In most cultures and languages, the future is associated with direction ahead of the speaker, while the past is "behind".

However, it is the opposite in modern Chinese where future is "behind" and past is "ahead" of the speaker. This includes the words of day before yesterday (front day) and day after tomorrow (behind day). As I've been told by a native speaker, it's because you can see your past, but not the future.

However, it seems a rare exception; other Asian and Indic languages follow the common pattern or may contain (less outstanding) idioms like a day [that is] far away.

The question is, are there other languages/cultures exposing a similar phenomenon?
(except the Aymara people in South America that is easy to find over the Web)

  • Can you perhaps rephrase this so you are not asking for a list? If you're just asking for a list of languages that exhibit this feature, then all answers could be equally correct. – Mark Beadles Sep 15 '12 at 21:30
  • @MarkBeadles I will be glad to, but I'm not sure how to do. Initially, I was just wondering if there's any language, but I was pointed to several academic works that provide with a deep comparative analysis. How would you suggest to re-phrase it? – bytebuster Sep 16 '12 at 3:09
  • I suggest you might try modifying your final paragraph in the vein of your last comment: "Has there been any deep comparative analysis of the various metaphors used to describe perception of time?" This way you can choose a 'best' answer and make the answers more useful to future visitors. Great question, by the way. – Mark Beadles Sep 16 '12 at 3:36
  • @MarkBeadles Hmm... Wouldn't it replace a "request for a list of languages" with "request for a list of researches"? Also, it would completely invalidate dainichi's answer (which is not exactly what I was looking for, but still it points to a nice observation). If you think it's not a problem, I will do it. – bytebuster Sep 16 '12 at 12:38
  • I'm no expert on Chinese, but if it's anything like Japanese, which has similar expressions, "front day" does not mean "day in front of you", but "a day in front of (before) today (or now)". If you envision a row of days facing you and coming towards you, this expression seems natural. – dainichi Sep 17 '12 at 0:42

It all depends on the metaphor adopted by the speaker -- not so much by the culture or language, because most of them have many resources available.

This is precisely the topic taken up by Lakoff and Johnson 1980 (quoting Fillmore), and by Gentner et al. 2002

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    Yes, time can be represented using a variety of metaphors and may be conceptualised as in front, behind, uphill, whatever (including both spatial and non-spatial metaphors), depending both on the linguistic resources available to the speaker on what the speaker wants to achieve. Brown is an interesting discussion. – Gaston Ümlaut Sep 15 '12 at 4:02
  • Thank you, great references. Found that "In Chinese, earlier times are also seen as being above later times" – bytebuster Sep 15 '12 at 4:07
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    Indeed. In English, you can contrast looking ahead vs. looking back (the future is in front of you) with what comes before vs. what comes after (the past is in front of you)! – Luke Sawczak Nov 30 '19 at 4:24

How about English?

In the very examples you list, "day before yesterday" is using "before", a term that describes something in front of you. The "day after tomorrow" is using "after", a term that describes something which is at the rear end.

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  • before is a certain match. But I'm not sure about after: it can be used in any direction. – bytebuster Sep 15 '12 at 10:05
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    @bytebuster after is from aft-er, where aft means behind. – Mark Beadles Sep 15 '12 at 21:31
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    TIME is SPACE -- one of the two major metaphors for time in English. E.g, a long/short time; be-fore/aft-er; put it behind you; look forward to it; years passing; the coming weeks; at this point in time. – jlawler Sep 15 '12 at 21:46
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    @MarkBeadles Still I don't understand. After: from O.E. of "off" (see of) + -ter, a comparative suffix; thus the original meaning was "more away, farther off." It does not mean "behind". – bytebuster Sep 16 '12 at 2:55
  • @bytebuster I see your point on the etymology, but "after" does mean "behind" currently. If someone is after me in in line, they are behind me. – Mark Beadles Sep 16 '12 at 2:59

I realize you're not interested in Aymara, but perhaps it's interesting anyway to elaborate on the basis for this metaphor in this language, with an eye (!) on tense and evidentiality. Aymara has four tenses: the simple (present + immediate past), recent past, distal past, and future.

The future is unknown, not visible therefore it is "behind" the speaker. Comparatively, the simple and immediate past are known, visible (in memory or even at the moment), so these tenses are metaphorically construed as being in front of the speaker. The remote, historical/narrative past is also construed as being in front of the speaker, but further ahead out of visual range.

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