Saturday, February 12, 2011

Moving Forward

In English we tend to conceptualize time as flowing from the left to the right, because we read from left to right. All of our calenders place Tuesday to the right of Monday. In Hebrew people read right to left, and I read that time is conceptualized as moving from right to left also.

We also see time as flowing back to front: the past is behind us and the future is in front of us. I think most of us sense this intuitively, but it is also evident in English expressions like "I've got a busy day ahead of me," "We've put this behind us," "I'm looking forward to meeting you," etc. Spatial prepositions like 'behind,' and 'backward' can refer temporally to the past and prepositions like 'ahead' and 'forward' can refer to the future.

So I was excited when I realized that Nepalis speak differently:

Ma      dui      barsha      agodi      pugĂ©.
I         two       years       forward  arrived
I arrived two years ago.

Ma      ek      barsha      pachhodi      jaanchhu.
I         one      year          backward       go
I will go after one year.

Agodi means 'forward', or 'in front of,' but in this expression the word refers to the past. Pachhodi means 'backward' or 'behind,' but refers to the future. So do Nepalis conceptualize the past in front of them and the future behind them? I asked a few teachers, and all but one said that they thought of the future in front of them and the past behind him, like English speakers.

After all, doesn't it make more sense to conceptualize the future as spatially located in front of you? People tend to walk forward, after all, and the things that you encounter in the future will be in front of you (assuming they're not sneaking up behind you).

On the other hand, one of the teachers argued, the past is visible, unlike the future. We remember the past and we experience the present, but the future is unknown to us. So we are sort of like men and women walking backwards, unable to see the future that lies in wait behind us, but with a clear view (through our memories) of the past that lies in front of us. Poetic, eh?

Anyway, I thought about it a bit and I came up with some English counterexamples:

Is this a dagger which I see before me?

Pride cometh before the fall.

Pretty nice sentences, right? I came up with those myself. Anyway, 'before' is a spatial preposition that means 'in front of.' Yet temporally 'before' refers to an action that occurs in the past, relative to another action. In fact, many Nepalis I have met habitually translate 'agodi' to 'before' and 'pachhodi' to 'after.' Thus they would mistakenly translate the sentence above to 'I arrived before two years.' I wonder if 'agodi' and 'ago' are related to each other, since Nepali and English are both Indo-European languages.

So now I'm just confused. This spatial use of before sounds slightly archaic, but it is obviously related to forward and fore (and you can see the family resemblance in German vor and bevor, the former used spatially to mean 'in front of' and temporally to mean 'ago,' just like in Nepali, and the latter with roughly the same meaning as before). Why would before refer to the past and not the future? Maybe because it refers to a sequence:

                                                   Boing!                                           Shazam!

The boing came before the shazam. Because we write things left to right, we can say that the boing is in front of the shazam. So maybe before doesn't refer to a distinction between forward and back, but a distinction between left and right. Maybe Nepali, which is also written left to right, is referring to left/right distinctions when it uses constructions like I came to Nepal forward two years. 

1 comment:

  1. it's pretty similar in Vietnamese as well... the word for "before" is the same as the word for "in front of", and the word for "after" is the same as the word for "behind". i.e., what's in front of me is actually the past, and what's behind me is the future. of course, "behind" may be referring to what's behind this thing i'm currently looking at (which would come later), so i guess maybe it does makes sense. okay, i've sufficiently confused myself. love!