The New York Times is running “an article”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/27/science/27side.html?r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin on a “recent article in _Cognitive Science“:http://www.leaonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15516709cog0000_62 by Nunez and Sweetser which demonstrates that Aymara speakers imagine the past to be in front of them and the future behind them — reversed, in other words, from the spatial metaphors we use in English. The Times article notes “If they are right, this is bigger than anything the 60’s tossed up. Is it possible that human concepts of time can vary this much because of language and culture? And what would it be like to think this way? Do I have the rest of my life behind me? And how can I let bygones be bygones if they’re right in front of me?” Nunez and Sweetser also makes a to-do about the rarity of this pattern, since, it claims that “so far all documented languages appear to share a spatial metaphor mapping future events onto spatial locations in front of Ego and past events onto locations behind Ego.”
Cognitive Science produce attention-grabbing headlines much more frequently than anthropologists, and this article is a prime example of how they manage to do so: ignorance.
Have Nunez and Sweetser actually conducted some sort of exhaustive examination of ‘all documented languages’? No. In fact their citations reveal that they have examined a grand total of seven: English, Wolof, Chagga, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, and American Sign Language (to be fair one of the articles they site has ‘more cross cultural data’).
If Nunez and Sweetser had looked a little bit further — for example to the Pacific — they would have found that these sorts of metaphors are quite common. Consider:
It is interesting to note that in Hawaiian, the past is referred to as ka wa mamua, or “the time in front or before.” Whereas the future, when thought of at all, is Ka wa mahope, or “the time which comes after or behind.” It is as if the Hawaiian stands firmly in the present, with his back to the future, and his eyes fixed upon the past, seeking historical answers for present-day dilemmas. Such an orientation is to the Hawaiian an eminently practical one, for the future is always unknown, whereas the past is rich in glory and knowledge. – Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa, Native Land, Foreign Desires, p. 22-23
Or this one:
Ka wa mamua and ka wa mahope are the Hawaiian terms for the past and future, respectively. But note that ka wa mamua (past) means the time before, in front, or forward. Ka wa mahope (future) means the time after or behind. These terms do not merely describe time, but the Hawaiians’ orientation to it. We face the past, confidently interpreting the present, cautiously backing into the future, guided by what our ancestors knew and did. -Jon Osorio, Dismembering Lahui p.7
which resonate wonderfully with:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. -Walter Benjamin
Thus Hawai’ians, like Benjamin’s Angel of History, also imagine the future behind them and the past ahead of them. A friend who studies Babylonian reports something similar. And of course the English term “before” when used spatially does actually mean ‘in front of’ — how many stagings of MacBeth have you seen in which he asks “is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my ass?” Timelines typically run from left to right, where the movement from distal to proximal time is analogized to the direction of the motion of the act of writing (in English).
So it would be interesting to see how wide-spread various spatial metaphors of time are both within and across cultures, and I wouldn’t be surprised if — once someone actualy gathered some EVIDENCE — future:past::front:back is a primary and widespread way connecting these dots.
But this article and the coverage of it epitomizes everything that is wrong with cognitive science as a discipline (although, to be fair, there is certainly a lot right with it as well) and how it is received by the press and public. It confirms our popular prejudices by rediscovering Standard Average European cultural categories as ‘universal’ and relegating other cultures to ‘exotic’ and ‘unusual’ status — a move that requires an incredible forgetfulness of human cultural diversity.