Time is harder for humans to understand than is space. Our visual systems abound with machinery for processing extensions of space. A continuum of locations are processed in parallel, their spatial relations apprehended without cognitive effort. But for the most part, the mind represents time poorly. Our perception experience is of a very short duration- the specious present. The past is a an amalgamation of events that can be recollected, but we don’t grasp the whole series of moments together as a continuous thread.
Metaphors can make obscure material intuitive- including thoughts about time- especially if the metaphor turns time into space.
George Lakoff and his colleagues compiled a long list of common metaphors in English. I don’t know whether this list was ever formally published, but it’s floating around the web. For time, they list the below. I’ve made a few explanatory notes in brackets.
TIME IS SOMETHING MOVING TOWARD YOU [time-moving metaphor]
“Thursday passed without incident.” [Usually future events are in front, and past events are behind]
Special case : Foreseeable Future Events are Up [I don’t understand why they say “future events are up”, since the examples seem to indicate that future events start below and then move upward]
“Upcoming events. What’s coming up this week? What events are up ahead?”
TIME IS A LANDSCAPE WE MOVE THROUGH [ego-moving metaphor]
“Thanksgiving is looming on the horizon.”
TIME IS MONEY: “She spends her time unwisely.”
TIME IS A RESOURCE: “We’re almost out of time.”
(BOUNDED) TIME IS A CONTAINER: “He did it in three minutes.”
TIME IS A PURSUER: “Time will catch up with him.”
TIME IS A CHANGER: “Time heals all wounds.”
A SCHEDULE IS A MOVING OBJECT: “He was behind (the) schedule.”
from George Lakoff, Jane Espenson, and Alan Schwartz (1991 unpublished manuscript). Master Metaphor List. 2nd edition, second draft copy.
Studying these metaphors and other linguistic artifacts can illuminate the limitations of our processing of matters temporal. Recently I’ve been wondering why we say “all the time” as in “getting better all the time” rather than “all of time” or “everywhen”. I haven’t been able to find any literature on this (please tell me if you know of any) and I hope to post about it later.