Psychology Magazine

How Culture Shapes Spatial Conceptions of Time - Is Your Past in Front Of, Or Behind You?

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

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.

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