June 27, 2006

The past is in front of us, the future behind us.

Here's a Science Times piece about a language, Aymara, that -- uniquely -- visualizes the future in back and the past in front:
[T]he Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

These are not mere mannerisms, the researchers argue; they are windows into the minds of Aymara speakers, who have a conception of future and past that is different from just about everyone else's.

The authors say the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes.

The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or "past," literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can't see.
That makes so much sense that you may wonder why no other languages took this attitude. But the obvious answer is that we see ourselves moving into the future, and when walking, you look where you're going. People who sit around reflecting on the past and not expecting much change in the future might naturally put the abstraction of time into the spatial metaphor chosen by the Aymara. But, I'm thinking, the people who survived and procreated and expanded geographically were the ones who visualized themselves walking into the future.

IN THE COMMENTS: Some informed, intense discussion of whether East Asian languages share the the quality the linked article says is unique to Aymara.

39 comments:

Michael Farris said...

For what it's worth, many years ago I studied Aymara for about three years. I never made it in situ to where they naturally live though.

Yes, the future is 'behind' them and the past 'in front' (and past and present tenses aren't normally distinguished). And the distinction isn't known vs unknown, it's between that which is _witnessed_ vs that which isn't that's important. The language is structured so that the difference between "She left (and I saw her)." and "I think she left, but I didn't actually see her go." is very important and economically produced; Sariwa. and Sarataynaxa. respectively

The front and back thing is just a convention for talking about when things happen. And, IIRC they don't have a metaphor for the passage of time that involves moving forward through space (not what happens as time passes anyway).

But, this doesn't mean Aymara speakers sit around remembering the good old days while waiting for something to happen. They are individually and collectively _extremely_ ambitious and active with a native work ethic that's very close to the protestant. And if they didn't plan for the future in detail they would starve to death very quickly (since they live in a pretty harsh environment in countries with no social safety nets whatsoever).

Fatmouse said...

*tisk* You're clearly guilty of future tiem orientation racism.

37921 said...

the people who survived and procreated and expanded geographically were the ones who visualized themselves walking into the future.

The ancestors of the Aymara came across the Bering Strait and expand geographically all over North and South America.

Fatmouse said...

Time, even.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Michael. I assume that the metaphor for time is so unusual because it tends to reflect an attitudes that wouldn't be good for survival. But, as you indicate, in this case, these people have survived, so they must have some other good ways to reinforce their attention to the future. I like the idea that they are very focused on what they can see and precise about what they really know based on evidence.

altoids1306 said...

Chinese and Japanese do this too. I suspect Korean does as well, but I'm not sure. Front=Past, Behind=Future.

Balfegor said...

Chinese and Japanese do this too. I suspect Korean does as well, but I'm not sure. Front=Past, Behind=Future.

Japanese too? I've never noticed -- could you give an example of what you mean?

John(classic) said...

I didn't know Rumsfeld was Aymaric

Susie said...

Chinese does an interesting thing with above/below:
shang ge xingqi = last week
(literally, above week)

xia ge xingqi = next week
(literally, below week)

Koreans say ap-gil for "(one's)future," and its literal and alternate meaning is "the road ahead." Ap-il also means the future, and its literal meaning is "things ahead" or "things to come."

amba said...

But, I'm thinking, the people who survived and procreated and expanded geographically were the ones who visualized themselves walking into the future.

That's marvelous.

For the record, what is witnessed as compared to what is "known" only through hearsay, rumor or conjecture is a very common distinction in pre-literate languages -- Hopi, for instance. Literate and post-literate, media-saturated people lose this useful distinction, and end up believing all kinds of lies and poppycock. Many preliterate languages adhere strictly to the principle that "seeing is believing."

I once met a barely-literate low-level gangster and compulsive gambler, and only because I had read about the Hopi (in
>Benjamin Lee Whorf's
Language, Thought, and Reality did I understand what Brooklyn Georgie was up to when you discussed some piece of common knowledge with him as if it was established fact, and he, with a skeptical and dismissive expression, said,"So I've head."

Sanjay said...

It's also the way you'd talk in a parade, isn't it? The past is the stuff marching in front of me?

Balfegor said...

Regarding the specific claim, there's a post a Language Log from a while back addressing the uniqueness of Aymara in this regard.

altoids1306 said...

Balfagor: Japanese too? I've never noticed -- could you give an example of what you mean?

以前(いぜん/izen): In the past (lit. In front [with respect to speaker])

以後(いご/igo): In the future (lit. In back [with respect to speaker])

The characters are the same in Chinese and Japanese, and have identical meanings. I suspect Korean has very similar phrases, however, with the Hangul-ization of Korean, they no longer use Chinese characters, so I don't know for sure.

Michael Farris said...

"For the record, what is witnessed as compared to what is "known" only through hearsay, rumor or conjecture is a very common distinction in pre-literate languages"

Do you think Bulgarian, Turkish and Japanese are "pre-literate languages"?
The distinction is made to some extent in those languages as well (in Turkish, the ideas of 'not witnessed' and 'unexpected' tend to blend into each other and some argue that the expected/unexpected distinction is more important.

Balfegor said...

Re: altoids1306:

I've never actually seen anyone use "以後" (Google tells me that "以降" is preferred 5:1), but I suppose that works. However, you can say the same thing with English -- "before" and "after." Consider them in a line: then the man who stands "before" me is in front of me, and the man who stands "after" is behind, no? It has the same orientation about the speaker as the Japanese phrase.

The parallel is, of course, imperfect, since the 前 and 後 morphemes have much broader use than the words "before" and "after," which cannot be broken down into useful semantic subcomponents in the same way. But the general point holds.

Balfegor said...

Korean does have the same constructions though: 이전/ee-jeon (以前) and 이후/ee-hoo (以後). Or at least, I think they're the same. In Korean, the parallel is complicated by the fact that 이 is like "この" in Japanese, and I do not know my kanji as hanja well enough to say whether it is the この or the 以 at work there. The meaning would be roughly the same in any event.

altoids1306 said...

After reading through the other comments, particularly susie's, I remembered a few more.

(You'll need East Asian font support to display this and my previous post properly.)

Day-before-yesterday
Japanese:前日(ぜんじつ/zenjitsu)
Chinese: 前天(pingyin: qian tien)

Day-after-tomorrow
Japanese:明後日(あさって/asatte)
Chinese: 後天 (pingyin: hou tien)

Those with a keen eye with patterns will quickly see that, just as before, the past uses (前/before), and the future uses (後/behind).

Those with some knowledge of Japanese will also see that the Japanese phrase 明後日 does not conform to a Chinese pronounciation - it is a native Japanese word that predates the importation of Chinese into Japan.

altoids1306 said...

Re: Balfagor

I'm not sure Google is a great way to determine the popularity of multiple kanji combinations. The one I stated is certainly standard as far as I know (in both Chinese and Japanese), and it is also the first choice in Microsoft Global IME.

As for the Korean equivalents, I'm also certain those are the right ones. The pronounciations are extremely similar to Mandarin Chinese.

(Apologies to other commentators if you find this particular tangent boring ... but it IS a linguistics thread!)

Balfegor said...

the popularity of multiple kanji combinations.

They're pronounced differently in Japanese, actually. 以降 is "iko," rather than "igo." 以降 appears roughly as frequently as 以前, which would make sense, as they are opposites for fairly basic terms. Anyhow, the material I've read has used 以降 with such frequency that when I saw 以後, I thought, "that doesn't sound right." With Korean, though, the usage probably follows Mandarin more closely.

At any rate, regarding the use of Google as a tool for approximating frequency of words in a linguistic corpus, it works fine as a first approximation. The professional linguists over at Language Log seem to use it for that purpose all the time, when doing spot research. With kanji, of course, you need to restrict to webpages in the proper language first, and that adds some additional unreliability. But it's serviceable.

Jack said...

To depart from the strictly linguistic for a moment, I note that Dante has the soothsayers in hell with their heads twisted backward. This seems to suggest a similar orienation to the Aymara since the soothsayers obviously got that way from trying to see the future.

Kirk said...

The previous suppositions about Korean being consistent with the Chinese/Japanese usage of the past being in front and the future behind are, indeed, correct. As I understand it, all come from the same Classical Chinese root usage.

Christopher Tyler said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christopher Tyler said...

Gorman concludes by saying "What a long, strange trip lies ahead of us." After his diatribe on up being down, and feeling low and mighty, I'm not certain whether he's saying that we have an interesting future, or head did some great stuff in the past. :)

Susie said...

altoids and balfegor are correct.

"after": Korean ee-hoo = Chinese yihou.

"before": Korean ee-jeon = Chinese yiqian.

Susie said...

Another common word for future in Korean is mi-rae, which is related to the Chinese wei4 lai2 (time/days "to come").

(lai2 = to come)

amba said...

Michael Farris: saying it is a common distinction in preliterate languages does not mean it is a trait that would not have survived into some literate languages. Likely, it would.

Cousin Don said...

Really doesn't matter if you believe in Quantum Cosmology like Julian Barbour.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Barbour

Then it's all just one big probability function. We're all just popping in and out and moving based on a whole lot of loaded dice.

Word verification: mmbad
The anti-Campbell soup ad.

altoids1306 said...

Re: Balfagor

WRT 以降vs以後 : I'll just take your word for it. My general feeling is 以後 is still more standard, in the sense that more formal Japanese uses it more often. But I could be wrong, Japanese is not my native tongue.

In any case, I think I've proved the assertion of my first post.

altoids1306 said...

Re: susie

In Japanese, it's mirai. (未来/みらい)Very similar to the Korean, not so similar to the Mandarin Chinese.

In Cantonese, the pronounciation should be more similar, since it went to Korea and Japan in during the Soong/Tang dynasties, when the Chinese spoken by the imperial courts (and therefore the ambassadors from Korea and Japan) was similar to the modern southern dialects.

Balfegor said...

In any case, I think I've proved the assertion of my first post.

Actually the 以降/以後 is just a quibble, irrelevant to the point you were making -- my actual criticism of the point is that we can find that kind of thing in all kinds of languages. The Language Log post I linked above explains it better, with specific reference to the Chinese example, which carries over into the Korean and Japanese contexts. Aymara is apparently unique in the unambiguous ego-centricity of the referent.

altoids1306 said...

Re: Balfegor

Ack. Should have clicked on the link. At this point I'm just defending my fragile ego, I suppose (or picking a lingustic dogfight out of sheer boredom), but I think the distinction he makes is an awfully weak one. The Chinese conception of time clearly originates in the same way, although over time perhaps the meaning of the phrase has become mentally divorced from it's literal origins. 前 and 後 may have picked up other meanings over time, but the primary meanings are front/future and back/past. All other connotations and meanings are simply deriviatives. At the very least, this proves that at the conception of the language, a similar conception of time was used, and it's awfully thin scientific ice to say "Yes, that was then, but only Aymara think that now."

Psycholingual studies aren't just "important", the entire premise of Aymaran uniqueness depends on it. Without conducting those studies, they no evidence at all.

altoids1306 said...

Oops. I meant back/future, front/past.

Balfegor said...

or picking a lingustic dogfight out of sheer boredom

Linguistics is fun!

The Chinese conception of time clearly originates in the same way, although over time perhaps the meaning of the phrase has become mentally divorced from it's literal origins. 前 and 後 may have picked up other meanings over time, but the primary meanings are front/future and back/past.

Hmm. I'm not entirely clear on what you're saying here -- are you saying that the underlying Chinese morphemes have traditionally carried both the meaning of (back and future) and (front and past)? Or are you equating the orientation of future with back and the orientation of past with forwards?

In any event, I'm not sure that's the distinction he's pointing to -- you can have a word meaning both front and past, without it orienting off of the ego/speaker. At least in Japanese, 前, for example, is used to refer to things in front of other things. E.g. "the car in front of the house" becomes "家の前にある車." Now, it's possible that the Japanese word (mae) here is not actually the same as the Chinese morpheme represented by 前 -- the one is native and the other is borrowed from Chinese -- although there is also the phrasing 前に which means "before" in time, much the same way that 以前 does (only more informally, I think). But either way, this suggests, at least, that the meaning of the morpheme for 前 is not restricted to before "self," but actually carries a broader meaning of before or after (either spatially or temporally) some orienting or reference point. As a result, it follows a queue-ing structure, rather than the structure which Aymara apparently uses.

Now, you seem to be arguing that historically, Chinese did not permit these more general meanings (i.e. no moveable reference point), but that this use of 前 only emerged later. Not only do I not know any Chinese languages, I don't know classical Chinese either, so I cannot say whether this is correct or not. If it is, then some Chinese languages might be candidates for Aymara-type time structures. This doesn't seem likely, though, unless the early, more-restricted Chinese use predates the introduction of 前 into Japanese kanji orthography, or Japanese semantics evolved in the same way that the Chinese languages' semantics did.

What I understand the man from Berkeley to be saying in the Language Log post is that the reference point for the Aymara time words is unambiguously the self; i.e. the words cannot be applied in other contexts. That is, my understanding is that the Aymara time words key off of the speaker/ego, in the same way that "that," or "this" (or the Japanese kono/sono/ano and Korean ee/keu/jeo) do. Another example, possibly, would be "come" and "go," although their use is not unambiguously speaker-centred (e.g. "Do you want me to come over there (where you are)" is somewhat preferred over "Do you want me to go over there (where you are)" so "come" does not always indicate movement towards the speaker, and "go" does not always indicate movement away from the speaker.) There's a little flexibility with "this" and "that" (and the Japanese and Korean equivalents) but they pretty uniformly key off of the speaker. And that's what I understand the claim being made with respect to time in Aymara to be.

Internet Ronin said...

Balfegor, Altoids, Susie: What an unexpected surprise to discover a fascinating discussion of East Asian languages on Althouse. Thanks!

Balfegor: I'm just nit-picking here, but I think the proper reference would be to "Chinese dialects," not "languages."

Marghlar said...

Balfegor is right -- English works the same way, when you get etymological about it:

From the OED:

In OE. the adv. FORE (like its equivalent in various other Teut. langs.) was used as a prefix (1) to verbs, giving the additional sense of ‘before’ (either in time, position, order, or rank), and (2) to ns. either forming designations of objects or parts of objects occupying a front position, or expressing anteriority in time.

Likewise, "after" and "aft" share an Old English root, so that the same symbol connoted both a position behind another object, and posteriority in time (aft survives mainly as a nautical term, with its other usages being obsolete).

nonymus said...

I've heard that the future is backwards, past is forwards thing is quite common in Asian languages. In New Guinea's Pidgin English, I believe the way to say goodby is "Me lookem you behind," which follows the same logic. One reason for this pattern could be that we can look in front of us, just like we can look into the the past, but we can't look behind us, just as we can't see the future. (Then I suppose predicting or seeing a vision of the future would be looking over one's shoulder.)

Sean Kinsell said...

altoids1306:

"Chinese and Japanese do this too. [...] Front=Past, Behind=Future."

"In any case, I think I've proved the assertion of my first post."

Well, you've proved that the word and character for "front" can be used to refer to the past rather than the future. You haven't proved that your equations say anything generalizable about Japanese, though. After all, for one thing, we're all over the map on these things in English, too ("I stand here before you"..."Finish your dinner before you eat dessert"..."The road to the future lies before us").

For another, your examples are very selective. The Japanese talk about being 前向き (mae-muki: "looking ahead to the future," "forward thinking") and doing 後戻り (ato-modori: "back-tracking," "regression"). Also think of the cluster of meanings around the native word あと before kanji were assigned to it: 後 ("after"), 跡 ("traces," "footprints," "ruins"), 痕 ("bruise," "scar"). Many of the associations with あと are clearly things left behind from the past rather than things that will happen after the present. Interestingly, those examples are all native Japanese words. I can't really think of anything that fits your equation that's not a borrowing except 先ほど (sakihodo: "just a little while ago"). And even 明後日 can be pronounced myougonichi (Chinese reading) if you're really feeling prissy; it's very likely that the compound disappeared from Chinese but was retained in Japanese with the native あさって reading grafted onto it.

altoids1306 said...

Sean: The Japanese talk about being 前向き (mae-muki: "looking ahead to the future," "forward thinking") and doing 後戻り (ato-modori: "back-tracking," "regression").

Good point. It's not quite as simple as I thought.

Balfegor:

Well, that's not what I meant, but there's no point in discussing it I guess (unless you REALLY want to), because Sean's example negates the point I would have made.

sonicfrog said...

Funny. I read the tag and thought the post would be about Howard Dean's latest proclaimation about how "We're alomst back to where we were in the 60's" (paraphrased).