Long Time No See
“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.