Amazonian Tribe with no Linguistic Concept of ‘Time’ Independent of Events

Or, if the BBC are to be believed, ”Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says”  – which is something far more exaggerated – though not as wildly overblown as The Daily Mail‘s take on the story: ”No concept of time: The Amazonian tribe where nobody has an age and words like ‘month’ and ‘year’ don’t exist”

Both stories refer to the research paper ”When Time is not Space: The social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture” by Prof. Chris Sinha, in the journal Language and Cognition. This paper makes the far more modest claim that the Amondawa people of Brazil have no linguistic category for time independent of events.

The Amondawa are one of several sub-groups of the Uru-Eu-Uaw-Uaw, the indiginous  people of Brazil still living in partial isolation in state of Rondônia. Reasearchers under Sinha, professor of psychology of language at the University of Portsmouth, spent eight weeks with the tribe researching their language.

“We’re really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’,” Prof Sinha told the BBC. “Amondawa people, like any other people, can talk about events and sequences of events. What we don’t find is a notion of time as being independent of the events which are occuring; they don’t have a notion of time which is something the events occur in.”

”For the Amondawa, time does not exist in the same way as it does for us. We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted, or talked about in the abstract. This doesn’t mean that the Amondawa are ‘people outside time’, but they live in a world of events, rather than seeing events as being embedded in time”

The Amondawa language contains no word for ‘time’, or for concepts like ‘next week’ or ‘last year’. They also do not appear to use ‘mapping’ between concepts of time and space. Most languages use spacial metaphors for time so that events may be ‘ahead’ or have ‘passed’:

In linguistic space-to-time mapping, words and constructions whose etymologically primary (and, putatively, more psychologically basic) meanings conceptualize location and motion in space are recruited to express temporal relational notions.

”When Time is not Space” (p.2)

However, the lack of these linguistic concepts in their own language does not seam to hinder their aquisition when they learn other languages such as Portugese.

Sinha,’s conclusions are rather more modest than the press coverage would suggest:

What implications does this analysis hold for understanding time as a conceptual domain, and its relationship with space? We advance three linked hypotheses. First, time-based time interval systems and categories are in a fundamental way linguistically constructed, that is, they cannot be ‘thought’ without thinking them through language and for speaking (Slobin, 1996). The conceptual schematization of time-based time interval systems is not based in pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual image schemas (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). Rather, conceptual schemas such as the calendar are constituted by the use of linguistically organized, materially-anchored symbolic cognitive artefacts.

”Second, the conceptual domain of ‘Time as Such‘ is not a human cognitive universal, but a cultural and historical construction, constituted by schematized time-based time interval systems, reflection upon which is language and culture dependent.

”Third, because the cognitive domain of ‘Time as Such’ is a cultural, historical and linguistic construction, the hypothesis that it is universally constructed by metaphoric mapping from the conceptual domain of space is false. Rather, even if it is the case that space-time mappings are motivated by compelling inter-domain analogic correlation, and perhaps facilitated by neural structure, it is the cultural, historical and linguistic construction of the domain of ‗Time as Such‘ that potentiates the linguistically widespread (but not universal) recruitment of spatial language for .expressing temporal relations in space-time mapping constructions.

– ”When Time is not Space” (p.41-42)

The research does offer some support for Linguistic Relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. However, we’ve been here several times before with linguists and anthropologists prematurely announcing proof: Daniel Casasanto has termed such claims ‘Crying Whorf’. 

More pertinently, he made claims similar to Sinha regarding the ‘absence’ of a concept of time in the language of the Hopi Indians:

”[T]he Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions or that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present, or future…”

– Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf

Ekkehart Malotki subsequently proved this claim to be incorrect: the Hopi language does, indeed, have tenses, and temporal expressions such as taavok (yesterday), qaavo (tomorrow), lootok (day after tomorrow), tooki (last night), Kyelmuya, Kyaamuya, Paamuya (names of three of the traditional lunar months), um hisat tiitiwa? (when were you born?) and ason nu noosani (I will eat later).

Sinha are aware of Whorf’s work, of course

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis appeals to Romantic notions of national identity and the noble savage myth as much as to liberal ideals of diversity and the post-modern concept of social constructivism. If the conclusions of this research prove to be another false positive I don’t think we should be too disappointed to discover that human beings have much more in common than some would have us believe.


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