Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 7, 2006

Stretching things a bit

The New York Times published an article last week on a paper that makes some intriguing claims about a fundamentally different understanding of the human relationship to time. Based on analysis drawing on cognitive linguistics and the conceptual metaphor theory, the authors of the paper – With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time – contend that the Aymara people conceive of the future existing behind them (since it’s unknown), and the past as ahead of them (since it is known). I found this a little far-fetched to be honest, and a cursory read of the paper didn’t do much to convince me that time is conceptualized metaphorically through mappings onto space. In other words, because the Aymara modifier for the past can be interpreted as ‘eye/sight/front’ and the modifier for the future as ‘back/behind’, their conception of time is reversed.

This blog post does a far more elegant job of demolishing what is clearly a stretch, but since we are talking metaphors, I’ll take a bash at this. An event is in the past, because it has been ‘seen’ or experienced in some tangible sense. A future event is concealed or uncertain, it is ‘behind’ the passage of time. Sometimes I do regret my decision not to pursue a career in the ivory tower.

As an aside, it was an Aymara reed boat that Thor Heyerdahl used to traverse the Atlantic in order to prove his theory about links between Egypt and South America.

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