Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

Re: Front and back

From:David Peterson <digitalscream@...>
Date:Tuesday, April 10, 2001, 5:29
In a message dated 4/9/01 8:29:06 PM, romilly@EGL.NET writes:

<< Another interesting (serious) query from another list:

>I’m currently looking for data on the way languages talk about notions like
‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ (or ‘in back of’), and left/right. I have read that in some Nilotic languages trees are treated as having an intrinsic front and back. (The front is the side the tree leans away from.) I have also read that in some languages objects like nails and peanuts are treated as having intrinsic fronts and backs. (The pointed end of a nail and the smaller end of a peanut are the fronts.) Unfortunately I no longer have the relevant references. I’m keen to here about languages that assign front and back to objects that aren’t assigned them in English. Conversely, I’m keen to hear about languages that don’t assign front/back to objects that English does.> Have we thought about this? Frankly, I hadn't........:-) >> This was actually talked about a lot in a class I'm taking. As for assigning things fronts and backs, well, everything has a front and a back in every language. It just depends on how it's done. In the languages you described above, trees are assigned front and back independent of human relations. In English, however, trees are assigned fronts and backs depending on human relations. For instance, if you were standing on one side of a tree and there was a ball on the side of the tree that you couldn't see, most English speakers would say something like: "The ball is behind the tree". For those that didn't, many would say, "The ball is on the other side of the tree", or "The ball is next to the tree", etc. But nobody would say "The ball is in front of the tree". However, in Swahili, that's exactly what one would say. That's because in English, we treat objects like trees as if they were all facing us. In Swahili, however, objects like trees are treated as if they were facing the same way a human faces, so facing the same direction the person concerned is facing. Then, however, there are some things that have orientation totally independent of where a person is standing. For instance, take a TV. The front of a TV (I hope no one will disagree with this) is the side with the screen. This is because it's the side human's interact with. So, interaction determines what the front of something is also. However, then there are other languages, like the ones you talked about, that assign things fronts and backs independent of interaction or human orientation or any thing at all. There are different languages that talk about things totally differently. There's one language that, say, if a ball were behind a rock, would say the equivalent to, "The ball is inside the space next to/behind the rock." My memory's a little fuzzy on this one, actually... I should check my notes. Anyway, another interesting idea is how different cultures assign metaphors of time to front and back ideas, motion away, motion towards, et cetera. For instance, there's a culture in South America (I forget the name of the language) in which, for them, the past is in front of them, and the future is behind them. In other words, "The day ahead of today" would mean yesterday, "the year behind us" would mean next year. All of it has to do with assigning different metaphors to different ideas. George Lakoff wrote a few good books about it. Or, if your in the neighborhood, you could come to Berkeley and talk to him. :) -David