Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Backs To The Future

By Aussiegirl

The future is behind for the Aymara: The speaker, at right, indicates next year by pointing backwards over his left shoulder.

Now here is a fascinating article about language, and how language influences how we see the world, or is it the other way around? Briefly put, the Aymara language envisions the past as being in front of one, while the future is at one's back.

Now, someone out there correct me if I'm wrong, but I swear I've heard that the Ancient Greeks also had this conception of walking backwards into the future. I remember a linguist friend telling me about it years ago and telling me he thought it very strange, as we of course, envision walking forward into the future. But as I thought about it it made perfect sense to me. We know what has happened in the past, but the future is still a mystery, so in a sense, we are in reality, walking backwards into the future, facing the past which is already known.

Similarly, it seems the Aymara people of South America have the same concept -- when asked about the past they gesture in front of them -- and when asked about the future they gesture over their shoulder. Exactly the opposite of the way we do it, and 99% of the cultures of the world do it.

Personally, I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that this is primarily a primitive culture without a written language or history. Without the ability to read about or have access to a wider range of knowledge or experience, the known is strictly limited to what one sees with one's own eyes. What's interesting is that Aymara speakers who learn Spanish reorient their thinking and begin gesturing in the more common manner, i.e. -- pointing forward to a future event and backward towards the past.

But perhaps our confidence that we can predict the future and plan for it is a bit misplaced. Who of us can say with complete confidence what will happen between now and next Wednesday, for instance? Maybe we live in a modern fool's paradise. But maybe not. Obviously the ability to form a concept of a desirable future outcome and plan for it and envision it is vital to any kind of progress. Perhaps this is the big difference. For a people who live in an aboriginal culture, the present is the overwhelming reality in their lives, and the past to which they have personal access.

Just another note, there are languages that make a vital distinction between events that have been personally witnessed, and events which are learned through other means.

So again, is their thinking circumscribed by their language? Or has their cultural and real-life experience formed their linguistic concept? It's the old chicken and egg routine.

Backs To The Future

Tell an old Aymara speaker to "face the past!" and you just might get a blank stare in return - because he or she already does. New analysis of the language and gesture of South America's indigenous Aymara people indicates a reverse concept of time.
Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans - a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies' orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind - the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.

[...]"Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world - from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on - have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model," said Nunez.

The language of the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, has been noticed by Westerners since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest. A Jesuit wrote in the early 1600s that Aymara was particularly useful for abstract ideas, and in the 19th century it was dubbed the "language of Adam."

More recently, Umberto Eco has praised its capacity for neologisms, and there have even been contemporary attempts to harness the so-called "Andean logic" - which adds a third option to the usual binary system of true/false or yes/no - to computer applications.

[...]Nunez had his first inkling of differences between "thinking in" Aymara and Spanish, when he went hitchhiking in the Andes as undergraduate in the early 1980s. More than a decade later, he returned to gather data.

[...]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."

[...]Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn't command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future - by thumbing or waving over their shoulders - and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past - by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times.

[...]Why, however, is not entirely certain. One possibility, Nunez and Sweetser argue, is that the Aymara place a great deal of significance on whether an event or action has been seen or not seen by the speaker.

A "simple" unqualified statement like "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is not possible in Aymara - the sentence would necessarily also have to specify whether the speaker had personally witnessed this or was reporting hearsay.

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."

Now, while the future of the Aymara language itself is not in jeopardy - it numbers some two to three million contemporary speakers - its particular way of thinking about time seems, at least in Northern Chile, to be on the way out.

The study's younger subjects, Aymara fluent in Spanish, tended to gesture in the common fashion. It appears they have reoriented their thinking. Now along with the rest of the globe, their backs are to the past, and they are facing the future


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Aussiegirl, your breadth of vision astounds me! You post up THE GREATEST stuff!


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