Monday, June 19, 2006

Bolivia: Aymara Language Findings, Unique Definition of Future

Old School
Interesting stuff. Aymara is a fascinating and "pure" language, that evolved in the isolation of the Andean highlands for thousands of years.

The language of the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, has been noticed by Westerners since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest. A Jesuit wrote in the early 1600s that Aymara was particularly useful for abstract ideas, and in the 19th century it was dubbed the "language of Adam." More recently, Umberto Eco has praised its capacity for neologisms, and there have even ntil now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world – from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model,"
no one had previously detailed the Aymara's "radically different metaphoric mapping of time" – a super-fundamental concept, which, unlike the idea of "democracy," say, does not rely on formal schooling and isn't an obvious product of culture.

Dimelo Delante de Ella.......
The authors collected a cross-section of data from 20 hours of conversations with Aymaras, covering a geographic cross section, and with speakers ranging to those who speak only Aymara to Spanish-only speakers.
What-u-Mean Wiracocha?

The linguistic evidence seems, on the surface, clear: The Aymara language recruits "nayra," the basic word for "eye," "front" or "sight," to mean "past" and recruits "qhipa," the basic word for "back" or "behind," to mean "future." So, for example, the expression "nayra mara" – which translates in meaning to "last year" – can be literally glossed as "front year.".......................
Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn't command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse.

My Minds Playing Tricks on Me..
Till now, every studied culture in the world has conceived of time through the way our bodies move and the way the eyes see. Front is the future, and past is behind. In the Andean highlands, peoples with the same body structure developed a radically different conception - that some might find counterintuitive.

"These findings suggest that cognition of such everyday abstractions as time is at least partly a cultural phenomenon," Nunez said. "That we construe time on a front-back axis, treating future and past as though they were locations ahead and behind, is strongly influenced by the way we move, by our dorsoventral morphology, by our frontal binocular vision, etc. Ultimately, had we been blob-ish amoeba-like creatures, we wouldn't have had the means to create and bring forth these concepts.

"But the Aymara counter-example makes plain that there is room for cultural variation. With the same bodies – the same neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters and all – here we have a basic concept that is utterly different," he said.

Porque? Kunata? Just The Facts Ma'am.

Why, however, is not entirely certain. One possibility, Nunez and Sweetser argue, is that the Aymara place a great deal of significance on whether an event or action has been seen or not seen by the speaker.

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

I Can't Explain..
The consequences, on the other hand, may have been profound. This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors' disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going "forward."


Now, while the future of the Aymara language itself is not in jeopardy – it numbers some two to three million contemporary speakers – its particular way of thinking about time seems, at least in Northern Chile, to be on the way out.
The study's younger subjects, Aymara fluent in Spanish, tended to gesture in the common fashion. It appears they have reoriented their thinking. Now along with the rest of the globe, their backs are to the past, and they are facing the future.

I will talk about this further a bit later....


Jonathan said...

It's called Tetralectics man, and I've been fascinated by it's quantitative applications (some day I'm gonna figure out a way of how to pick stocks using this system.. then we'll talk Andean capitalism!).

Anyway the theory is so interesting that it has been plagiarized by some American and Hungarian jokers.

Here is a link of interest, it used to have a lot more material:

culito blanco said...

interesting. i think the aymara ternary logic will become fairly important in computing in the medium future.

Bryce said...

Interesting discussion and comments from everyone. They were all very insightful.

Here's a website that actually is in Aymara, so hopefully it won't go extinct:

Aymar wiki browser

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Carlos said...

it is not that the aymara are necesarily "Uninterested" in the future it's that nothing sensible truly can be said about it. You can only come up with the wide array of possibilities and work on that level of certitude handling every moment as it comes using the past as a guide to avoid repeated mistakes. The spaniards were just upset that they aymara werent as easily exploited as their nirghbors and that is due to their formulation of thought and language. It becomes practically impossible to lie in aymara due to its elevated degree of accuracy. Other languages sometimes leave things ambiguous or require use of expressions ehich may not reflect a literal meaning but in aymara all this is already accomodated in the language itself. So when dealing with the aymara the spaniards probably WERE trying to exploit them not that the aymara necesarily knew though they probably did, but a simple statement in spanish such as "if you work then i'll pay you" would make no sense you would have to specify how it will be acknowledged, which opens a whole range of possibilities such as: working from home, contracting labor, Time on a clock, number of goods/services produced etc. so if anything aymara thought and language is what more closely reflects the condition of the human mind.