Back to the future

I was writing that epic post about tenses which reminded me of when I learnt about concepts of past and future time in te reo. Chances are you probably already know but I still think it’s worth sharing.

In English the past is behind us, and the future is ahead of us. Life is a journey and we’re walking along a path into the future.


Behind / Muri……………………….Ahead / Mua

But in Māori the past is ngā rā o mua (the days ahead) and the future is ngā rā o muri (the days behind). It’s the total opposite to English and a bit confusing for learners. (Funnily enough, when I say “ngā rā o mua” I still gesture behind me – obviously my hands haven’t learnt to speak Māori yet).

From a Māori perspective time is not a path to be walked or a journey that you control, it’s a force like wind or water; you stay still, time moves. All you can do is try to withstand the assault as it whooshes past you (and eventually leaves you behind). Your past has been seen therefore the past must be in front of you; it’s already zoomed by and gone. But the future just sneaks up unknown and unseen, so the future is coming from behind you.


Ahead / Mua……………………….Behind / Muri

Neat, huh? People like to make all kinds of cultural comparisons based on these two concepts, but I’m sure you can do that yourself so let’s not go there.

Let’s look at two events. First the alarm clock went off, and then the man woke up. In English we can say the alarm went off before, or the man woke up after. Look at those two word again: before and after. Now I don’t know about you but I was taught that your fore and aft were your front and arse respectively. According to English language concepts, the past is behind us (at our hind) so shouldn’t the past happen after (at our aft)? And the future which is ahead of us happen before?

Confused yet? Don’t worry because it’s all very consistent and makes perfect sense in Māori because you’re already arse-face to the future. If something happens before, it happens in the past (which is at your fore). If something happens after, it happens in the future (which is at your aft). Easy peasy.


Before / Mua……………………….After / Muri
I rarā te matawā…………………I oho te tāne

I rarā te matawā i mua i te ohonga o te tāne.
The alarm clock went off before the man woke up.

I oho te tāne i muri i te rarā o te matawā.
The man woke up after the alarm clock went off.


4 thoughts on “Back to the future

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