The future is behind you

According to an interesting article I came across today, in Tuvan (Тыва дыл), a Turkic language spoken in the Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, the future is behind you and the past is in front of you. Which makes sense as you can ‘see’ the past, or at least remember it, but you can’t see the future.

In Chinese languages time is described as flowing vertically in some contexts, so the past is above you and the future below you. In Mandarin, for example, last week is 上個月 [上个月] (shàng gè yuè) and next month is 下個月 [下个月] (xià gè yuè), or ‘up/above month’ and ‘down/below month’.

Do any other languages describe the past as being in front of or above you and the future as being behind or below you? Or are there other was to describe the flow of time?

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This entry was posted in Chinese, Grammar, Language.

11 Responses to The future is behind you

  1. GW says:

    In my Ancient Greek classes I was taught something similar about temporo-spatial relations in that language.

    The past is ahead of you, the way that water already covered is ahead of an oarsman sitting backward. And the future hits you unawares, the way a pylon might hit an inattentive an oarsman.

  2. Syntax says:

    Ancient Greeks saw time like that.

  3. Chris Miller says:

    Of course, there are the different time lines in sign languages. Most European SLs have a similar set of timelines:

    1) the shoulder to mid-space line that indicates time from past to present relative to the present moment,

    2) an abstract vertical downwards-oriented line in space in front of the signer that represents sequential same-days on a calendar (not time relative to the present moment), e.g. ‘every Thursday’ and

    3) a horizontal line towards the dominant hand side for a sequence of the same time of day over a stretch of days, e.g. ‘every morning’ and the like (also not time relative to the present moment).

  4. Dennis King says:

    There was a spate of articles a few years ago about this feature in Aymara, which is also expressed in hand gestures.

  5. Vijay John says:

    Chinese also has the future being “behind” you, not just “below.” 後 [后] (hou4 in Mandarin) means both ‘after’ and ‘behind’ (as well as ‘rear’ and ‘descendants’). Similarly, 前 means both ‘before’ and ‘front’. Even English has “before” (front/past) and “after” (behind/future). I think what Aymara has is something more interesting than either of these, not sure about Tuvan.

  6. TJ says:

    I don’t think the standard Arabic differs much in the conventional past/future look, but however, in our dialect there is something I’ve always seen as weird, yet it is done.
    When we talk about actions to be taken in the future, we use a past tense!

    for example: I will eat – ráh aakil (word-by-word: “gone” I eat). Why is it that way, I really don’t know. We just grow up using it.

  7. Vijay John says:

    That makes sense – “I’ve gone to eat.” (Even if you haven’t actually left to get something to eat yet!).

  8. Zac says:

    Many indigenous languages in America and outside have the same temporal flow.. It is more logical. Quechua and Aymara are two that I know for sure. it is interesting bc I have noted similarities between, in particular Lakota and Turkish. For instance, off the top of my head they both require that a speaker divulge the source of info (ie: first hand, second hand reliable, second hand unreliable, remote past etc) and do so in the same fashion, a feature common in both sets of languages. These are not the only similarities between Turkic languages and indigenous languages of America either. Including Ancient Greek with this makes me wonder if this is not how time was seen by the majority of humanity until relatively recently. Specifically the take over of the Abrahamic religions.

  9. Marc says:

    I think the whole story is not about “before” being in front of you, or “after” being behind you. You are not the focus, but if you draw a horizontal line from left to right, as we usually write, the past is naturally more left than the future. For me, it makes also sense with Chinese, because of the vertical script : the same line is drawn from top to bottom, and past is naturally more top than future.

  10. Edmund Yong says:

    Vijay John reminded me. in chinese , the word for ‘future’ is ‘以后’ (meaning from now to after’ ,past is ‘以前’ (meaning sth like before now).another word for future is ‘未来’ which means ‘haven’t come’ and 过去’ which means past.

    I’m a native Chinese

  11. Eve says:

    In many Pacific Island languages the term for the past is “time/space in front [of the speaker],” and the term for the future is “time/space behind [the speaker],” because you can see the past, but you can’t see the future. See Tevita O. Ka’ili’s Ph.D. dissertation chapter on ta and va, time and space. Maori is one such Pacific Island language. The word, “mua” means “in front,” but it also means, “in former times.” The word, “muri” means “the future,” and it also means, “behind.”