In English and most Western languages, the future lies ahead. In front of us. Forward. The past is behind us, and when we are running late, we say we have fallen behind. Yet this forward-backward orientation is neither obvious nor universal. Even in English, it seems we can’t agree on what it means to move a meeting back one day. Some people are certain that back means earlier. Others are equally certain that it means later. On Tuesday, Wednesday lies before us, though Tuesday is before Wednesday. Other cultures have different geometries. Aymara speakers, in the Andes, point forward (where they can see) when talking about the past and gesture behind their backs when talking about the future. In other languages, too, yesterday is the day ahead and tomorrow is the day behind.
Boroditsky and others speak in terms of “ego-moving” versus “time-moving” metaphors. One person may feel the deadline approaching. Another may feel herself approaching the deadline. These may be the same person. You may swim onward, or the river may bear you.
– James Gleick, Time Travel: A History
Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By explores these temporal metaphors in some depth, as do many other authors. Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history is borne backwards into the future, for example.
Beyond the cross-cultural comparison is the question of whether we can change our own internal sense, or even switch between these metaphors, depending on what’s helpful. How quickly can you change your fundamental sense of time, your place in it and orientation towards it, and the locus of control?