Friday, June 16, 2006

Facing the Caboose: Time-Orientation in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Aymara

An interesting story in Language Log about the Aymara language, which is reported to have a "reverse concept" of time, i.e. the past is considered "in front," while the future is considered "behind." Apparently other Asian and Pacific languages have the same feature.

It should be noted that Hebrew and Aramaic also have this perspective, to some extent. Observe, for instance, Biblical Hebrew yemei qedem, days of old/of long past; the word qedem incorporates the root q-d-m, meaning basically "to be in front of." And every beginning Hebrew student will know of the prepositions אחר and אחרי, which have a spatial meaning, "behind," and a temporal meaning, "after, afterwards, in the future."

In Aramaic, the situation is similar. Something that happened "previously" or "a long time ago" is said to have occurred (min) le-qadmin, using the cognate root q-d-m mentioned above; the preposition qodam "before, in front of" is well-known. In early Aramaic, the root אחר is also used to denote both "behind" and "futurity," but its use fades in later dialects in favor of the neologism bathar "after" (from b + athar, "in place of").

This is not a complete survey of all the time-related words and expressions in Aramaic and Hebrew, but it's enough to show that, cross-linguistically, Aymara is not alone. There is a certain psychological aptness to this system, in that what is in front of one can be seen, while that which is behind cannot be seen. In this respect, the past, which is known and visible, is like the front view, while the future — unseen and unknown — is like the unseen vista behind one's back. It's like sitting on a train facing the caboose.

4 comments:

Ken Penner said...

Compare English. As with qdm, spatial "before" means "in front of" but temporal "before" means "in the past".

Mis-nagid said...

Apes use the "backwards" terminology for time too (when taught to communicate, obviously). In a way it makes sense; the future is what can't be seen, just like what's behind you.

debka_notion said...

I'm told that at least Chinese sign language also uses this system: so it isn't just verbal languages that work on this system.

ktismatics said...

"Now" is now, but when is "then"?