Different Conceptualizations of Front and Back: The Case of Thai and Korean

30 May 2024
Room F1

Different Conceptualizations of Front and Back: The Case of Thai and Korean

From a cultural linguistic point of view, individual languages encapsulate the culture of their speech community and thus a comparative analysis of languages helps us find different cultural understandings behind language use (cf. Foley, 1997). The spatial notions of ‘front’ and ‘back’ are among the basic notions of human conceptualization. However, these notions develop into a range of different, yet related designations across diverse ontological categories, e.g., body, space, time, and quality (Heine et al., 1997). The Thai ‘front’ (naa) is a metaphorical extension of ‘face’ (Rhee & Khammee, 2022), and likewise, the ‘back’ (lang) is an extension of the body-part ‘back’. The Korean ‘front’ is aph, a spatial notion from its earliest attestations with the meaning of ‘front’ and ‘south’, whereas the ‘back’ is twi, a spatial-corporeal meaning of ‘back, anus, north’. Their developmental patterns show intriguing aspects of cognitive operations. Thai ‘front’ shows conceptualizations of front-ness by extending to ‘surface’, ‘side of a flat object’, ‘side of a dice’, ‘time’, ‘season’, ‘person’, ‘dignity’, ‘next’, ‘duty’, ‘middleman’, ‘top rank’, ‘make progress’, etc. on the lexical level and a numeral classifier for paper on the grammatical level. The ‘back’ in Thai extended to the temporal domain ‘after’ and was grammaticalized as a numeral classifier for houses, etc. On the other hand, the Korean ‘front’ prominently extended to the ordinal domain of ‘before, prior’, and to the temporal domain for future and past, suggesting a mixture of the ego- and time-moving models of temporal conceptualization. Similarly, the ‘back’ also extended to the ordinal domain for ‘later, subsequent’ and to the temporal notions of future and present, among others. A contrastive analysis shows how linguistic structures are shaped by different pragmaticalization of concepts, and reveals how different conceptualizations of physical configurations as well as typological features lead to linguistic differences.



Foley, W. A. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.

Heine, B., Claudi, U., & Hünnemeyer, F. (1991). Grammaticalization: A Conceptual Framework. University of Chicago.

Rhee, S. & Khammee, K. (2022). Same and different ways of seeing faces: The cases of Korean and Thai. Journal of Linguistic Science, 103, 361-381.