Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The Aymara's Future Reversed? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
BoingBoing reports a story on the indigenous Andean Aymara people's "reversed concept of time," in which they symbolically and semantically refer to the past as "before" them, and the future as "behind":
According to the study, this is the first documented culture that seems not to have mapped time with the properties of space "as if (the future) were in front of ego and the past in back." From UCSD:
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..."
However, when you really consider the meaning of this unusual symbolism there is at least one perfectly logical explanation: the "past," being known by having already occurred, is something you can look out upon as it retreats into the distance - think of looking out the rear window of a moving vehicle. The future, on the other hand, having not yet occurred, and can be construed as "un-seen," or "behind one's eyes."

Inga Kiderra's article in the UCSD News also brings up that possibility and its ramifications:
In a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen – and known/unknown – to such an extent as to weave "evidential" requirements inextricably into its language, it makes sense to metaphorically place the known past in front of you, in your field of view, and the unknown and unknowable future behind your back.

Though that may be an initial explanation – and in line with the observation, the researchers write, that "often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it" – it is not sufficient, because other cultures also make use of similar evidential systems and yet still have a future ahead.

The consequences, on the other hand, may have been profound. This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors' disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going "forward."