Keeping 後 and 前 straight

Hi! I’ve been on WK since March, and have had a great time learning Japanese words. For the most part, metacognitively I’ve been mapping Japanese sounds and characters onto concepts I already have live in my mind.

I’ve run into a problem though with temporal-directional words. I’ve always been a little weak with three dimensional spatial stuff (could never throw a ball straight). Until I was five, I couldn’t distinguish left from right, until I figured out I could just name my right arm “right” and my left arm “left,” and then I was able to remember (hey a mnemonic!) Same with the other directions. They are not stored as abstract concepts in my head; they’re stored, I guess, as an extension of my muscle memory. Right, left, up, down, behind, in front, before, after; my conception of all these is relative to my body’s three dimensional position in space. Instead of having to generate a 3D image in my brain (which I’ve heard men are poor at doing; who knows), I cheat and use my body, which is always there!

The problem is that the analogies for temporal location (after, before) are stored in the exact same place as the spatial ones. To me, “after” means “forward,” and “before” means “behind.” “Before” as a spatial word (“before God”) is stored in a totally different place in my brain, and I don’t really think about it as the same thing as the temporal “before.” I recognize that etymologically this is backwards (before should be forward) both in English and in Japanese. 後 is behind and after, and 前 is in front of and previous. So in my head, both kanji contain two contradictory meanings within them.

Any advice for separating these concepts? Do I need to reprogram my brain? Ha.

4 Likes

How did you arrive at this? If someone is standing before you it means they are in front of you. Since the point is that they are in your sight. If I’m ‘before’ you in line that means I’m ahead of you not behind you.

1 Like

I have the same link between before and behind. Saying something is before something meaning it’s in front of it is really “official” I guess, like standing before a king or something. That’s how I feel anyway.

My advice for OP is to just remember the two meanings separately, try not to get them mixed in with eachother.

1 Like

So… you’re viewing the timeline with you on it, facing the future. When you see 後 you know it means behind, and you think of the past, as on your timeline that is behind you. But that is indeed not how these work.
Instead, put yourself on the timeline at a distant moment in the past. Events on the timeline are moving towards you, passing the now. Everything in front ( 前 ) of the now has already past it and lies (timeline wise) in the past, whereas everything behind the now is yet to come.
Sort of. Maybe.

1 Like

The spatial version of “before” is a word I just don’t use. I would never say “that object is before me.” And I’ve never heard anyone use “before” that way in normal speech, except in set phrases like “before the throne.” I am aware that behind and before are opposites, etymologically of course. But “behind,” “back,” and “temporally before” are synonyms in my head.”

Heh, it’s like this in Latin, too. Your posterior is your back, but post means after. Your anterior is your front, but ante means before.

1 Like

I got 前 thoroughly hammered into my memory by the sheer number of bus stops and tram stops and train stations and such with 前 in the name. バスセンター前駅 = station in front of the bus centre, 大学前駅 = station in front of the university, 動物園前駅 = station in front of the zoo, 駅前駅 = station in front of the station, and so forth.

2 Likes

It’s not used in everyday speech, but it’s still reasonably common in more poetic contexts, e.g. “kneel before Zod”. And of course, it’s used in the famous quote “Is that a dagger I see before me?” which is conveniently also the mnemonic I chose to remember 前. I did have quite a big of trouble though with 後 and the way it seemingly has two opposite meanings.

1 Like

Ooo, one other thought which covers both meanings: if you’re in a race, any runners who finish before you are both in front of you spatially, and earlier than you temporally.

4 Likes

And similarly, runners who finish after you temporally are behind you spatially.

I study a Japanese martial art. We use 前 for attacks from the front, and 後ろ for attacks from behind. Which you would think would be a great mnemonic, except that, as a dojo in an English speaking country, we use romaji for essentially everything. It wasn’t until I hit 後ろ as a vocabulary word and got it wrong several times that a light bulb went on. “Oh! That ushiro!”

3 Likes

It’s not that unusual to hear it in the context of “appear before a judge” or “appear before a committee” etc. Whether that’s an “everyday” thing for someone is a different story.

3 Likes

Even in English before comes from by + fore and fore = situated or placed in front.