Time point.
An Aymara man gestures downward (top) and then back over his shoulder (bottom) as he uses an expression meaning "from this year to next year."

Back to the Future

California News Correspondent

Every language has metaphors that express time in terms of space. An English speaker, for instance, might look forward to a date next week or look back on last year's office party with embarrassment and regret. But now, researchers report the first known example of a language that puts the past ahead and the future behind.

In Aymara, a tongue spoken by about 2 million indigenous people of the same name in the Andean highlands of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, the word "nayra" can refer both to objects that are physically in front of the speaker and to events in the past. "Nayra mara,” for example, means "last year,” explains Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California (UC), San Diego. "Qhipa mara," on the other hand, indicates "next year." "Qhipa" means back or behind and is incorporated into other future-oriented expressions such as "qhipüru" (a future day) and "akata qhiparu" (from now on).

This concept of time extends to gestures as well as words. Speakers point backward or wave over their shoulders when talking about a future event and extend their hands and arms forward to indicate a past event--reaching farther out for events that happened long ago. The past-is-forward concept is most ingrained in older individuals: Younger Aymara with more formal education often use expressions and gestures that put the future in front, especially when talking with outsiders, Núñez says.

Núñez first noticed peculiarities in spoken Aymara when backpacking through the Andes as an undergraduate student in the 1980s. He eventually returned and collected 20 hours of videotaped conversation with 30 Aymara volunteers and presents an analysis of the tapes with UC Berkeley linguist Eve Sweetser in the current issue of Cognitive Science.

The work has fascinating implications for understanding how the Aymara conceptualize time, says David McNeill, a linguist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. "The Aymara seem to equate time with sources of knowledge," he says. For the Aymara, the forward direction is the source of what's known: what's seen by the eyes, what's happened in the past. Behind, where they can't see, lies the future.

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Posted in Brain & Behavior