Time Points: A Gestural Study of the Development of Space-Time Mappings

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Human languages typically employ a variety of spatial metaphors for time (e.g., “I’m looking forward to the weekend”). The metaphorical grounding of time in space is also evident in gesture. The gestures that are performed when talking about time bolster the view that people sometimes think about regions of time as if they were locations in space. However, almost nothing is known about the development of metaphorical gestures for time, despite keen interest in the origins of space-time metaphors. In the present study, we examined the gestures that English speaking 6-to-7-year-olds, 9-to-11-year-olds, 13-to-15-year-olds, and adults produced when talking about time. Participants were asked to explain the difference between pairs of temporal adverbs (e.g., “tomorrow” versus “yesterday”) and to use their hands while doing so. There was a gradual increase across age groups in the propensity to produce spatial metaphorical gestures when talking about time. However, even a substantial majority of 6-to-7-year-old children produced a spatial gesture on at least one occasion. Overall, participants produced fewer gestures in the sagittal (front-back) axis than in the lateral (left-right) axis, and this was particularly true for the youngest children and adolescents. Gestures that were incongruent with the prevailing norms of space-time mappings among English speakers (leftward and backward for past; rightward and forward for future) gradually decreased with increasing age. This was true for both the lateral and sagittal axis. This study highlights the importance of metaphoricity in children’s understanding of time. It also suggests that, by 6-to-7-years of age, culturally determined representations of time have a strong influence on children’s spatial metaphorical gestures.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12801
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number12
Early online date09 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Dec 2019


  • space-time mapping
  • gesture
  • embodied cognition
  • child development


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