Sun, Feb 27, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Tribe looks forward to the past

For the Aymara people living in the Andes, the past lies ahead and the future lies behind. Take a look at how different languages reflect -- and shape -- our conception of time


The old man shields his eyes against the fierce light of the Altiplano and considers the question. When he talks about his ancestors, does he mean the Incas? No, he replies in a sort of Spanish creole, he means his great-great-grandfather. And with his right hand he makes a rotating gesture up and forwards from his body. The Incas, he adds, came way earlier. And with the same hand he sweeps even further forward, towards the mountains on the horizon.

In the next video clip, the researcher asks a woman to explain the origins of her culture. She starts by describing her parents' generation, then her grandparents,' and so on, extending her arm further and further in front of her as she does so. Then she switches to talk about how the values of those earlier generations have been handed back to her (her hand gradually returns to her body from out front), and how she will in turn pass them on to her children (she thumbs over her shoulder).

The man and woman belong to an Amerindian group called the Aymara, who inhabit some of the highest valleys in the Andes -- in their case, in northern Chile. The researcher is Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who is interested in how we develop abstract ideas like time. Nunez now believes that he has definitive evidence that the Aymara have a sense of the passage of time that is the mirror image of his own: the past is in front of them, the future behind.

With his collaborator, linguist Eve Sweetser, he will publish his findings later this year, but they have already prompted speculation as to whether other peoples might conceive of time like the Aymara. George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks that it is a strong possibility. The clues lie in language, and as he points out, "There are 6,000 languages and most of them have never been written down." More fundamentally, Nunez and Sweetser's work highlights the illusory nature of time.

Time, as Einstein showed, is a tricky concept to nail down, and all languages resort to metaphor to express it. In fact, with staggering monotony, they all resort to the same metaphor: space. If an English speaker says: "We are approaching the deadline," he or she is expressing imminence in terms of nearness, a property of physical space. Anyone listening will understand exactly what he or she means, even though the deadline is not an entity that exists in the physical world. Nunez says: "There is no ultimate truth that you could discover that is outside that metaphor."

So if temporal landmarks don't exist except in our heads, where does our notion of time come from? And why do we feel so strongly a sense of time as motion? In all Indo-European languages including English, but also in languages as diverse as Hebrew, Polynesian, Japanese and Bantu, speakers face the future. Time flows from a point in front of them, through their current position -- the present -- and back to the past. The Aymara also feel time as motion, but for them, speakers face the past and have their backs to the future.

The Aymara word for past is transcribed as nayra, which literally means eye, sight or front. The word for future is q'ipa, which translates as behind or the back. The Jesuits undoubtedly noticed this oddity in the 16th century, when they ventured up into the mountains to spread the word. More recently, linguistic anthropologists have puzzled over what it means. In 1975, Andrew Miracle and Juan de Dios Yapita Moya, both at the University of Florida, observed that q'ipuru, the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q'ipa and uru , the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of "some day behind one's back."

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