Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?

“There is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

A recurring idea in popular discussions of languages – usually exotic or minority ones – is that they have “no word for X”, where X could be hello, tomorrow, burger, ten, accountability, robin, and so on. Sometimes it’s sheer fantasy, sometimes the language simply has (or has had) no need for the word (robins in the Arctic?), and sometimes it has other ways of conveying the idea – such as a longer phrase, a different kind of metaphor, or another syntactic category.

The point is, it’s not as though there’s a nagging word-shaped gap there that makes it difficult for speakers of a language to communicate with one another, to make sufficient sense of their experiences, and to get through the day without falling apart. If there’s a need for a word, a word will arise.

Irish has no word for yes, but this linguistic lacuna does not stop Irish speakers from agreeing, accepting, assenting, and shouting things in bed. Other idioms and grammatical markers are used instead. The lack of a word for something doesn’t imply the lack of a concept for it, yet this illogical extrapolation is repeatedly made, perhaps for reasons of naïveté, sensationalism, or romanticism, e.g., the appeal of a culture with no word for lying, and other spins on the “noble savage” myth.

The no-word-for-X trope belongs to the more general faddish idea of a language or culture having N words for X, where N is, as Mark Liberman writes, “either zero or some number viewed as excessively large”; he goes on to discuss “the mind-clouding power of this rhetorical device”. It certainly seems to exert a strong and sometimes stupefying effect on people.

Many of us speak multiple languages, or we did once, or we know people who do, so occasional interlinguistic imprecision is a familiar notion. But when we encounter a language that supposedly has no word for Something Very Fundamental, some concept we assume to be universal, we are beguiled. What do they think like, we wonder, these exotic creatures who have no word for X. We want to be not so much a fly on the wall as a homunculus in the brain of someone very different from us – to test drive their mind for a while.

Yesterday the BBC announced that the Amondawa language “has no word for ‘time’”. The headline declares, rather boldly: “Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says”, but a more accurate description might be that it appears to lack an abstract term for time. The report follows a paper published in Language and Cognition titled “When Time is not Space: The social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture.” It’s available here [PDF].*

One of the authors, Chris Sinha, Professor of Psychology of Language at the University of Portsmouth, anticipates romantic misinterpretations when he stresses that the researchers are “really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’”. Time, after all, is inescapable; in the words of science fiction writer Ray Cummings, it’s “what keeps everything from happening at once”. Sinha’s comment echoes a point made in the paper’s discussion:

We would strongly disavow any interpretation of the data that we present that would exoticize the Amondawa by suggesting that they are a ‘People without Time’. [p. 36]

What the authors are saying is that the Amondawa do not map time onto space or motion, the way we do in countless everyday metaphorical phrases like in a while, on Tuesday, behind/ahead of schedule, looking forward to, approaching Christmas, etc. There is, the authors say, a widespread assumption that this “linguistic constructional space-time mapping” is universal. From the Abstract:

It is widely assumed that there is a natural, prelinguistic conceptual domain of time whose linguistic organization is universally structured via metaphoric mapping from the lexicon and grammar of space and motion.

They challenge this assumption and propose an alternative account, hypothesizing that

the cognitive and linguistic domain of ‘Time as Such’ is not a cognitive universal, but a historical construction based in social practice, semiotically mediated by symbolic and cultural-cognitive artefacts for time based time interval reckoning, and subsequently entrenched in lexico-grammar.

McLuhan would’ve loved that. To the non-specialist, this feast of technical jargon will make more sense in context. The paper, despite resorting to phrases like Ego-relative temporal motion constructions “for simplicity”, is very interesting. It steers the reader briskly and helpfully through discussions of metaphorical mapping, calendrical systems and other necessary background material before introducing the Amondawa culture and language. We learn that

the age of an individual is not measured chronologically in Amondawa culture, which lacks a numerical system able to enumerate above four. Rather, individuals are categorized in terms of stages or periods of the lifespan, based upon social status and role, and position in family birth order. As we have also noted, each Amondawa individual changes their name during the course of their life, and the rules governing these name changes form a strict onomastic system.

[Onomastic refers to the study of names.] The Amondawa have no abstract term for time, but they have all sorts of words that refer to time:

Amondawa, in the absence of verbal tense, does not oblige speakers to specify event time, and in many or most cases temporal reference is interpreted . . . according to context. However, when required, the time of an event in the past or future is marked by temporal deictic adverbial particles and dependent morphemes. [p. 31–32]

We do not claim that the data . . . are exhaustive of temporal terms, or terms that can be used temporally. . . . Nevertheless, we feel reasonably confident in making two assertions. First, Amondawa speakers are able to (and regularly do) talk about events in the past and future, and to temporally relate events to each other. Second, such temporal expressions appear not to be derived from the Amondawa lexical and constructional inventory for expressing spatial location and motion. [p. 33]

The BBC also spoke to linguist Pierre Pica (who studies a related language, Mundurucú; see this exchange at Language Log), and it presents his sceptical view as follows: “while the Amondawa may perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time, the language may not necessarily reflect it in an obvious way.”

Regardless, the paper shows the inestimable value in studying, and where possible preserving, minority languages – one of which dies [PDF] every couple of weeks, and with it an ancient and unique cultural heritage. The Amondawa population at the time of field research was just 115. The authors urge further research “both in Amondawa and in other related and unrelated languages”.

Updates: Language Hat has drawn my attention to a Wikipedia page on the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau (same tribe), and links to a Daily Mail report I declined to include here (“No concept of time”). There’s also some discussion about this in the forums.

January 2013: More links and discussion at Language Log: ‘Wade Davis has no word for “dubious linguistic claim”‘.


*Authors: Chris Sinha, Vera da Silva Sinha, and Jörg Zinken of the University of Portsmouth, and Wany Sampaio of the Federal University of Rondônia.

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18 Responses to Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?

  1. Mike Morris says:

    Very interesting piece, Stan.

    I found the presentation of that story odd, because I think the notion of time as an abstract concept is quite new. I think one of the first Western works to mention time travel is a play called Anno 7603, which was written in the late-ish 18th Century. Before that, time-travel generally took place via the Rip Van Winkle “fall asleep” narrative. The notion of time as an abstract concept (or “conceptual domain”, as Sinha puts it) – something you can travel through – is quite an odd one if you think about it.

    It’s always interesting to see other ways of approaching abstract concepts – I remember reading an article about an Amazonian tribe who only count to five, and I found that story interesting for the same reasons – and it’s a bit sad when it’s presented with the assumption that our way is “right.” .

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks, Mike. Time as a separate abstraction is fairly new, and though (relatively) soon superseded by space-time, it’s still a pervasive idea in the science-dominated west. I like this pithy explanation of relativity attributed to Einstein, partly because it makes time subjective again. Trying to explain it objectively leads to one paradox after another, unless you make wiggle room by allowing a multitude of different kinds of time. Even then, it’s impossible to pin down; we’re too embedded in it.

    Was this [PDF] the article you read? It’s about Pierre Pica and the Mundurucú, who appear near the end of the post. The Guardian has removed the original article.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Wondrous are the mechanisms of memory. By reading but the title, immediately I remembered a “story”/documentation on a German TV-channel some time [sic] ago about a people who – quoting here from this Guardian article which I found by googling ‘the happiest people’ – have no socially lubricating “hello” and “thank you” and “sorry”. They (the Pirahã)do have no words for colours, no words for numbers and no way of expressing any history beyond that experienced in their lifetimes.
    This differs a bit from what I remembered: They do not have/know numbers, and their grammar does neither consist of a past nor a future tense. They seem to be the happiest people on this planet.
    As for the latter: I could be wrong.
    Mike was not – very interesting piece, Stan.

    P.S.: If I happened to be Miss J., I’d not miss to meet you next weekend while spending four days in Co. Clare. Ah, the time … which is said to be money … which is …

  4. MarcL says:

    This smacks of Whorfianism, which in my mind is about as relevant as phlogiston. My understanding of the modern concept of time as a linear progression is that it began with the Greeks and numeration in a geometric form. The ancient Eygptions apparently had a different form of measurement which was cyclical and based on the recurrent flooding of the Nile. As I understand it, and I don’t pretend to be a physicist, Einstein’s contribution implies a circularity to time, a coterminous quality which denies linearality. But that’s a discursion. Of course every culture,and its attendant language has a way of telling itself where it exists spatially and temporally.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    I’ve always been partial to the phases of the moon as a standard of measurement.
    Very interesting post Stan, some of which I’ve read in other forms and articles over the years, thanks for bringing it all together.
    And PS I totally LOLed at “and shouting things in bed.”

  6. Mike Morris says:

    Stan – yes, that’s the one (well done!). Very interesting stuff, nice to read it again.

  7. Stan says:

    Sean: The Pirahã language has been hotly debated in recent years, but again, some of the claims about it are less remarkable than they might appear. For example: strictly speaking, English has no future tense, but this doesn’t interfere with its speakers’ ability to refer to future time. I wouldn’t expect much of a correlation between the language a person speaks and how happy they are. But I hope Miss J. has a very happy time in her near future in Ireland, regardless of the language(s) she uses!

    MarcL: A language that doesn’t embed time in spatial metaphors would be very unusual, I think. Whether this is true of Amondawa has yet to be definitively established. There’s a short discussion of Whorf on pp. 42–43 of the paper; Roman Jakobson’s remark that languages differ “essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey” seems to be widely accepted among linguists nowadays.

    WWW: Thank you, as always, for your visit and thoughts. (And I’m glad someone liked the joke.)

    Mike: Happy to help. It was a very interesting story.

  8. Rebecca Savastio says:

    I think you mistook my Twitter comment as one of “naïveté, sensationalism, or romanticism” based on your direct response to it, however, I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t implying that the Amondawa have “no concept” of time, but rather that it is most certainly a very different construct than Americans’. I don’t think there is anything inherently naive in pointing out that this particular language most likely creates a different type of relationship to time and society than the one which we have. Perhaps I phrased it incorrectly but my intention was only to suggest it was an interesting article and to ponder what it would be like to be immersed in that culture and language, which would undoubtedly change my perception of time-related events, just as if their culture suddenly had the same words for time that we did, it would be a different experience than the one they are living now.

  9. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. Like you, I’m sure the Amondawa have a very different relationship with time, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their language creates it. My own relationship with time has changed in small but significant ways over the years, according to circumstances.

    In your first tweet (assuming this is you; it’s not clear!) you wondered what it would be like “to live without the constraints of time”; my response may have come across as brusque, because I don’t believe it’s possible to live without those constraints: time is part of the fabric of our existence. But I share your curiosity about the Amondawa’s very different culture and language, and I imagine you would greatly enjoy the detail in Sinha and colleagues’ paper.

  10. Rebecca Savastio says:

    Thanks Stan. One of the issues I have with Twitter (yes, that was me) is that it limits us to 140 characters. Thus, it is sometimes impossible to correctly convey the complex meaning of a thought. I’m glad I found this blog so I could clarify my Tweet, and am looking forward to reading the paper you mention.

  11. Sergio Grotarut says:

    I think the BBC report, and the study that it refers to, is an excellent opportunity to analize the culture that produced them.
    Reading the report felt like it was written some point in the XVIII century… Is it that possible, or it is me?
    What about “We lack the words for explain to an Amondawan our experience of life-time?” It would be more of the same, though, but just the other way around.
    That title, I guess, would be of much more impact to the readers

  12. Stan says:

    Sergio: Yes, I’m happy when these very different cultures and languages receive mainstream attention; I’d just prefer if they weren’t exoticized unnecessarily. The translatability of different languages, especially their treatment of complex abstractions like time, is a fascinating area that deserves careful analysis and reporting.

  13. [...] often takes the form “no word for X”, and a language’s lack of a certain term is then supposed to imply its speakers’ lack of the [...]

  14. [...] the only side of the story we’re told, and it seems inevitable we’ll soon hear the no-word-for-X meme. Sure enough Fry asks, rhetorically, “If you don’t have a word for evil, does it vanish?” The [...]

  15. llandscape says:

    Pierre Pica’s sceptical view is reported by the BBC as : “while the Amondawa may perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time, the language may not necessarily reflect it in an obvious way.”
    Could not this be translated as “No evidence has so far been discovered in the Amondawan language that they perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time”?
    Kind of hard to accept that a lack of evidence is any kind of argument that Chris Sinha might be wrong? But then this is a selective quote culled by a journalist …..
    I rather agree with Sergio Grotarut’s “turn the tables” argument.
    Talking of time – some very strange dates on all the replies here!
    I’m in Feb. 2013, Sergio has managed apparently to comment in June 2011!

  16. llandscape says:

    Scrub the comment about times and dates! – the BBC article has just been given prominence on their web-site again… for why???

  17. Stan says:

    llandscape: Thanks for your visit and comments. Yes, the BBC article is from May 2011; I don’t know why it would show up prominently on their website now.

  18. […] their first contact with the outside world less than thirty years ago in 1986. Professor Chris Sinha, who has spent time observing the Amondawa tribe, found that they have no specific word in their […]

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