Which way to the future?

Here is a fun example of how different languages can think about the same topic differently. Think for a moment about how English speakers understand the future in relation to our bodies. A parent may say to a child that “You have your entire future in front of you” and a commencement speaker tells the graduates that “the future ahead of them is full of possibilities.” We take it for granted that the future is in front of us and the past is behind us. However, there are languages, such as Aymara (a language of the Andean highlands) and ancient Hebrew, in which the future is thought of as behind us and the past is in front of us.

Of course, this strikes us odd. How can the future be behind us? The explanation is that different metaphors are in play. English speakers use the metaphor of going on a journey to construe past and future. On a journey, we walk with our faces in the direction we want to go so the future is ahead of us and the past is where we have been and so is behind us. However, some other languages understand past and future in terms of the knowing is seeing metaphor. English speakers are familiar with this metaphor (for example, “I see what you mean” or “I see the truth now”). However, in English we do not use this metaphor to understand past and future. But Aymara does. What you know is what you can see and what is seen is in front of you. You know the past and so the past is in front of you. Since we do not know the future, it is behind us. Once we understand the different metaphors both languages make sense.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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