before Einstein did. that time is a dimension. Indo-European Language speakers, I mean. That’s why we’ve got all these words used to describe space that are also applied to time: preposition (in five minutes, from three to six, after), adjectives (short¸ long) and so on.

(Of course, there’s always the question of whether we have two words with the same sound or one word with two senses — but since there’s a pattern that affect a variety of different words, it’s a fair bet that we’re talking about words with two senses.)

Many of the words used to locate in space or quantify a dimension are also used fot time. And we can see that time is seen as only one dimension: we talk of a timeline, we can place a point in time, but not a line (or a square).

What’s interesting is that time and space, in Indo-European languages, are a foundamental distinction of grammar; it is what separates nouns from verbs. As Aristotle pointed out, verbs, on top of their lexical meaning, “consignify” time, i.e. they include the idea of time, without which there would be no process. (Hirtle posited, similarly, that nouns consignify space.) The difference between verbs and nouns (in the wide sense, both substantive and adjective) is a foundamental division of grammar meaning.

But the way time is conceived as a dimension, in our language, does not affect that, it is purely lexical. A form of metaphore. Even if what are often described as “grammatical words” (prepositions and such) are also part of that game.

5 comments to “Wednesday Linguistics: Space and Time”

  1. I wonder if you are familiar at all with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, as it is commonly called.

    (BTW, I am not trying to make any statement as to its validity–or even suggest that it qualifies as linguistics–but I have read a bit about it and thought it is relevant to this discussion.)

    They make a lot of how people represent time internally. A person might typically visualize and action in the present time as being front and center in their visual field, and items in the past being further “back” in their visual field, and perhaps to one side or the other (ie: to the left or to the right). Events even further in the past might, of course, be even further back, smaller and even further to the left or right. They might also be more faded, darker, etc.

    The point they try to make is that everybody has their own variation on how they visualize present, past and future time. They would go further to say that a person’s internal way of representing their timelines reflects their sense of control over time, their ability to organize themselves in time, and generally can have a positive or negative effect on their psychological state. Their big thesis, of course, is that, by adjusting their internal method of representing time, they can also affect their own psychological state–presumably for the better.

    If it’s still not clear what I mean, try this: visualize yourself doing some action right now, then afterwards, visualize yourself doing that exact same action in the distant past, and after that, imagine yourself doing it in the future. In each case, you are imagining yourself doing the exact same thing, but you can probably detect that each visualization has been modified in some way to provide a clue that this is supposed to be happeing in the past, the present or the future. And in many cases, the variations are in space.

    I think I personally do represent time differences (largely) spatially in my mind’s eye, but I am not sure how universal this would be.

    Assuming it is, do you suppose that the tendency of representing time spatially in language is related to a tendency to represent it spatially mentally? And if so, do you have any thought as to why all or most languages wouldn’t tend to do the same–i.e.: not just Indo-European ones?

  2. I’ve heard about NLP but I haven’t taken the time to learn more about it (maybe because the first time I tried, the book I had chosen started by exposing Chomsky’s view of language as the truth, which is kind of a turn off for me — as would talking about any theory as the truth). I should look into it.

    The visual-field represenation seems to tie in with occular movement when you’re trying to remember something (I think it’s to the left) or lying — i.e. creating something that didn’t exist before (the other side).

    Would adjusting your internal timeline be like adjusting your personal narrative? Telling yourself a better story. I don’t mean lying to yourslef, but seeing things in a way that gives you more self-worth. Like in this story: Guy walks down the road, sees three mans breaking rocks. The first man looks tired, pissed. Guy asks: “What’you doing?” “What does it look like? I’m breaking rocks!” The second man looks tired, but not pissed. to the same question, he answers, “I’m feeding my family.” Guy comes up to the third man, who’s literally beaming. He answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”

    I’m not sure either how universal is spatial representation of time. I hesitate to say it is because there all these little things we take for granted that are cultural, like causality or the fact that a glass is a thing, not a step in a process (in many Amerind languages, it would be called something like “drink-from-it”). I talk about the representation in Indo-European languages because they’re the ones I know most (my Hungarian’s not that good;-), and I don’t want to overgeneralize into something I don’t know enough.

  3. NLP, as much as I can claim to understand it, seems to focus a lot on the ways in which we represent things to ourselves internally, how those representations may improve our impede our psychological state and, of course, how modifying them can improve our performance, happiness, etc. So, to answer your question as to whether adjusting one’s timeline would be like adjusting your personal narrative, I would say yes, they would both be examples of things NLP would be preoccupied with.

    When I was reading about NLP, I felt that there were some good insights to be had–some excellent ones, in fact–but a certain amount of it seemed to me to be pure snake oil. Overall, I had the feeling that it has enough merits to make it worth exploring, but it is not particularly rigorous as far as its foundations in science are concerned. That’s not always a problem of course. If something helps, it helps, caveat emptor, and all that. It’s just brandishing words like “linguistics”, it lends the impression that it is a legitimate branch of science.

    Which leads me to one of the insights that I did take from NLP. (At the same time as it leads me off topic.) One NLP writer said something that greatly impacted me, while discussing how much the nature of the presentation of some material affects our willingness to accept something as ‘proof’. Essentially, he was pointing out that, for most of us, however we as individuals might each tend to deny this as being true of ourselves, there is a tendency to take things as true simply because of how it is presented.

    For example, if somebody who supposedly has scientific creds starts writing algebraic-looking formulae on a chalkboard and tossing the word model around, there is a greater chance that I will be convinced of the veracity of whatever I am being told.

    Another person, by contrast, might be disposed to distrust such a presentation. Maybe they distrust academics and “the establishment”. But if they were presented something that purports to be founded on wholistic values and environmental concerns–and, say, an anti-globalization viewpoint–they might be much more likely to accept whatever they were told as being self-evident and obvious.

    So, the acceptance of something as ‘proof’, by the average person, might not be so much a function of the rigor with which something is proved, as by the way it is represented.

    I seem to have drifted off topic, and I think I was about to make a new point, but my wife said something to me and I forgot where I was going with this.

    Do you have any idea where I was going with this?

    If you do, please let me know. :)

  4. “So, the acceptance of something as ‘proof’, by the average person, might not be so much a function of the rigor with which something is proved, as by the way it is represented.” I would add “and of his belief system”, and not just for the “average” person (cf. this post).

    As to where you’re going with this, I think it might have to do with the fact the our construal of reality might be in part determined by other things than what we care to think.

  5. “…As Kuhn pointed out in his study of scientific revolutions, most people, confronted with evidence that invalidate their belief, be they religious or scientific, simply disregard the evidence or try to explain it away.But, curiously enough, and as these two comments show, almost no one would say that they won’t change their mind if presented with contrary evidence. It’s the kind of thing we don’t notice in ourselves…”

    Your Thomas Kuhn references very neatly encapsulates the truth that prompted me to begin blogging in the first place (i.e.: as Copernicus, my original blog persona — My motive, as I said then, was “to protest ourselves”. It has long seemed to me that we, as a society, need to become much more aware of the extent to which we do not see ourselves as we are. And we need to do something about the way we “simply disregard the evidence or try to explain it away”. As such, the solution does not start with governments, institutions or anybody else. It needs to start with ourselves.

What do you think?