Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?

May 21, 2011

“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:

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