LINGUIST List 7.340

Mon Mar 4 1996

Sum: Orientational Metaphors

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  • Paulina Jaenecke, Orientational Metaphors

    Message 1: Orientational Metaphors

    Date: Mon, 04 Mar 1996 13:00:41 +0100
    From: Paulina Jaenecke <>
    Subject: Orientational Metaphors

    Last month I posted a question to the Linguist List regarding orientational metaphors. I asked which languages used the oritational metaphor with the future being in back.

    I did not expect to receive so many replies. I want to thank all the people who took the time to answer my query. Thank you to:

    Peter A. Michalove, Ellen Valle, Barbara Abbott, Jeff Siegel, M J Hardman, Dan Moonhawk Alford, Nicholas Ostler, Charatdao Intratat, Patrick McConvell, Kahlaoui Noureddine, Alan Dench, Kiel T. Christianson, Shu-ing Shyu, Penny Lee, Max Wheeler, Joerge Koch, David Wharton, Lloyd Anderson, Lee Hartman, Harriet E. Klein, Louise Lavoie, Ingo Plag, Ronald Kephart, Elizabeth A. Brandt, Zazie Todd and Mark Hansell

    Here is my summary, I hope you don't mind that it's a bit glued together:

    1. The concept of the future being in back is inherent in a lot of languages. Even English and German do not solely conceive the future as being in front, as was pointed out to me be several people:

    >How about English, where our FOREfathers (or ANTEcedents) come BEFORE us, and we leave things to POSTERity which comes AFTer us?


    >What does "before" mean? We tell a young person >"You have your whole future before you" -- like food offered >on a platter in front of you. But when did your ancestors live? >They lived before you, in the past.

    2. The main idea with the future being in the back seems to be that we cannot see the future. The past is in front because we know it.

    3. The Classical Greeks also thought of the future being in back, i.e. not to be seen from the present:

    >In Ancient Greek, opisthe ("behind") also meant "in the future". Somehow this seems stranger than its correlate, the word prosthe ("in front, before"), meaning "in the past, before".

    The concept is also in the myths:

    >In the myth >of Orpheus, O goes into the underworld to bring back Euridice, which for a living person, of course, means going into the future. His undoing is that, as he is leading her out of the underworld, he looks *back* at her.

    Apparently Prof. Peter M. Smith has published in "l'Annee Philologique" on this, but I have not checked yet.

    4. Mandarin Chinese also has the future in back.

    >Chinese has good examples. "Future" in Chinese is "yi3 hou4". "Yi3" is the reference point, and "hou4" means "back". "Before" is "yi3 qian2", and "qian2" means "front". Thinking of a time line, Chinese seem to face back.

    There also is another concept involved:


    >in Chinese is the metaphor that the next one of something is below, and the last one above-- so the future is also down, and the past is up. (I also received the answer that the future was up, and the past down, but the person was not so sure about that.)


    >Thai (Southeast Asian country) has both forward and backward concept for future. We say "wan na" = 'day face' and "wan lang" = 'day back' meaning 'the following day'. > I think there are also these expressions in English as well.

    6. >the Fijian word muri means

    >following or at the back. The phrase e muri means behind or later or in the future; muri-a or vaka-muri-a means to follow. It seems that the time metaphor focuses on the sequence of events rather than on moving along a time line.

    I don't know exactly how the concept of the following day works in English, but as for German I would argue that it works well even with the future being in front. If you see a row of people coming up in front, the first one is facing me, and the other ones walk behind, or follow. Just like future days. It would be interesting be interesting how the Hausa language deals with this, since spatial relations seem to be aligned differently than in Indoeuropean languages. The only answer I received regarding African languages was that in an Eastern African language the concept of the future in the back was applied, unfortunately the person didn't know which.

    7. The concept of linear space seems to be used in Australian Aboriginal languages.

    >In very many Australian Aboriginal languages (perhaps all but I couldn't swear to that) "ahead" is a conventional metaphor for past, and "behind" for future. e.g. Gurindji kamparri-jang "ahead/front-SUFF; old, previous"; ngumayi-jang "behind-SUFF"; young(er); future". The metaphor seems to be based on a scenario of travelling - those that are ahead have already been here; those behind have yet to reach here, and is quite productive (found in numerous expressions apart from fixed adjectives etc).

    8. Future being in back is also found in Native American languages. The concept of time seems to be a different one as well:

    >I don't know of a language where the future is completely in back, but in Taos which belongs to Northern Tiwa, Tanoan family, the future can be glimpsed over one's left shoulder by turning your head and looking around and this is a common way of stating what one would say in English as "looking ahead". In this language, Time is a Landscape. Past, present, and future are all in the landscape and one moves around on paths or trails looking for the future one wishes to encounter. If you cannot get to a desired outcome, it is because one has not yet found the proper way to get there. Although I have not systematically investigated this, I suspect that there may be two ways of conceptualizing time, the time is a landscape metaphor and another in which the speaker is at a fixed point, but time is moving up on the speaker thus accounting for the left shoulder phenomenon. >This is a Native American language spoken in Taos Pueblo in Northern New Mexico in the United States.

    Another concept is found in Aymara: The Aymara language (Peru/Bolivia) places future time at the speakers back, while future is in front. The Aymara expression for 'tomorrow' is q"ipi uru (the day at my back; lit back-day) while the term for the past is nayra timpu (the time before my eyes; lit eye-time). Aymara speakers say that to "see" the future, people have to glance back over their shoulder. This ties in strongly (I think) with the fact that visibility to the speaker, i.e. personal knowledge, is marked grammatically in Aymara sentences.

    There is >real logic here, in that the past, which has been seen, is in front, while the future, which has not yet been seen, is behind.

    The same applies to the other members of the Jaqi languages (Jaqaru and Kawki) as well as Toba and Quechua (all spoken in South America).

    9. There are languages in which the concept of time is expressed quite differently:

    >I am writing to add a third vision of the future. In the Islamic culture, and I'm inclined to think that it may go far before Islam, the notion "maktuub" (literally "written"; gloss: "destiny" or "fate") is something pre-set (in the past) to happen in the present or in the future. In Tunisia, people say: "what is written on the front the eye will no doubt see it". In this vision of things, the future seems to be pre-set in the past. however, "the days are ahead of us", "the days are between us" (when us means "you and me") are two expressions tunisians use when they are arguing over something and the interlocutor is not convinced. The term "the days" seems to bear both the meaning of the future and that of the past just as in "time has shown that..." or "time will show..." (I am equationg "the days" to "time").

    10. It all leads up to the question how real our perception of time is:

    >'Natural' perception of reality is based much more on aspect than >tense. Native American languages such as Hopi (and all Algonquian >languages, even tho Whorf didn't know it) are based on aspect and have no tense, just like physics. So in languages like this, where you might better speak of dualities such as 'manifesting/manifest', 'inner/outer', 'subjective/objective' instead of a tripartite past-pres-future, what we would call the 'past' (and habitual present, and some present) winds up as objective/manifested, whereas everything else ('future' and part of our present) is not yet objective but still subjective and therefore not amenable to physical vision. So in that sense, many American Indian languages also have the past 'in front' of them, except it's actually all around them and what we call the 'future' is welling up from inside of animate beings.

    11. So if this got you interested, here are some suggestions for further reading (I haven't been able to find all of them yet):

    DAHL, Oyvind (1995) 'When the future comes from behind: Malagasy and other time concepts and some consequences for communication' International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol 19 (2) pp.197-210. (I have not been able to locate this article yet, the last issue of this journal in our library is from 1994)

    KLEIN, Harriet: "The future precedes the past: Time in Toba" in: WORD, vol.38,3,1987 (This article illustrates the different concept of time very well)

    BOUCHARD, Denis (1995), The Semantics of Syntax, University of Chicago Press.

    CLARK, Herbert (1973), "Space, time, semantics and the child" in T.E. Moore (ed.), "Cognitive development and the acquisition of language", pp. 27-63, New York: Academic Press. (This goes into the "English" concept)

    HILL, Clifford A. (1978), Linguistic representation of spatial and temporal orientation, "Proceedings of the fourth annual meeting of Berkeley Linguistic Society, pp. 524-38, Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistic Society.

    HILL, Clifford A. (1982), Up/down, front/back, left/right: A constrastive study of Hausa and English" in J. Weissenbord and W. Klein (eds.), "Here and there: Cross-linguistic studies on Deixis and Demonstra- tion", pp. 13-42. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (This deals with spatial relations)

    VANDELOISE, Claude (1986) "L'espace en francais", Paris: Editions du Seuil