Time cube

So, those crazy Aymara people think that the future is behind them and the past in front. Big deal. In Japanese, the past and future are both in front and behind.

To refer to the past, you can use words such as mae (front) or saki (tip, destination). To refer to the future, you can say ato (back) or, again, saki, albeit in the set phrase kono saki (this saki). Also, just to confuse things a little more, in the olden days, ato sometimes referred to the past. Ato no tsuki (back moon) means "last month".

(Of course, Japanese has trouble controlling its spatial metaphors in general. Temae (literally "hand-front") started its career as a humble first-person pronoun, but nowadays it's an extremely rude second-person one. I think the key issue driving this was a changing understanding of exactly whose hand the person or thing being referred to was in front of.)

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"Before I went to bed, I ate dinner."
"I saw my life flash before my eyes."

Wow, looks like the past is in front of us, too! What is our "concept of time"?

"Saki" really messed me up in Japan since it is written with the kanji 先, but "hashi no saki" is "after the bridge," right? There was some mix-up like that when I tried to get home by taxi.

(I could never figure out what was wrong with "omae"-- it even has an honorific.)


Gotta clear up a misconception here: there are two metaphors for time (in English and in many languages) that involve front and back. In one case, time is conceptualized as moving toward you, and you are a stationary observer. Events are seen as coming one by one. Thus we say that "the holiday season is rapidly approaching." In this same conception, events follow -each other- as in a queue. Thus we say that "Christmas follows Thanksgiving" because Thanksgiving is first in line to get to us. But there is no necessary "front" and "back" wrt the speaker -- in fact, when gesturing, English speakers can use -left- to mean past, and -right- to mean future. Many languages have this pattern, including Japanese.

The other pattern involves you, the observer, moving through a landscape of time. Thus "we're coming up on the holiday season" and "thanksgiving is a long time behind us." This is a self-oriented metaphor, whereas the one in the above paragraph is not. And it is (if I remember the data correctly) this metaphor that the Aymara do in reverse. Thus they actually point behind themselves when they refer to the future, and point in front of them to talk about the past. I don't think anyone in China actually points in front of them when they use a word like 前天.

I don't (actually, can't) reconstructe the whole argument, but basically you have to ask: if a language talks about future being in "front" or "behind," you have to ask: in front/behind of what? We can talk about points in time being in front or behind other points in time, and we can talk about points in time being in front or behind us.


OK, I guess I take back my pseudo-snark, then. But wait, does this mean that all the examples at the Language Log post on the topic are also misguided?


P.S. Amida-- yeah, I'm with you on that. Based on etymology alone, /kisama/ should be about the politest way to say "you" that there is.


Apparently Ancient Greek worked the same way: time was commonly compared to a river, with you standing in it looking in the same direction as the stream is going. Suddenly events float into your view, and then gradually become more distant as your memory of them fade.

The modern western view is of course quite the opposite, e.g. the scene in Terminator 2 where history is compared to driving along a dark road, where you can only see (predict) things as far as the car-lights reach.

In one way the Greek/Aymara model makes more sense; after all you can see events a lot more clearly after they happened than before. So why does it feel so alien? My theory is that it clashes with our need to feel in control of our lives...

Vilhelm S


FWIW I think the Makassarese and Maori are roughly comparable with the Aymara data, the Chinese and English are a different type which are accounted for in the paper.
It makes sense to me too, because you can see what happened, not what's going to happen. I think of it as walking backwards into the future.


I am just doubtful that our "conceptions of time" are predetermined by the grammars and metaphors of our native laguages.


Japanese sometimes uses the same "river" conception of time, too, e.g. words like /sakanoboru/ (and maybe /kami/ (上) to mean "earlier, beginning"?)..


amida: yeah, me too, which is why I never thought it much more than a curiosity that Makassarese does it that way. But really I should have been writing papers about it.


Matt: Indeed, thinking of a "river of time" is probably not very unusual. The interesting issue is whether you are facing upstream or downstream...

Vilhelm S


Many years ago, when I first started learning Chinese, my professor told us that to the Chinese, people were walking backward through time, and that was why in Chinese you say 以前 and 以後 for "before" and "after." At the time, I was very anxious to become privy to some arcane, "non-Western" way of thinking. Then I realized that these words were basically the same as English, and that when I used Chinese my notion of time did not change. It was a nice didactic device and no more


Matt: no, not all of the examples on the languagelog post are bad. But ones involving 前 and 後 are not the Aymara system. There's an update on the site, based on an e-mail I sent to Geoff Pullum (though I didn't initially intend it to be repeated verbatem, but there you have it).

And none of this touches the "time flowing downward" in Chinese and Japanese. Actually, I think I heard a talk once that showed that in an experimental setting, English speakers can be taught to reason with the vertical time conception (they use some fancy shmancy psychological tests to determine that stuff).


English: pah! Japanese: pah! Behind, before: pah! Us physics types know that time is a four-vector, invariant under a coordinate transformation.


Sorry, that should be "part of a" four-vector. No matter. Math still rules the day.

Gaijin Biker:

In Michael Crichton's Congo, the chimp is described as considering the past in front of her (because it happened and can be seen), and the future behind her (because it hasn't happened and can't be seen yet).

Interestingly, this leaves open the possibility that the future is in fact ahead of us, but that we are walking backwards toward it.

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