Time Passing

This morning, NPR belatedly took up the brouhaha over Núñez and Sweetser’s article (PDF, warning!) about the unusual ways that Aymara-language speakers express their orientation in time with spatial metaphors: whereas most cultures depict the future as in front of us (and the past behind), Aymara spatializes the future as behind and the past as ahead. Both NPR and the print-based media that picked this story up in June have sensationalized the alleged differences in consciousness that such a divergence presumably entails, with concomitant occasion for misapprehensions about language and consciousness compounding ignorance and confusion. (I expect there’ll be a few sermons about “Greek minds,” “Hebrew minds,” and “Andean minds,” alas!)

As I expected, Alex addressed the topic over at Savage Minds (and the good folks at Metafilter provide numerous examples of other languages with comparable metaphors for time-orientation) — but I wish he had hammered harder on the problematic pop-Whorfian correlation of language and thought. My short response simply points to the fact (as the original report notes) that young Aymara-speakers have begun to adopt future-forward metaphors for time — presumably without developing psychological disorders, or finding themselves incapable of communicating with their elders. (Or, “m ore incapable of communicating with elders than is usual for young people.”)

3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’ve always wondered about those sorts of connections, while simultaneously being skeptical. For example, Russian culture historically has not been very big on private property claims (see Richard Pipes work on this if you are interested), and, at the same time the Russian language does weird things with statements about ownership. The English statement, “I have two dogs”, in Russian gets expressed as “at me there are two dogs.” What relationship, if any, exists between the cultural legacy of property ideas and the linguistic expression? I honestly have no idea, but I suppose there is some connection of some sort.

  2. In Greek, something similar happens as in Russian, where “A horse is to me” (hippos moi estin), or more simply “the to-me horse” (ho moi hippos), denotes ownership.

    The Whorfian idea that language limits consciousness or cognition is valid to a point, but it’s easy to demonstrate that it is not so determining as one might think. In Spanish, you can’t “call somone back” (llamarlo para atras), you can only “return the call” (devolver la llamada).

    When I was younger and committed the Englishism represented by the former, my grandmother, who spoke only Spanish, understood me. She didn’t think I was doing something spacial or concrete with the phone call, which is an abstraction.

  3. I just skimmed the first paragraph of the article, which I think renders me competent to express a hypothesis. :^)

    It seems that, for Aymara, the past is simply expressd linguistically as “visible” (in front of the eye), whereas the future is expressed linguistically as “invisible” (behind the back). The past is “what we can see from here,” and the future is “what we can’t see from here.”

    Thus, it is not that the (sigh) “Aymaran mind” imagines the past as “in front of” the ego and the past “behind” it. Rather, it is just that the language uses the metaphor of sight (using the concept of “in front of/behind the eye”), of visibility, to express time, rather than a metaphor of spatial orientation (“in front of/behind the ego”).

    When you think about it, all other languages envision us as walking “toward” the future, but with the past alone visible, as if our eyes were turned around backward. Huh.

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