Sequential time construal is primary in temporal uses of Mandarin Chinese qian ‘front’ and hou ‘back’

Yongfei Yang, Chris Sinha, Luna Filipovic

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3 Citations (Scopus)


This article addresses two previously unresolved puzzles regarding the relationship between temporal and spatial conceptualizations in Mandarin Chinese. First, apparently conflicting data have led to disagreement over whether temporal usages of the terms qian and hou, whose spatial meanings of ‘front’ and ‘back’ are often considered to be primary, are based on a canonical facing of Ego towards past or towards future. We argue that this issue can be resolved by positing invariant Sequential (S-)Time meanings of, respectively, EARLIER and LATER for these terms, with variable USES to refer to past and future events and perspectives in Deictic (D-)Time being secondary and contextually governed. Second, the question of which of the sagittal, vertical and lateral orientational axes are more fundamental in spatio-temporal language and cognition for Mandarin Chinese speakers has been much debated. We review these issues, propose solutions based on linguistic analysis and report five experiments to test the analysis. Our findings are consistent with our analysis of the primacy in Mandarin Chinese of the invariant S-time construal of the terms qian ‘front’ (=EARLIER) and hou ‘back’ (=LATER) over their contextually governed D-time interpretations as referring to pastness and futurity. We find also that the preferred lexicalization of temporal relations between events by Mandarin speakers involves the sagittal axis terms qian and hou, but this does not mean that this linguistic conceptualization is also imposed by speakers as a preference for the sagittal axis for non-linguistic representations of event sequences. Finally, our data indicate that the temporal meanings of qian and hou (EARLIER and LATER) are more salient for speakers than their spatial meanings (front and back) in motion event conceptualizations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101511
JournalLanguage Sciences
Early online date11 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


  • D-time
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • S-Time
  • Space-time mapping
  • Temporal front/back
  • Timeline orientation

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