Friday, October 17, 2014

How culture shapes spatial conceptions of time - Is your past in front of, or behind you?

A interesting perspective from Fuente et al. on spatial conceptions of time. Some clips from their article:
Across many of the world’s languages, the future is “ahead” of the speaker, and the past is “behind.” In English, people can look “forward” to their retirement or look “back” on their childhood....yet some languages exhibit the opposite space-time mapping. In the Andean language Aymara, for example, metaphors place the past in front (e.g., nayra mara, tr. “front year,” means last year) and the future behind (e.g., qhipa marana, tr. “back year,” means next year)...In the research reported here, we investigated this question by exploring a surprising discovery about temporal language and thought in speakers of Darija, a Moroccan dialect of modern Arabic. Front-back time metaphors in Arabic are similar to metaphors in English and other future-in-front languages.
We compared how native Spanish and Darija speakers gesture when talking about past and future events. Whereas Spaniards showed a weak tendency to gesture according to the future-in-front mapping, Moroccans showed a strong tendency to gesture according to the past-in-front mapping—despite using future-in-front metaphors in speech. On the basis of their co-speech gestures, it appears that Darija speakers think about time like the Aymara do, even though they talk about it like speakers of English, Spanish, and other familiar future-in-front languages.
Since existing theories cannot explain the pattern of space-time mappings observed across cultures, we proposed an alternative explanation, the temporal-focus hypothesis: People’s implicit associations of “past” and “future” with “front” and “back” should depend on their temporal focus. That is, in people’s mental models, they should place in front of them whichever pole of the space-time continuum they tend to “focus on” metaphorically—locating it where they could focus on it literally with their eyes if events in time were visible objects. Consistent with the temporal-focus hypothesis, our results showed that, compared with Moroccans, Spaniards tend to be future focused, attributing more importance to social change, economic and technological progress, and modernization. By contrast, compared with Spaniards, Moroccans tend to be past focused, attributing more importance to older generations and respect for traditional practices.


  1. Pity its not open access Champ! Looks like there might be a small anomaly to the golden rule in some tribes here and there. I would like to see the product of their "alternative" view in artefacts. I suspect its mostly an obfuscation, and certainly isolated in any event. Left is also future, and right is past, so researchers need to consider that is addition to front-back. The left-right is seen in work at Case Western.

  2. I tracked down the paper. Its a disappointment. Its a reworking of the findings of the Aymara tribe in South America, applied to Moroccans with a possible distinction, but unclear. The Aymara and Moroccans are the only clear example of past ahead and future behind, but the authors ask the question:

    "What causes some communities to adopt a future-in front mapping and others a past-in-front mapping for

    That kind of even handed expression when the factors are not evenly balanced is a distortion. What they should ask is why there are so very few isolated exceptions to the universal way.

    The Aymara use the eye as their reference, because what is seen is known and the past is known, therefore with eyes at front, the past is at front. If any readers are interested they can see why the eye is "past". This is entirely consistent with the usual future at front, but it specializes extremely to favour an eye rather than revert to the whole anatomy to frame past-to-future. My work is on skydrive at