“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 Wordorigins.org 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.