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Speaking the Language of the Birds

South America's Aymara Indians of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, have a reverse concept of time: for them, the past is ahead and the future behind. A time traveler might think this way.

A Jesuit wrote in the early 1600s that the Aymara language was particularly useful for abstract ideas, and in the 19th century it was called the "language of Adam." Maybe it is the language of the birds. It's the first language in the world that linguists know of that does not place the future in front and the past behind.

Linguist Rafael Nunez says, "These findings suggest that cognition of such everyday abstractions as time is at least partly a cultural phenomenon.? He thinks this is partially due to the fact that, having two eyes, both of them in front and facing ahead, we have binocular vision, so we construe time on a front-back axis, treating future and past as though they were locations ahead and behind. This is also influenced by the way we move. If we were amoeba-like creatures, we wouldn't have had the means to create the concepts of front and rear. It makes a kind of common 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. Nunez says, "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's as if they eternally exist in a Zen-like state of now.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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