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[ontolog-forum] Looking forward at the past

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 01 Oct 2008 22:29:32 -0400
Message-id: <48E4320C.2000809@xxxxxxxxxxx>
The Aymara language, spoken in the Andes highlands, has intrigued
professional and amateur linguists since the Jesuit scholars in
the 1600s.  Among the many interesting features of Aymara is that
monolingual native speakers consider the past in front of them,
and the future behind them.  Evidence for this interpretation
comes from several sources:    (01)

  1. Etymologies of phrases that refer to the past have roots
     related to 'front', and phrases that refer to the future
     have roots for 'behind'.    (02)

  2. Speakers who have little or no knowledge of Spanish use gestures
     that point forward for the past and backward for the future.    (03)

  3. Bilingual children in a dominant Spanish culture point backward
     for the past and forward for the future while speaking both
     languages.    (04)

For more detail, see the references below.    (05)

Following is a hypothesis by the authors of the study that makes
the Aymara viewpoint seem plausible:    (06)

> A "simple" unqualified statement like "In 1492, Columbus sailed
> the ocean blue" is not possible in Aymara – the sentence would
> necessarily also have to specify whether the speaker had personally
> witnessed this or was reporting hearsay.
> In a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen –
> and known/unknown – to such an extent as to weave "evidential"
> requirements inextricably into its language, it makes sense to
> metaphorically place the known past in front of you, in your field
> of view, and the unknown and unknowable future behind your back.
> Though that may be an initial explanation – and in line with
> the observation, the researchers write, that "often elderly
> Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the
> grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it"
> – it is not sufficient, because other cultures also make use of
> similar evidential systems and yet still have a future ahead.    (07)

This is just one example of how our ways of thinking, talking,
and writing ontologies are biased by ingrained cultural habits.    (08)

We have debated the 3D vs. 4D representations for space-time,
but the Aymara example is a reminder that the direction of
forward or backward in time is another arbitrary choice.
Although mappings between the options are usually possible,
different choices may emphasize or obscure different features,
and they may make certain kinds of problems easier or more
difficult to state and solve.    (09)

Note that this example is related to Benjamin Lee Whorf's
hypothesis about the influence of language on thought:    (010)

 > We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language.
 > The categories and types that we isolate from the world of
 > phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer
 > in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a
 > kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by
 > our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems
 > of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and
 > ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties
 > to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that
 > holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the
 > patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by
 > the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe,
 > unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some
 > way be calibrated.    (011)

Since many Aymara speakers are bilingual, they can break out of
the categories of their native language, and others who learn
their language and culture can appreciate their point of view.
Therefore, this is evidence for a weak version of the Whorfian
hypothesis that language *influences* thought, rather than a
stronger version that language *determines* thought.    (012)

For more about the Whorfian hypothesis, check Google.    (013)

John Sowa
____________________________________________________________________    (014)

The quotation about Aymara is an excerpt from the following article:    (015)

Backs to The Future:  Aymara Language and Gesture Point to a
Mirror-Image View of Time    (016)

This article is a summary of work by Eve Sweetser and Rafael Nunez.
Use Google for more information about their work and about the
Aymara language and culture.    (017)

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