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Submit Response is a weblog by Jack Mottram, a journalist who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. There are 1308 posts in the archives. You can subscribe to a feed. This post was made on and belongs in the language category. The previous post was , and the next post is .

Look Out, It’s Behind You!

There’s a great piece in today’s Grauniad, on the relationship between language, metaphor and our conception of time.

It turns out that some cultures, including the Aymara, an Amerindian people who live in the Andes of Northern Chile, use the reverse of our English temporal metaphors.

…the researcher asks a woman to explain the origins of her culture. She starts by describing her parents’ generation, then her grandparents’, and so on, extending her arm further and further in front of her as she does so. Then she switches to talk about how the values of those earlier generations have been handed back to her (her hand gradually returns to her body from out front), and how she will in turn pass them on to her children (she thumbs over her shoulder).

This makes sense, perhaps more so than the prevailing tendency to look forward to the future. If we are using ourselves as a marker to represent the present, then the future is indeed behind us, in the sense that we cannot see it, while the past stretches out in front of us, with recent events right before our eyes, and the distant past, all misty, on the horizon.

Rafael Núñez, the cognitive scientist studying the Aymara, suspects that their ‘reverse’ metaphors are the result of a grammatical peculiarity.

Núñez thinks that the reason the Aymara think they way they do might be connected with the importance they accord vision. Every language has a system of markers which forces the speaker to pay attention to some aspects of the information being conveyed and not others. French emphasises the gender of an object (sa voiture , son livre), English the gender of the subject (his car, her book). Aymara marks whether the speaker saw the action happen or not: “Yesterday my mother cooked potatoes (but I did not see her do it).”

Fascinating stuff. Too fascinating, in fact - I’ve wasted way too much, erm, time, wondering whether time is an ontological entity or conceptual framework, whether it’s an a priori deal, Kant-style, or part of a weird four dimensional block of post-Einstein spacetime, or even a load of bollocks, as suggested by J.M.E. McTaggart, who came up with a rather lovely lot of nonsense that, roughly, dismisses time in the same way that Zeno of Elea was uncertain of motion. And now this? I’ll be sitting here watching my brain ooze out of my ears for the next wee while, then. (Unless the Submit Response philosopher-in-chief, Leon, clears it all up in the comments.)

Posted at 4pm on 24/02/05 by Jack Mottram to the language category.
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