June 21, 2006

Back to the Future1

Excerpts from an article in Seed, "Putting the Past in the Front":

A team of scientists discovered that a group of indigenous people in South America, known as the Aymara, have a concept of time that places the future physically behind them and the past ahead...

"It's very pervasive almost all over the world that the future is in front—up until this case, which is the first well-documented case to show the opposite," said [Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at UC-San Diego, and the lead author of a study on the Aymara appearing in the July issue of Cognitive Science], who interviewed and documented 30 Aymara adults in northern Chile. "With this finding, we can see that humans have the ability to organize bodily experience to bring forth very different forms of thinking."

In Aymara, qhipa, which means "back," is used to mean "future," while nayra is used for both "front" and "past." For instance, the expression nayra mara, which is used to mean "last year," can literally be translated to mean "front year," while qhipa marana, which means "next year," can be translated to mean "back year."

It's not just the linguistic roots that the Aymara have reversed, said Nunez, it's also their physical gestures: When Aymara adults speak about the future, they gesture behind them; when they speak about the past, they gesture ahead. The movements, according to Nunez, suggest that Aymara speakers actually conceive of the past as being physically in front of them and the future behind.

As a native Tamil speaker, I find this fascinating, because we have very similar linguistic references to time. Consider these Tamil words and sentences:

Transliterated, these read:
Mur-kalam - past
Pir-kalam - future
Mun-nall amaichar anamika nettru maranam adainthaar - Former (past) minister Anamika died yesterday.
Pirkalathil enna nadakkumo yaarukku theriyum? - Who knows what will happen in the future?
Mun-puram - front
Pin-puram - back
Mun vaitha kaalai pin vaikkathé - Don't place back the leg that was put in the front. (Don't retreat)

Clearly, the space-time inversion (that's a catchy term, but not very meaningful), found in the language of Aymara, is found in Tamil, too. I am not sure about the gestures, though. I think that we rotate our hands clockwise, and rest them pointing to the front, when we actually refer to past (an inversion similar to the gestures of the Aymara), but I have no clue about how we gesture when we refer to the future. Should be fun to find investigate. Any helpful suggestions from my fellow bloggers who have knowledge of Tamil culture are very welcome. I intend to let Nunez know of my findings.

Where did the Aymara come from? Did they migrate from Polynesia or from the North? And where did the Polynesians come from? Does the lineage follow Dravidian (Tamil) - Australian Aborigine - Polynesian - Aymara? Do all these cultures share the space-time inversion that Nunez talks about?


1 Obviously, this post has nothing to do with the movie by the same title, Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis.
  1. Ralph Nunez has responded to my note, which I reproduce below:

    Thx for the note, and for the interest in our work.
    The Tamil examples you give appear to be similar to those in most languages around the world (including English), where FRONT (BACK) is EARLIER (LATER) than ANOTHER TIME or EVENT in a SEQUENCE, ... Not in front or behind the EGO (self). In English, for instance, the day beFORE (in FRONT) yesterday is earlier than yesterday (relative past), and the day AFTer tomorrow (as in ‘aft of a ship’, back) is later than tomorrow (relative future). The Reference Point (RP) in these cases is some event in time, not the Ego. This is the same with all the European languages that use pre- and post- as well. These are all instances of the so-called TIME-Reference-Point (Time-RP) metaphor. (This metaphor can be instantiated in different ways, usually transversally, from left to right or from right to left.)

    But what matters in our study of Aymara you refer to, is not the Time-RP metaphor but the so-called EGO-RP metaphor. In this case the Reference Point is the Ego (as in “the week ahead of US”, or “WE are approaching the end of the year”), not an another event or term in a sequence, where the future is usually conceived as being IN FRONT of EGO, and the PAST behind EGO.
    The Aymara EGO-RP metaphor is peculiar, because RELATIVE TO EGO, it maps IN FRONT of EGO with PAST, and BEHIND EGO with FUTURE.

    For details, please read our original article in Cognitive Science:
    Núñez, R., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the Future Behind Them : Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401-450.

    Hope this helps.
    Perhaps you could post this note to your fellow bloggers.


    Rafael Nunez

    I cannot claim to fully comprehend the nuances that Nunez is referring to. I will read the orininal paper, and I hope that it'd help. In the meanwhile, I'd like to hear from Tamil-speaking cognitive scientists in the blogshpere. Thanks.

  2. Hello
    I am not a Tamil scholar, nor a scholar who keeps time. I am from Mysore, now in canada.

    It is just a coincidence that I am following the Back to the future article. See this source from where I had picked this story, and it has the clock runnnig in reverse.

    In your blog I find you have a creative sense, because you have so nicely connected the dots of the world map (i.e., Tamil link about 'Back to the future.')

    I have updated my blog citing your finding.

    Best, Mohamed

  3. Munnottam - looking ahead
    MunnaL - Yesteryear

    So what does that make of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam?

    Thanks for running a great blog. Will comment more often.


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