Long Time No See

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written at some length about metaphor and it’s role in language and the mind. The following quote is from their 1999 work, Philosophy in the Flesh (p139).

“Time is as basic a concept as we have. Yet time, in English, and in other languages is, for the most part, not conceptualised and talked about on its own terms. Very little of our understanding of time is purely temporal. Most of our understanding of time is a metaphorical version of understanding of motion in space.”

Note, “in other languages”. They don’t say, in all languages. But a theme of Lakoff and Johnson’s work is that, they claim, we think the way we think because of the way our bodies are.

Let’s have a look at how we talk, and think, about time, in English and Chinese.

  • time 时间 (shíjiān) might be long 长 (cháng) or short 短 (duǎn)
  • time can be broken into sections 段 (duàn)
  • time is a space in which things can happen, for example, within a couple of hours 两个小时之内 (liǎng ge xiǎoshí zhī nèi)
  • free time is just empty space 空(kòng)
  • indeed, the 间 (jiān) in 时间 (shíjiān) might just as well refer to a space

These are part of what Lakoff & Johnson call the spatial metaphor for time. They’re so deeply ingrained that we rarely pause to consider them. But it’s reassuring to note how much of the same structure seems to be there in modern Chinese.

Comings and Goings

The future is in front of us. The past is behind us.


  • the future is yet to come 未来 (wèilái)
  • the past 过去 (guòqù) has, er…passed
  • the present is what we see here and now 现在 (xiànzài)
  • we live, or get by, passing the days….过日子 (guò rìzi)
  • the future might be the coming days 来日 (láirì)
  • 后来 (hòulái) came afterwards

We might, for a moment, get hung up on:

  • the day after tomorrow, 后天 (hòutiān)
  • the day before yesterday, 前天 (qiántiān)

Surely, 后天 (hòutiān) would be the days behind us – the past. Might not, 前天 (qiántiān) be the days ahead of us – the future?

Back to the Future

We need, in terms of understanding the metaphor, to be a little more careful with before and after. Whilst we see time as moving toward and past us, we actually project a front and a back onto blocks of time or events. So one thing happens after another.

We perceive a stream of events, days, seconds, whatever, flowing past us from front to back. Earlier events precede, that is, are in front of, later events.


As we look forward, tomorrow is moving toward us, and it is followed by the day after; the day after tomorrow is behind tomorrow.

Similarly, yesterday has already passed us, and it was preceded by the day before; the day before yesterday is in front of yesterday.

  • The day after tomorrow 后天 (hòutiān), follows tomorrow 明天 (míngtiān). The day after tomorrow is 明天的后一天 (míngtiān de hòu yī tiān) or simply 后天 (hòutiān).
  • And the day before yesterday 前天 (qiántiān), preceded yesterday 昨天(zuótiān). The day before yesterday is 昨天的前一天 (zuótiān de qián yī tiān) or simply 前天 (qiántiān).1

Finally, events can occur after(wards)  以后 (yǐhòu), or before 以前 (yǐqián), either the present time or another event2.

All of this seems quite natural. The two languages seem to match up pretty well. Speakers of both languages seem to perceive time in much the same way.

Well, we’re all human after all.

There’s a post on “next” and “last” coming up…following shortly…in the near future. [Subsequently]


1These two English expressions seem pretty clumsy when compared with their Chinese counterparts. I guess English speakers have never felt the need for “afterday” and “beforeday”. Actually, I think 后天 (hòutiān) and 前天 (qiántiān) might really be closer to saying, in English, “the day after” and “the day before”. Obviously, these are expressions English speakers do use, but not with quite the same specific meaning. The day after means “the day after that day” 那天的后一天 (nà tiān de hòu yī tiān), or “the next day” 第二天 (dì-èr tiān); the day before means “the day before that day” 那天的前一天 (nà tiān de qián yī tiān).

2English speakers seem to feel it necessary to distinguish “later” and “after(wards)”. Whilst, in casual speech, some may deem it acceptable to refer to the future simply as “after(wards)”, it is more common to use “later”, unless a current activity or timeframe is specified or implied.

13 responses to “Long Time No See”

  1. Chubb says:

    Fascinating post, thanks.

    Something else strange about time-talk is that we can’t seem to decide whether it’s us or time that’s moving, e.g. 等到那时候再说吧/”let’s wait until that time then talk again” vs “那时候已经到了”/”that time has arrived”.

    I also find the expression “时间到了”/”time’s up” quite interesting. The Chinese version appears to mean “time has arrived” in the most general sense of the word time – perhaps even “time/space has arrived”. If the literal meaning was that a specific, preordained time had arrived, one would presumably be saying “时候到了”. The English version, “time’s up” has its strong connotations of time being consumed, or simply disappearing – “时间用完了” or “时间已经没了”.

  2. Max says:

    I may be nitpicking, but for me Chinese time always flowed from top to bottom. What with ‘上个星期‘ and ‘下个月’ and so on. And I don’t think the other time words contradict that interpretation (especially if you take into account that texts used to be written from top to bottom).

  3. Sima says:


    Good points. It seems that English speakers really can’t decide which it is – the observer moving or the events time moving. The two metaphors, rather than being contradictory seem to actually support each other. After all, in either case there is movement *relative* to the observer. Your examples would seem to suggest that Chinese too uses both *sides* of the metaphor.

    Time’s up – this use of ‘up’ seems to be closely connected to ‘used up’, as you note. English speakers do also view time as something which can be handled, shared, spent, wasted, saved etc. And in many ways, Chinese employs the same basic metaphors here too: 抓紧时间,花费时间, but such expressions don’t seem quite as widespread as in English…however, maybe people can think of more examples to prove me wrong.


    Nitpicking? Absolutely not! This post started as a post all about 上周 and 下周. I felt I needed to lay out all the stuff above as an introduction to any discussion of ‘next week’ and ‘last week’ and, I’m afraid, the post just became too unwieldy. So I’ve cropped it here and ‘part 2’ will follow in a few days or so. It appears you have a good idea about all this and I look forward to discussing it with you.

  4. Carl says:

    I started to think the English system of time is a broken metaphor when I learned Japanese. In theory, English is based on the idea of marching forward into the future. So, we should be marching into what’s “before” us. But instead “before” refers to the past and not the future. Similarly, the future comes “after” today, so it should be behind us, just like when you march ahead, the place you went it now after you are on the road. On the other hand, in Japanese 前 is “before” and can be either spatially or temporally, before (in front of) or in the past.

    Like you guys said, I think the basic problem is the spatio-temporal terms in English are relative to some pivot but it’s not clear whether we or time is the point of reference.

  5. Dan says:

    I myself think that using ‘before’ to mean things that happened earlier would mean that we’re facing the past and look that way, while the future is behind our backs (it comes ‘after’ us). Wouldn’t you think?

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  7. Gregg says:


    Think of how the words before and after are used to describe position in an ordered sequence. Considering the spatial implications of (be)fore and aft(er), every element in a sequence is assigned a front and a back, with the front facing in the direction of the lower ordinals. Given an ordered temporal sequence, the terms retain likewise retain their spatial consistency when we view all elements as facing towards the past. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that 前 also operates this way.

    So your idea is correct, but not limited to time alone; in fact, it seems that the spatial orientation implied by before and after is ass-backwards for any sequence with either an explicit or implied direction of progress.

  8. Ryan says:

    Great explanation and visuals! Sure to be a big help in imprinting the concept to memory.

  9. […] and “the day before yesterday” respectively; be sure to check out “Long Time No See“, a recent post on Sinoglot. We need, in terms of understanding the metaphor, to be a little […]

  10. Fabrizio says:

    nice post, I particularly like the idea of trying to differentiate whether it is the individual or the time that is moving. With China, I have sometimes felt that there are multiple ‘time scales’ going simultaneously.

  11. […] Mandarin | Here’s a nice little primer with visuals for speaking about time in Chinese: Long Time No See Share:EmailFacebookStumbleUponDigg ~ Comment (0) […]

  12. […] full story: Long Time No See. […]

  13. Greg says:

    Great visualisation – thanks. I had recently written a post which shows in Chinese terms the link between time and space, through the word 间, called In space, no-one can hear you learn vocabulary.

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