Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Your whole future is behind you

Quick: "Wednesday's meeting was moved forward two days." Was the meeting on Monday or on Friday?

In English, the likelihoods are about equal. While we generally think of the future being ahead of us and the past behind us -- you need only consider the mnemonic "spring forward, fall back" -- there are circumstances in which the two are reversed:
You can use the word "ahead" to signify an earlier point in time, saying "We are at 20 minutes ahead of 1 p.m." to mean "It’s now 12:40 p.m." Based on this evidence alone, a Martian linguist could then justifiably decide that English speakers... put the past in front.

There are also in English ambiguous expressions like "Wednesday’s meeting was moved forward two days." Does that mean the new meeting time falls on Friday or Monday? Roughly half of polled English speakers will pick the former and the other half the latter. And that depends, it turns out, on whether they’re picturing themselves as being in motion relative to time or time itself as moving. Both of these ideas are perfectly acceptable in English and grammatical too, as illustrated by "We’re coming to the end of the year" vs. "The end of the year is approaching."
Of course, these are exceptions, for the most part. In our culture and in most cultures we're familiar with, we consider ourselves to be oriented with the future at our helm. "Let's put this behind us." "Your whole life is ahead of you." "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Now, according to an article in Cognitive Science, scientists have happened upon a South American people, the Aymara, who conceive of time in the reverse direction. According to an excellent writeup in UCSD News, both linguistic and gestural data implied that the Aymara consider themselves to be metaphorically oriented with the future at their backs:
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" -– which translates in meaning to "last year" -– 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 -– by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – 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 -– only exactly in reverse.
Once you think about it, this makes perfect sense. My first thought, and the researchers involved seem to concur, was that the past is "ahead" of you because you can "see" it by remembering it. The analogy isn't to the direction of movement, but to the direction of sight. It's an interesting indicator of cultural differences. If the future is ahead, then you're charging on blindly; if the past is ahead, then you're gazing back in memory.

More important than the putative explanations, though, is the fact that such a transparent idea can actually be culturally specific. The whole "meeting moved ahead two days" thing is a bit of a semantic trick, intended to illustrate the fact that linguistic data alone can be misleading; in truth, we would almost never think to question the idea that the future is in front of us. And for a lot of people, that simple fact -- that we wouldn't think to question it -- would be enough to mark such a concept as "innate." If everyone believes it, if nobody would ever consider believing otherwise, then it must be the natural way of things.

We should resist this thinking. It leads to a blithe inability to deconstruct such "natural" ideas as "thin people are more attractive" or "women are more emotional than men," or (in earlier times) "homosexuality is perverted" and "black people are dumb." Though this is of course a more benign situation, it should stand as a reminder that there's precious little that's purely "innate," whether we think to question it or not. And we should think to question it.

When explaining to my students what a "transparent technology" was, I used the example of a cup. Nobody thinks of it as technology, because everybody knows how to use it. One of my students gleefully interrupted to say that I was wrong, he'd just seen a show on Lifetime or something about princesses and one of them didn't know how to pour liquid into a cup! Of course, this only proved my point: when you take away the cultural familiarity that allows the technology to go unquestioned, it ceases to be transparent. We should be aware of this transparency, even in such simple things as cups and time-related language. It's easy to mistake "unquestioned" for "unquestionable."


Lynne said...

Incidentally, I saw this article yesterday, too, and I wasn't sure why it was such news - there are many cultures we already know about who conceive of future and past in this way. I had to learn about the correct terms to use when I learned to speak Indonesian, and they use the same convention - the past is in front of you because you can see it, and the future behind because it is unknown.

6/14/2006 10:02 AM  
jess said...

Really? Well then I don't know what the big deal was either. The cognitive scientist half of the team implies -- well, states -- otherwise: "'Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world -– from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model,' said Nunez."

6/14/2006 11:56 AM  
Lynne said...

Maybe Indonesians got missed, or the way i was taught was wrong! Weird!

Then again, there was an episode of the West Wing where a piece of the drama was *built* around the fact that there is no such language as Indonesian, which is ridiculously incorrect. So maybe people are kind of clueless?

6/14/2006 12:25 PM  
jess said...

Indonesia: The Lost Archipelago.

6/14/2006 1:04 PM  

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