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The Opposite Of Time

New analysis of the language and gesture of South America’s indigenous Aymara people indicates they have a concept of time opposite to all the world’s studied cultures — so that the past is ahead of them and the future behind.

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.

The language of the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, has been noticed by Westerners since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest. A Jesuit wrote in the early 1600s that Aymara was particularly useful for abstract ideas, and in the 19th century it was dubbed the “language of Adam.” More recently, Umberto Eco has praised its capacity for neologisms, and there have even been contemporary attempts to harness the so-called “Andean logic” – which adds a third option to the usual binary system of true/false or yes/no – to computer applications.

Yet no one had previously detailed the Aymara’s “radically different metaphoric mapping of time” – a super-fundamental concept, which, unlike the idea of “democracy,” say, does not rely on formal schooling and isn’t an obvious product of culture.

The linguistic evidence seems, on the surface, clear: The Aymara language recruits “nayra,” the basic word for “eye,” “front” or “sight,” to mean “past” and recruits “qhipa,” the basic word for “back” or “behind,” to mean “future.” So, for example, the expression “nayra mara” – which translates in meaning to “last year” – can be literally glossed as “front year.”

Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse…

Published in researchmaterial

15 Comments

  1. Proczko Proczko

    this is the same as with that gorilla that learned sign language a handful of years ago. i’m forgetting her name. koko?

    her thing was that the future was behind her and the past was in front of her because that’s what she could see. she’d seen the past, so that is where she placed it spatially. she couldn’t see the future, so it was behind her, hidden.

  2. Fascinating. I wonder if such a worldview makes you feel as if the future is always sneaking up on you from the edges, as opposed to something that reveals itself as you charge ahead. This is certainly true of the way new technologies are created and assimilated. Think – Lazer discs was an idea out of its time, which returned to us from the side when the compact discs for music suggested video applications. Or the way Apple’s Newton didn’t catch on, but now, rather than shrink the computer down to a palmtop, the cellphone is morphing into a computer.

  3. optical optical

    They do have the right idea. We’re all flying butt-first into the future… that’s why we keep getting fucked in it as time passes. Ouchie.

  4. As Proczko says, this actually makes perfect sense. We can’t see the future, but the past is right there in our memories (well, more or less). Time may well be a ‘super-fundamental concept’ but the way we choose to explain its passage, either in terms of a journey or, as with the Aymara, in terms of experience and memory, is much more of a cultural construct.

  5. Not unlike the last line of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  6. Matt Weber Matt Weber

    From the article: “Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world – from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model,” said Nunez.

    I don’t have a PhD in anything, but I took a year of Chinese and he’s wrong about that. Chinese does characterize time spatially, but the past is above and the future below.

  7. Matt Weber Matt Weber

    Here’s the article for anyone who wants it: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~nunez/web/NSaymaraproofs.pdf

    On page 14, Nunez claims that front-back temporal metaphors are also present (that is, in addition to up/down) in Chinese. Which, having thought about it for more than thirty seconds, is true — I’m remembering some words. But, interestingly, the one meaning “after” (yi hou) is like “behind”, and the one meaning “before” (yi qian) is like “in front”. These I checked up on zhongwen.com, so I think I have not cocked up this time.

    Anyway, I’ve officially spent too long bloviating about this, especially having made an idiot of myself at least once already. But, um, I encourage skepticism.

  8. Did you ever notice how “before” can mean “in front” too?

  9. Leto Leto

    Pratchett introduced a similar concept in his Discworld books. I think he said that trolls consider time to go backwards because you’re always facing future, so if you remember something then it must be in front of you…

  10. Wilkinson, Mark H Wilkinson, Mark H

    there have even been contemporary attempts to harness the so-called “Andean logic” – which adds a third option to the usual binary system of true/false or yes/no – to computer applications

    Before anyone gets carried away with this, scientists and mathematicians from developed nations,
    spiritually bankrupt and disconnected from the natural world as they be, have been playing with
    multi-valued logic systems and their applications independently of some athropologist numpty’s
    stumbling over it in Native American culture, and for a hell of a long time now.

    Tsk.

  11. Bowen Bowen

    I’ve got to say, as a linguist, that this isn’t a big deal – these things vary a great deal. Insofar as using spatial metaphors to describe time is a cognitive universal, the universal is that a language (more properly a culture when you’re talking about a metaphor) will use spatial terms to talk about time, not that it will use spatial terms in any particular way.

  12. Matt Smith Matt Smith

    Robert M. Pirsig briefly mentions this concept (though not the Andean culture, obviously) in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as well.

  13. Walter Benjamin describes the Angel of History this way also:

    “A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

  14. History is an angel
    Being blown backwards
    Into the future

    He said: history is a pile of debris
    And the angel wants to go back and fix things
    To repair the things that have been broken

    But there is a storm blowing from paradise
    And the storm keeps blowing the angel
    Backwards into the future

    And this storm
    This storm is called progress…

    – Laurie Anderson
    “The Dream Before”

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