Wednesday, February 1, 2023




or how our understanding of the time concept is shaped by language


Time is of your own making;

Its clock ticks in your head.

The moment you stop thought

Time too stops dead.

Angelus Silesius


          Time, in its sheer diversity of aspects, is a favourite motif in literature in general and poetry in particular. We talk and write day in day out about time, but, as experience shows, when it comes to defining it, we are at a loss for words. What is time, after all? The history of mankind can hardly provide a second example of a percept in which such an extensive amount of deliberation, research and presuppositions has been invested and which is nevertheless so difficult to grasp, or even, according to some opinions, non-existent.

          Is time a product of our mind and as such language-dependent? Starting with Homo sapiens's cave pictures of sceneries such as hunting, copulation and birth, indicative of humans' awareness of the transience and repetition of events, up to Einstein's revolutionary theories of relativity, and later to Penrose's and Hawking's provoking theories of endless singularities and black holes, the human civilisation has continually attempted to solve the mystery of time. It goes without saying that this complex assignment cannot be the task of one discipline alone. In addition to philosophy, physics, mathematics, anthropology, sociology and others, literature, too, is required to investigate further facets of this complex assignment.

          Humans' involvement with time is presumably as old as mankind itself. Earliest evidence of concern with time was found on the Tigris and Euphrates, where ancient cultures took a special interest in lunar observation, using astronomy to determine time (cf. Mainzer 2002, Chap. 1). The Sumerians, followed by the Babylonians, were the first to develop a moon-based calendar, as they lacked the necessary knowledge of the Solar System. Though their calendar is no longer in use, we still divide the year into 12 months, the day into 24 hours, the hour into 60 minutes, and the minute into 60 seconds because they used a duodecimal counting system based on number 12 (cf. Staas, 2005). While also using astronomy to investigate time, the Egyptians grounded their observations rather on the sun and the movement of stars. Accordingly, they determined a night roughly divided into 12 'hours' ('hour' being different from what we call hour today), and a year of 36 decades. Where knowledge was lacking, they recurred to mythology, in which gods like Isis and Osiris were made responsible for various celestial movements. Therefore, from the very beginning, observation data and imaginings of the mind were mingled into an amalgam of fiction and reality. Nevertheless, the Egyptian variant of time division, called the Sothic period, is the predecessor of our modern calendar (cf. Mainzer, 2002: 4).

          Observation of the regularity of physical phenomena, including periodic celestial movements, as well as the everyday necessity to orientate in a certain interval or duration must have been among the premises for man's attempt to develop some devices to better approach time as main component of his existence. A detailed survey of how the concept of time evolved through centuries and millennia goes beyond the scope of this essay, so I will jump to some aspects of contemporary research in the time field as related to verbal behaviour.

          One of the most assiduous scientists in this respect is Lera Boroditsky, an overt supporter of the theory of linguistic relativity. In her paper “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time”, she posed some fundamental questions regarding the diversity of languages, namely whether people who speak different languages think about the world differently, whether learning new languages also changes our patterns of thinking, and whether polyglots structure reality anew, according to the languages they are speaking. Before dealing with these questions empirically, Boroditsky pointed to the facts that, in spite of the sheer variety of temporal aspects across cultures, these also share common components of experience such as: each instant only occurs once, events have a beginning and an end, time is unidirectional and we cannot go back in time. On the other hand, there are other aspects of time that are not similarly tangible and which leave open queries such as: does time move horizontally or vertically, from left to right or from right to left, upwards or downwards?

          Boroditsky appreciated that many answers to these questions are provided by language itself: in our verbal behaviour we very often use spatial metaphors to talk about time. We look forward to a brighter future, think ahead of our time, or fall behind schedule. Therefore we use terms from the domain of space to talk about time. Not being physically conditioned by our own experience with time, these aspects are expected to be arbitrarily shaped by different languages. The extent to which this supposition is true was investigated by Boroditsky in three experiments in which time expressions in English and Mandarin language were compared. She started with the assumption that, since Mandarin and English people talk about time differently, they, consequently, have different ways of conceiving of time. This difference in speech is rooted in the fact that the English predominantly talk about time in horizontal terms, while Mandarin commonly use vertical time descriptions. The results of Boroditsky's experiments significantly showed that the use of horizontal spatial metaphors (English) engendered the habit of thinking about time horizontally, whereas the opposite situation was revealed by the use of Mandarin. The borrowing of spatial terms to describe time is conditioned by the fact that time cannot be  experienced in the same tangible way in which space is.

A great deal of time metaphors – surprising, puzzling, amusing, instructive, provocative – is to be found in the inexhaustible source of human wisdom provided by proverbs. Proverbs supply synchronic and diachronic knowledge at the same time. On the one hand, they are the gradual summing up of the experience of generations over hundreds of years, on the other hand, they are available in quotidian use in many languages, and accessible to comparison, analysis and evaluation. Again, diverging perspectives in various languages on what time is or does can influence the reception of literary as well as non-literary verbal contents. There are languages with proverbs in which time is a healer, whereas in others it is a destroyer. It can appear as a master or as a servant. The imagery can be amazingly powerful, like in the following examples:

German:  Die Zeit frisst Berg und Tal,

      Eisen und Stahl.

      (Time devours mountain and valley,

      iron and steel.)

English:  Time undermines us. Time is the rider that breaks youth.

French:  Le temps tout dévore.

     (Time devours everything.)

Spanish:  El tiempo que todo lo devora.

     (Time devours everything.)

When we read similar time metaphors in poems written by poets from all corners of the world, can we take it for granted that the perception of these metaphors is identical or at least consistent with all readers? Further research and comparative research is needed to cast light on these and similar issues.

          Now, in which way do these findings relate to Our Poetry Archive? Considering our international poetic platform as an encounter of poets from various countries and even continents, with a large variety of languages, each with its own specific features, but all translated into English, one can but marvel at the proficiency exhibited by both poets and readers in the process of writing and deciphering poetry. The human mind is a wonder of evolution.


Boroditsky, Lera, 2001, “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time”, Cognitive Psychology 43, pp. 1-22.

Mainzer, Klaus, 2002, The Little Book of TIME, transl. by Josef Eisinger, Springer-Verlag New York.

Staas, Christian, 2005, Die Geschichte des europäischen Zeitbewusstseins: Wie das Tempo in die Welt kam in Zeit, das ewige Rätsel, GEOWISSEN, Nr. 36. pp. 78-93.

Zank, Aprilia, 2013, THE WORD IN THE WORD Literary Text Reception and Lingistik Relativity, Lit Verlag, Berlin,  pp. 43-92


April Zank


  1. Aprilia, thanks so much for this thought provoking essay. You ask "When we read similar time metaphors in poems written by poets from all corners of the world, can we take it for granted that the perception of these metaphors is identical or at least consistent with all readers?" Following the thought of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf my answer would be emphatically 'No'. However, it appears to this observer that contemporary poetry has largely drawn from a few distinct wells, primarily western/English and not at all for the good. First, is the 'personal I' poetry so prominent today, where the poet’s ‘self’ is seen as the nexus of experience and the arbitrator of all metaphor including any involving time valid beyond superficial and easily malleable sentiment. Also, this method saps the dramatic from poetry by denying tension between the poet and the voice of the poem. A simple contrast can be found in drama where Shakespeare is not the Richard III or Sophocles is not Philoctetes, so the author suspends his own reality to observe another's including his/her perception of time. Culturally connected expressions of time especially through language are collections of individual perceptions whose linguistic proximity allows language groups to share and shape interactions often through metaphorical expressions including ‘time’. Another challenge for us today is the 'universal expression' of time through mathematics which, since Newton and Leibniz, supersedes, or at least lays claim to supersede, all cultural linguistic expressions to time. The spatial aspect in connection to the temporal is central to the overriding predictive power of The Calculus. Are we, as a strict positivist might say or a 20 year old Wittgenstein, lying to ourselves and the world when we create metaphors based on our shared linguistic cultural 'myths' of time? Are such endeavors simply folly or worse? Is poetry such an insular project because the individual creates metaphor in isolation actually seeking the ‘novel’ even when its veneer appears culturally shared? The other danger to poetry and the language of metaphor are poetry’s connection to the cosmic such as you find in Walt Whitman or Jean-Pierre Luminet and their tendency to anthropomorphize everything including time. But that for another TIME.

  2. The comment above was from Carlo Parcelli.