Every now and then, one comes across an academic journal article that is of little relevance to one’s field, but which is quite intriguing and interesting nevertheless. I’ll be honest, I have not read all fifty pages of “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time” by Rafael Nuñez and Eve Sweetser (Cognitive Science, vol. 30, 2006). But the basic concept is quite thought-provoking. Nuñez and Sweetser discuss Aymara, a native Amerindian language of the Andean highlands in which the past is described as being “in front” or “ahead”, and the future as “behind.” Given the way we in the Anglophone world (and, I’d imagine in most of the other dominant languages in the world today) envision time, this is an interesting concept, and perhaps somewhat difficult for us to wrap our heads around.
We normally think of ourselves as facing the future, with the future ahead of us, and the past behind us. We speak of looking forward to a vacation (in the future), or of certain troubles being behind us (in the past). However, in Aymara, a word for “front” is also used to mean “the past”, and a word for “back” or “behind” is also used to refer to the future. At first glance, this seems pretty surprising. And, I trust that if a pair of researchers felt it worthwhile to devote enough time to do all this research, and if a journal thought it worthwhile enough to publish, then surely there is something here. Something of real significance.
You may already be thinking, but, wait, we have plenty of phrases in English that imply an idea of the past being in front of us (after all, the words “before” and “forward” come from the same root), and the future behind. In Japanese, too, the word for “in front,” mae 前, also means “before”, i.e. “in the past.” This article certainly does not ignore those counter-arguments – rather, it addresses them head-on. There is the example of the phrase “ahead of time,” implying that a time in the past (when you arrived) was “ahead of”, that is, “in front of”, a point in the future, the later time when the deadline or appointment was set for. Yet, as the article explains, this phrasing places the past time “ahead of” the future time, and so is a separate matter from the issue of how we use language when discussing time relative to the current Now. We may say that one time comes ahead of another, as in earlier, but when talking about a time or event being still “ahead of us,” we mean the future, not the past. The article also notes the multiple relationships that “to follow” has with time. When New Year’s follows Christmas, it comes afterwards, but when Alice follows Bob, she walks behind him. But, this again relates to instances of two times being compared against one another, rather than the matter at hand of discussing times relative to the present.
We often talk about languages being indicative of fundamental cultural differences. There are numerous misleading or altogether apocryphal assertions out there that a given language has no word for a given concept, as well as oft-repeated misinterpretations of the way that Chinese characters interact (ever heard that nonsense “crisis is written using the characters for opportunity” canard?). But, this matter of how we view time as related to imagined spatial direction is very interesting, is it not?