In English (and, apparently, most Indo-European languages, if not in all), a common trait can be noticed concerning the prepositions/adverbs of temporal reference: 'before' and (to a lesser extent in English) 'after' are also (or closely related to) spatial references to 'in front of' and 'at back of' respectively. In fact, the derivation of 'before' puts it in the same pattern as 'behind' (still recognised temporally) and 'beside'. The same, though the etymologies are not connected, happens in Latin ante/post, A. Greek πρό(ς)/μετά, OCS predъ (the second pair is unconnected) etc.

1) How could such a (seemingly, 'reverse') metaphor, when the event 'in front of' us is treated as the 'previous' one, like we are watching along the axis of time backwards? I was informed one possibility is a metaphor of a 'marching column of soldiers', when those who passed a fised spot 'before' are those who march 'in front'; is there any article or study on this topic which could confirm or refute this explanation and how else such a connection between spatial and temporal directions could arise?

2) While it is common for languages to have these pairs totally unconnected (Uralic tongues, as far as I know, with all their specific system of essives ad latives, never mix them), but is it even possible for a language to have the (maybe, more intuitive to modern people) opposite connection? One where 'before' of time is related to 'at back of' of space, while 'after' is the same as 'in front of'? If you know such examples, please share those; anyway, if you speak some (especially non-IE) language that either supports or contradicts the pattern mentioned in the first paragraph for English, share them with me as well, for from the (very limited) data I now possess, the connections 'before'='before' and 'after'='behind' seem almost language universals to me. Apparently, WALS never compiled a chart for this matter, while it bothers me a lot for quite some time.

  • Depends on which way you're looking: 'in front of' is etymologically L frons, "forehead, face". After is etymologically "farthest away"; next is etymologically "nearest", but it shows up in Ger as both nächst, "next", and nach, "after". Ordinarily we move forward into the future, but the conservative back into it. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 3 '16 at 18:11
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    Possible duplicate of Perception of time – bytebuster Dec 3 '16 at 19:35
  • Lakoff and Johnson comment on this apparent contradiction in Metaphors We Live By. They point out that there are two different metaphor themes at work: TIME IS STATIONARY AND WE MOVE THROUGH IT, and TIME IS A MOVING OBJECT. These are called coherent, though not consistent, with one another, since -- as pointed out -- they coexist beautifully and it's always a surprise when someone realizes they could conflict if you wanted them to. – jlawler Dec 3 '16 at 21:53

We imagine the time flowing at us from our front to our back, so the future is in front of us and the past is behind us, for us the time flows from the future into the past. I don't know about all the languages, but for those who speak Aymara, a South American language, it is all vice versa, for them the time flows from behind, from the past and into the future, so the future is behind and the past is in front of them. In other words, we look into the future, they look into the past. And as far as I know, there are no prepositions in Aymara, spacial relations are expressed by noun cases.

Articles about this:

One. With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time

Two. Reversing the Direction of Time: Does the Visibility of Spatial Representations of Time Shape Temporal Focus?

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  • I remember learning earlier this year about a language that expresses before/after with above/below. But I forget which language and which direction is which. – WGroleau Dec 3 '16 at 18:31
  • @WGroleau - I remember a documentary film about the Piraha people, they have no idea of time flow, no direction whatsoever, when asked to put a series of chronological photos in the order they should be, they put them not in a line, but in a round array. – Yellow Sky Dec 3 '16 at 18:37

I would be more surprised to find exceptions, among the world languages, to the pairs above/before and below/after, rather than front/before and back/after. The latter being referring to a human (and so variable) idea of direction, which is forward most of the time but the Aymara example shows exactly the opposite. The former pairs instead are intuitively associated with the force of gravity, a non-human phenomenon that's a constant everywhere, where an object is up before being pulled down. The concept of the hourglass perfectly summarizes this connection between above/below and the flowing of time. I would be excited to see how constant is the expression above all , in the meaning of before everything else, across languages.

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