Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation... of a new perspective.
The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.
The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:
Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)
Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.
We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives
from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. [...] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.
Therefore it should not surprise us to find out that
Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)
The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.
1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450