SCOTT SIMON, host:
Linguists have noticed that human beings, regardless of their spoken language, seem to share a gesture when talking about the future. We tend to gesture forward. Speaking of the past, we tend to gesture behind us. The theory goes that our ancestors knew that time was passing while walking from Point A to B, say a cave to a stream.
But recently, researchers Rafael Nunez and Eve Sweetser, writing in the journal Cognitive Science, described a language with another way of talking about time. The Aymara, an indigenous group from the Andean highlands in South America, speak of the future as being behind them and the past as lying ahead. This is good news for the Portuguese Empire.
This is the most comprehensive study of what linguists have long suspected about the Aymara and their concept of time. To try and help us understand this, we turn again to Ken Olson, who teaches linguistics at the University of North Dakota. He joins us from Grand Forks. Thanks so much for being with us.
Professor KEN OLSON (University of North Dakota): It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And should I say hello or goodbye?
Prof. OLSON: Hello at this point is fine, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: All right, in our language. Help us understand how the Aymara see the world differently than us.
Prof. OLSON: Think of them as just standing there looking over the landscape, okay? And what you see in front of you is what is known, and what is behind you is what is unknown. And the connection is that what is known is the past or present, and what is unknown is the future. And hence, the future is behind you because it's unknown, and the past is before you because you know it.
SIMON: Is it possible to construct a sentence in English that would convey some of this concept to us?
Prof. OLSON: They use the same word for future as behind, so you can talk about, I will go to the store behind me, or something like that.
SIMON: Professor, are there any other languages you know about in which the expression of time is notably different than it is in, let's say, English or the Romantic languages?
Prof. OLSON: Yeah. Well, I have a colleague who works in the Quantical(ph) Quechua language of central Peru, and I talked to him about this Aymara question, and he's like, oh, yes, we have that in Quantical Quechua, as well.
SIMON: Now they're both an Andean people.
Prof. OLSON: Yeah, the same geographic region, but somewhat separate.
SIMON: Separate from each other.
Prof. OLSON: A couple other examples that people have noted. In Mandarin Chinese, the future is down and the past is up, whereas in English, you know, we conceive of time in terms of financial things, so you haven't been using your time profitably.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, now, but that's often related to the knowledge we have from a fairly age of our mortality, that we only have so many years, so many minutes, so many seconds.
Prof. OLSON: Right. Time is very important in our culture. It's something that we pay a lot of attention to, and so many that is one of the causes or one of the reasons that we use that metaphor in talking about it.
Now, having said that, there are over 6,000 languages, and most of them are still unstudied, so it's very possible that as we start looking for this metaphor that they've used over the centuries in describing the future as behind and the past as in front, we're going to start finding it.
SIMON: Most of the younger generation of Aymara, I'm told, are bilingual. They speak an Andean dialect of Spanish as well as Aymara.
Prof. OLSON: Right.
SIMON: Does this confuse the way they think about time?
Prof. OLSON: It does, actually. Well, confuse is the wrong word, but linguists in general today are aware of the notion of endangered languages. With respect to the Aymara, the population of the group is somewhere, you know, over a million, and yet there's some evidence that the language may be at risk.
One of the things is the fact that the younger generation is starting to use these different metaphors for talking about their, you know, how they perceive time and the fact that they are becoming more and more bilingual. And that's kind of a warning sign.
It tells us that there's some risk that the language is in the direction of dying out. And if that's true, if Aymara does die out as a language, that metaphor that they've used of looking out in front of you and seeing what's ahead and that being what's the past because it's known, is also going to die out with it.
SIMON: Professor, nice talking to you again.
Prof. OLSON: It's a pleasure to be able to join you again.
SIMON: I look forward to talking to you in the past.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. OLSON: That's right. Okay.
SIMON: Ken Olson, linguist, speaking with us from Grand Forks, North Dakota.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.