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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Backs to the Future

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Tobin Hack reports on a culture where gestures to the past and the future are reversed.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Coming up: A river runs through it. Yes, Los Angeles has a river, and it’s cleaning up its act. First this note on emerging science from Tobin Hack.


HACK: Time is a slippery concept, so people use spatial metaphors in their speech and gestures to represent the movement of time. For example, we gesture forward when we talk about the future, and backward when speaking about our past – at least most people. Not the Aymara. The Aymara – an indigenous people in the Andean Highlands of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile – put their past in front of them, and their future behind.

Each of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken around the world incorporates subtle cultural differences into this spatial metaphor for time, but the Aymara diverge completely from the global norm. Ask an Aymara speaker to tell a story about his ancestors, and he’ll gesture towards the space in front of him. Ask him about his plans for tomorrow, and he’ll point behind him.

College student Raphael Nunez noticed this phenomenon while hitchhiking in the Andes over a decade ago. Intrigued, he returned, with a Ph.D. in cognitive science, to conduct formal research. Nunez found that, for the Aymara, seeing is literally believing. An Aymara speaker always qualifies even the most mundane statement by indicating what they saw or did not see.

With such great emphasis placed on vision, it’s no wonder that the Aymara locate the past in front of them; they have, literally, seen it with their own eyes. By the same token, the future is the great, mysterious expanse that will always lie behind them, unseen and unknown.

But today, while the future may still lie behind the Aymara, it’s rapidly catching up with them. Global mass communication seems to be taking a toll; young Aymara speakers are reorienting their spatial metaphor for time. Now if you ask them to talk about tomorrow, they’ll point ahead, putting their past behind them.

This latest research suggests that our spatial perception of time is relative, and not universal. It’s a function of our culture and our language. Einstein would have been pleased. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Tobin Hack.



Guardian Unlimited article: How Time Flies


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