June 14, 2006

Back to the... but you guessed it

Lots of people are mailing Language Log Plaza about Inga Kiderra's report on the new paper in Cognitive Science reporting that in the Andean language Aymara (Bolivia, Chile, and Peru) metaphors about the future relate to the concept of being behind, and metaphors about the past relate to being in front of you where you can see. And we don't need to tell you what film title all the headline writers are turning to for headlines to put on the top of it. Our reduced summertime staff here at Language Log may have a considered view on this topic soon (we have a couple of interns working on it), but right now that time lies behind us, in the future... Ooh, doesn't that sound weird?

I have just a couple of things to say, both from readers who have contacted Language Log (read on for this update).

People who say that some language is unique for this or that attribute are mostly wrong. (Not always, of course. But mostly, if the claim is at all general.) And according to Inga Kiderra,

New analysis of the language and gesture of South America's indigenous Aymara people indicates a reverse concept of time.

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.

But already Language Log's switchboard has been lighting up with calls to the Asian and Pacific Languages department. Anthony Jukes of London's distinguished School of Oriental and African Studies tells us:

I suppose everyone will be writing in to say that 'their' language works like this too. And so will I. Makassarese and the other South Sulawesi languages also consistently refer to the past as in front of ego — minggu ri olo week PREP front = "last week", minggu ri boko = week PREP back = "next week". And while I haven't really looked into this, I get the impression that this is not that unusual in Austronesian languages. I've been told that Sasak does it the same way, for instance.

And then there's Daniel Rosenblatt, of the Department of Anthropology at Scripps College, who says this about Maori (with an extremely interesting added note about English):

I work in New Zealand, where it is commonly noted that Maori refer to the past as nga wa o mua (time in front) and the future as nga wa a muri (time in back): this is widely thought to correlate with a different attitude towards tradition and the importance of history. Such a different attitude may exist, but deictics hardly seem decisive — I have always take the idea with a grain of salt once I realized that the English terms "BEFORE" and "AFTER" have the same implications.

Antony Eagle writes from Oxford with another remarkable insight on English: "one thing I have always been struck by is the locution 'push back', meaning postpone, as in: "Needless to say, we were delayed much more than I had expected, and I had to call Frank yet again and push back our meeting." (http:// www.starbuckseverywhere.net/Log_2004_10_24.htm). Looks like back and future aren't clearly separated in English..."

And Quincy Lu writes from the University of Washington in Seattle:

It's likely someone's already informed you of this, but in Chinese, we have some thing similar: 8eE7 (hou4 tian1, "behind day") means "day after tomorrow" an d A0E7 (qian2 tian1, "front day") means "day before yesterday". Works the s ame with years.

So the notion that Aymara is entirely unique among languages and cultures is almost certainly false, perhaps hugely false. If the newspapers have whipped that up by overstating, then the authors of the paper in Cognitive Science (which I have not yet seen) are not to be blamed. But if they say Aymara is one of a kind, it looks like that's not true. Before making a claim in print about an unprecedented feature in a human language, scholars should try to make sure that the claim can withstand, say, a week on the LINGUIST List and a week on Language Log with no one writing in to contradict.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 14, 2006 07:28 AM