June 16, 2006

A defense of Aymara uniqueness

[Guest post by Russell Lee-Goldman]

You're probably wondering what the case for the defense is over this Aymara story, about these Andean people whose language use is claimed to show that they see the past ahead of them and the future behind them, right? I've repeated a few pieces of anecdotal stuff that came in over the transom about Aymara not being unique in this respect. Might these instant ripostes be missing the point about what is going on? At Language Log no expense or trouble is too great when it comes to informing you, the linguistically alert public; we are prepared to go out and get top experts to disagree with us, and to put the other side. Here is Russell Lee-Goldman of the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, on what's special about Aymara:

I feel a need to address recent controversy regarding the uniqueness of the Aymara conceptualization of time-as-space. I cannot respond to everyone who says that their language of choice also has a "back to the future" metaphor, nor will I attempt to reconstruct all of the linguistic (metaphor-based) arguments involved. However, many of the objections that I have heard (and that I am sure the researchers of Aymara asked themselves) are based on a misconception that if a language has a single word that is polysemous between "front/past" or "back/future", then it automatically makes Aymara non-unique.

There are two well-studied metaphors of time. One is ego-centered, and one is not. The non-ego-centered ones allow things that look like "future is past." For instance,

Christmas follows Thanksgiving.
Before ('in front of') July.
hou4 tian1 [Chinese for 'day after tomorrow' lit. 'behind day']

But these have points in time situated in relation to other points in time (the time-moving-in-a-queue with respect to observer metaphor). Thus later events are behind earlier events. They are not situated with respect to the speaker. They could be moving towards the speaker, or not -- gestural data indicates that some English speakers conceptualize the line as moving from left to right.

But the Aymara system is ego-centered. The past is actually in front of them. They gesture in front of themselves when talking about the past, and behind themselves when talking about the future. I doubt that any Chinese speaker would gesture behind themselves (i.e, using themselves as the temporal anchor) when uttering hou4 tian1, or in front of themselves when uttering qian2 tian1. The same goes for Japanese. The data from South Sulawesi languages seems to be the same (unless olo / boko are unambiguously 'front/back of ego'), but I would need more data to see. The Maori seems more promising as an Aymara-type case. The "push back/ahead" is a well-known case and reflects the moving-time metaphor, not the ego-centered metaphor (actually, "push back" is judged to have different meanings depending on how the speaker is primed, but never mind that).

This is a tricky area, and linguistic claims should of course be backed up by psycholingustic data (and gestural data is a part of that, I think). But my impression is that Aymara is not as non-unique as some dissenters would like to claim.

— Russell Lee-Goldman

Update: Anthony Jukes thinks he can definitely affirm that olo and boko are "unambiguously front/back of ego"; they actually mean "front/back of body". —GKP

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 16, 2006 09:14 AM