Friday, June 23, 2006

Aymara time metaphors

Indians see past, future in reverse, study says
By Bruce Lieberman

June 22, 2006

The future is in front of us, and the past is behind.

It's an idea so ingrained in human thinking that most people don't think twice about it. Scientists, too, have long believed that everyone perceives the passage of time this way.

But the reverse is true for the Aymara Indians in the mountains of northern Chile. For the first time, researchers have documented a culture that uses words and gestures to describe how the past stands before an individual and the future lies behind – unseen.

The discovery is described in the current issue of Cognitive Science. It suggests that the metaphors people use to describe abstractions – even everyday abstractions like time – are at least partly determined by culture, said University of California San Diego researcher Rafael Núñez, who co-authored the study with University of California Berkeley professor Eve Sweetser.

Aymara is spoken in the Andean highlands of western Bolivia, southeastern Peru and northern Chile.

Over an 18-month period, Núñez and Sweetser taped about 20 hours of conversations with 30 Aymara adults from northern Chile. A majority of the volunteers were bilingual speakers of Aymara and Spanish.

Aymara speakers use the word nayra – which means “eye,” “front” or “sight” – to refer to the past. They use qhipa – which means “back” or “behind” – to refer to the future.

But Núñez and Sweetser did not draw any strong conclusions without looking at how those words were reinforced by gestures.

The Aymara subjects, particularly the elderly who didn't have mastery of Spanish, thumbed or waved over their shoulders when speaking about the future. And they swept their hands or arms in front of them while speaking of the past – closer to their bodies for events in the recent past and wider gestures for events in the distant past.

“It was quite striking when people were starting to point . . . in directions that seemed totally unnatural to us,” Núñez said. “We're talking about non-technical, everyday notions of chronology here.”

Researchers still need to study how the Aymara's view of time influences day-to-day life, as well as their concept of progress, prediction and organizing society for future generations, Núñez said.

He and Sweetser do know that the Aymara have a profound respect for their ancestors, tradition and history. These Indians also place great significance on whether an event has been witnessed by the speaker.

For example, the phrase “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is incomplete in the Aymara language. The speaker must elaborate on how he or she knows that fact, either through attribution or other evidence.

This may explain why the Aymara metaphorically place the past before them because past events are knowable. And the future? Aymara elders see little point in speculating about events that haven't occurred.

David McNeill, a linguist who studies gestures as a component of language, described the Aymara study as a landmark.

“I consider the Núñez-Sweetser paper very important, because it forces us to consider the interaction of (physical gestures) and culture in the creation of basic beliefs about the world,” McNeill said.

The study shows that understanding the complexities and subtleties of language – and how gestures enrich and reveal meaning – is vital for people trying to relate to other cultures, he and other scientists said.

“It's really important to understand the conceptual systems of peoples around the world,” said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at Berkeley. “There's a dominant view in this culture that . . . everybody thinks in pretty much the same way, and that therefore you don't have to take into account different world views.”

Núñez said he planned to explore whether other South American groups used similar metaphors to describe the past and present.

“I have a gut feeling there may be other languages in the Amerindian family that also share the same thing in one way or another,” he said.

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