One of the phrases that stumped me when I was learning Chinese was 後天 (hòutiān) meaning the day after tomorrow.” This confused me because the character 後 means rear, back, or behind” as well as meaning later” (as in a sequence). As a beginning student I had learned the first meaning, as in 後面 (hòumian) or at the back, in the rear, behind.” While this too can mean later,” it was in the sense of at the back of the class” that I first learned the term. Because I tend to think of time spatially, I naturally assumed that 後天 meant the day before yesterday” rather than the day after tomorrow” and I continually got this wrong. That was until a German speaking classmate asked me why I had so much difficulty with this. I explained the problem and she pointed out that English does the same thing, in reverse, with before” which can mean to be in front of” as well as earlier in time.” Somehow this reverse example helped me sort out my confusion.

But this same example is now causing me confusion. I can’t understand the fuss being made over the Aymara people living in the Andes who supposedly have a unique spacial conception of time:

Núñez 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.

My guess is that this is simply another example of reporters mangling academic research in order to make the story more exciting. After all, the same article goes on to refer to Lakoff and Johnson’s work to point out that not only could different languages use different metaphors for time, but a single language could contain more than one metaphor”!

In English, for instance, speakers switch between at least two different frames of reference when discussing the order of events, a trick Núñez has demonstrated in a simple experiment. Ask any randomly selected group of English speakers to answer this question: if a meeting scheduled for Wednesday is moved forward two days, what day will it fall on? More or less 50% of the people will say Friday, and 50% will say Monday,” says Núñez. The word moved” allows the ambiguity that the meeting is either being moved forward in time, meaning it will happen later, or being brought closer in time to the person.

According to the article, the question Núñez is asking is whether the Aymara use their words for future” and past” in reference to themselves, or to another time”?

If to another time, they may not be doing anything very differently from his North American subjects who thought that the meeting would fall on a Monday; if to themselves, then he would have concrete evidence of a conceptual chasm that exists between them and us, the future gazers.

By using video, Núñez was able to document gestures along with speech, seemingly proving that they were no different than us in that they did indeed have two frames of reference when it came to time.”

When they talked about very wide time spans, their gestures indicated that they conceived of it spanning from left to right, excluding themselves. But when they talked about shorter spans, several generations say, the axis was front-back, with them at point zero.

So the real question is how the author jumps from this conclusion to the following one without batting an eye?

This Aymara finding is big news,” says Vyvyan Evans, a theoretical cognitive linguist at the University of Sussex. It is the first really well-documented example of the future and past being structured in a totally different way from lots of other languages, including English.”

Maybe I’m dyslexic, or simply easily confused, but I’m not sure I have the slightest understanding of why Vyvyan Evans is so excited about this research. Which isn’t to say it isn’t interesting research — just that I can’t really tell what the author’s claims are from the article in the Guardian. Why are the Aymara portrayed as being so unique and different from us, and all other languages? Perhaps some helpful Language Logger or Hat will come along and help me out!

One thing that seems clear, and which does interest me, is that the Aymara encoding of time has something to do with evidentials, or how language encodes the speaker’s assessment of the evidence for his or her statement.” English has tons of evidentials, such as I saw,” I heard that,” someone once told me,” etc. Aymara speech seems to encode whether or not the speaker actually saw an event happen, and this requirement seems to be linked to how they report time:

If these markers are left out, the speaker is regarded as boastful or a liar. Thirty years ago, Miracle and Yapita pointed to the often incredulous responses of Aymara to some written texts: ‘Columbus discovered America’ — was the author actually there?” In a language so reliant on the eyewitness, it is not surprising that the speaker metaphorically faces what has already been seen: the past. It is even logical, says Lakoff.

(Thanks to antropologi for the link.)

UPDATE: That was quick. Mark Liberman sends me this link to a related Language Log post.

When you combine the description of time and space, and move across cultures and over history, things get really mixed up.

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