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Space and Time and Tongue

February 2, 2012

Cognitive Linguists make much of the SPACE-IS-TIME metaphor, the way we reason about time by translating it into spatial terms. We talk about a holiday approaching or being ahead, the years behind us or coming up, a day being far away or near. One could go on for quite awhile. Even the prepositions we use to talk about time seem to be rooted in space and not vice versa; we talk about being in a time period.

And this isn’t a quirk of English. It persists across cultures, though the orientation might change. For example, in Aymara the past is thought of as being in front, while the futue is behind. Cognitive linguists go so far as to say we can’t reason about time except through thinking of space.

This past week I read Morphology by Peter H Matthews. He points out how in many irregular English verbs, the vowel in the present tense will be “front” and in the past tense will be “back,” or at least when present and past tense are just differentiated by a vowel. A front/back vowel is just one where the tongue is in a more forward/backward position:

Front Vowel   |   Back Vowel
fight                   |   fought
bind                   |   bound
break                 |   broke
dive                   |   dove

This is probably just fancy on my part, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a connection here. If the past tense of these vowels had the tongue in a further back position because we think of the past as being in that direction.

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