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 â€“ a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind â€“ 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” â€“ which adds a third option to the usual binary system of true/false or yes/no â€“ to computer applications.
Yet no one had previously detailed the Aymara’s “radically different metaphoric mapping of time” â€“ 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” â€“ which translates in meaning to “last year” â€“ 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 â€“ by thumbing or waving over their shoulders â€“ and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past â€“ 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 â€“ only exactly in reverse…