October 16, 2004

Time is space: when fronter is farther behind

When I say "back in August", you know that I mean two months in the past, not ten months in the future. The past lies behind us, the future is ahead. We're striding through history, or maybe riding a runaway railway car, but anyhow we're facing forward. Um, ahead. That is, future time. It's obvious, right?

But if we were speaking one of the West African languages that I've studied, it would be equally clear that the equivalent of "back in August" would be a reference to the year 2005. After all, the past is relatively clear to us, so it must be in front, where we can see it, right? And the future is sneaking up on us, invisible, from behind. Obvious. To emphasize the point, I might illustrate my words with hand gestures. Talking about our grandchildren's time, I'd sweep my hand backwards, like throwing salt over my shoulder. At least, that's how it was all explained to me.

Before you start thinking about attitudes towards progress and agency, you should remember that the ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have agreed with the Africans. Thus Latin post means "Of place, behind, back, backwards", according to Lewis and Short, but "Of time, afterwards, after". We still use some Latin expressions involving these meanings: an "ante bellum house" is a before-the-war house; a "post hoc" explanation is one that's concocted after the fact. And some of the corresponding English words derive from the same metaphor: "before" is almost exclusively used for (earlier) time now, but it's original meaning was spatial "in front of".

I suspect that the temporal applications of ante and post to time came originally from thinking about a line of march of a group, not the visual field of an individual. If you're watching a parade, you see someone in the front of the procession before you see someone who is behind them. So "in front of " is "earlier than", and "in back of" is "later than". The same thing is true if you're marching in a column yourself. The people who are in front of you get to places earlier than you do, so again "in front of" means "earlier than". And it's possible that the apparent African "past is ahead of us" metaphors have a similar origin, I don't know.

Anyhow, even when we stick to the language of space in a single culture, people disagree about how to translate among frames of reference, as we've learned here recently in discussing route nomenclature. And Neal Whitman at Literal Minded has recently written about individual differences in talking about grocery carts: which end is front? Well, as he points out, it depends on whether you think of a grocery cart as being like a car or like a refrigerator.

When you combine the description of time and space, and move across cultures and over history, things get really mixed up. Consider the etymology of English after, according to the OED:

Orig. a compar. form of af, ... with compar. suffix -ter, THER = ‘farther off, at a greater distance from the front, or from a point in front’; and hence in the Teutonic languages ‘more to the rear, behind, later.’

Is that perfectly clear? I've often thought that Jacques Derrida missed his calling -- he really should have taken up the history of word meanings.

Next, an even greater source of confusion: desire is necessity (and what you want is what I suggest).


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 16, 2004 08:24 AM