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The word "before" means both "in front of" and "prior to". Not only in English though - in many European languages:

  • in Dutch "voor" means both
  • in Italian "prima" can mean both (afaik)
  • in French "(en) avant" means both
  • in Bulgarian "преди" [predi] means "prior to", and "пред" [pred] means "in front of"
  • in Serbian "pre" means "prior to", and "pred" means "in front of"

Is it because in the past, our European ancestors have seen the time differently than us today? Today we see the future in front of us, and the past behind us (or the "ego-moving metaphor"), but in other cultures (and apparently in our languages) it is the other way around - we stand still, while time flows from behind us (the "time-moving metaphor"). So the future is the unknown thing behind us, while the past is before us.

Are there any scientific papers supporting that guess? I've found this one, but it doesn't seem spot-on.

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    I think your title is misleading. Almost all prepositions have been used to express both spatial and temporal location, and in the European languages I know the correlation is always along a linear continuum, with what arrives earlier is placed in front (before) and what arrives later placed behind (after), as if later events were chasing (following) earlier events. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 9 '15 at 22:27
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    English has very few words that refer only to time; most temporal expressions are metaphoric. This one is the common Time Is A Journey metaphor theme, in which the narrator treats sequential events as different stages of a journey on a metaphoric path. Your future is "ahead of you", your past is "behind you" and each place/time, like each footstep, is just a matter of one before the next one. – jlawler Jul 10 '15 at 0:37
  • okay, I fixed the title – Bozho Jul 10 '15 at 7:18
  • In Russian перед means the both. – Anixx Jan 24 '16 at 5:19
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The etymology is fairly straightforward. The temporal meaning of before is secondary to the spatial meaning. This is very common across all prepositions of time: at (5am), in (5 mins), on (Wednesday), between (3 and 4), from - to, through.

The Conceptual Metaphor theory posits a TIME IS SPACE metaphor that is present across many languages and many parts of the language. It is not limited to preposition. You will find it in adverbs as well as in things people say about time: 'time went by quickly', 'time slips away', 'we need to move the meeting back/forward', 'we need a chunk of time', 'give me space to figure things out'. This is bolstered by the associated metaphor of TIME IS AN OBJECT: 'give me time', 'take 5 minutes', 'employees steal time by going on Facebook', etc.

This often explained by our experience of space and objects being somehow more physically and physiologically primary but I suspect that this is more of a reach.

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The forepaws of an animal are the paws in front. Our forefathers or forebears are those who were before us. We came after them in time. I see no problen with fore- or before, "before" could indicate local position and could refer to time. Today "before" is mainly used referring to time as in "before the war" and "after the war". When local position is spoken of "in front of" is preferred and "before" is mostly used in niches as "before the judge" or "before God".

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I think you're asking why before is used to denote the past whereas fore is used, in the spatial referential to denote what is ahead of the observer (cf. forward, afore...).

Indeed, a possible reasoning would be that, according to the walking observer metaphor, one would expect to use behind to denote the past and possibly before to refer to the future.

There is another way of considering things though: that of the ancestral tracker reading his prey's track. In the remote past such an ability was central to a man's life and the spatial/temporal parallel was even more compelling than nowadays.

If you take the tracker's viewpoint the portion of the track immediately in front of him has been made before and the portion further off has been made after.

This is actually the etymology of after. In Old English æfter is a comparative (-ter) of of which at the time meant "away". We still use this sense of "away" in what used to be the emphatic form off. So the original meaning of after is not "in the future" but rather "further away". It came to mean mainly "in the future" only later and was displaced by further in its spatial reference usage.

The be (in before, below, beyond, behind) is the ancestor of "by" (it was often written bi- as well) just as in Present Day German "bei" and is originally a spatial reference to oneself (as in close by, nearby).
So similarly, the original meaning be-fore (OE beforan) simply meant "ahead".

We use a similar metaphor when we use next to mean "immediately after" ("what's next?") while the original meaning ("close by") is spatial (PDE nächste: in der Nähe - nearby).

Finally, as you rightly observe, this situation is seen in many languages.

Another example to add to your collection is Latin ante which originally meant in front of (like ἀντὶ also "in front" in Ancient Greek) and came down to us in Spanish as both antes/enantes "before" and adelante "forward" as well as in French avant (both "before" and "ahead") but also counts among its derivatives anterior or antique.

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    +1. Une réponse excellente et instructive comme toujours! – NNOX Apps Jan 23 '16 at 3:58
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In my opinion "before" means "in front of" in both it's spacial and temporal meanings. It's just that in the case of spacial one it is more obvious. It comes from "be-" "fore" and "fore" means "situated towards the front (of something)" (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fore#Old_English) Even if that something is a period of time (a day lets say). See the example in wiktionary about the temporal meaning of "fore" - "the fore part of the day" (i.e. the morning, the "front" part of the day with which it "starts"). So if you want to express that something happened at a time in the past relative to that day one says "be- fore that day". The key observation here is that when the people talked about something in the past they didn't have the notion of an ideal moment in time (a point in time) but rather time intervals (days, months, years) that happened in some relation to one another. A time interval is something that has a spatial analogy (distance) and has a "fore" (front, start, leading) part and another one - the back, the end, the trailing part.

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When we say that 'before' expresses both 'in front of' and 'prior to', we should not take for granted that these two meanings are treated as the evidence for metaphor or reversely TIME IS SPACE metaphor account for them. Another possibility is that space is just correlate with time. At the same time, we should also consider another question. Why does 'before' not express the space-time meaning at the same time? In other words, do we have the word indicating both space or time in a concrete sentence in other languages? If we can, metaphor is not so general or consistent account for space-time interaction.

  • Welcome and thanks for your answer. Unfortunately, I can't really follow its second part. For example, what does "Why does 'before' not express the space-time meaning at the same time? " mean? – robert Sep 15 '15 at 18:30
  • In English, 'before' does not involve the ambiguity of space and time. Crosslinguistically, we can find this space-time ambiguity. – Shudong Oct 30 '15 at 12:56

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