The Linguistics of Signifying Time.

Back in 2005 I posted about a language spoken in a remote corner of Brazil, Nheengatú (Tupi: [ɲɛʔẽŋaˈtu]); now it’s the subject of a study by Simeon Floyd of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, “Modally hybrid grammar? Celestial pointing for time-of-day reference in Nheengatú,” published in the March 2016 issue of Language (preprint pdf). The Linguistic Society of America press release says:

A new scientific study documenting the linguistic practices of the Northwestern Amazonian peoples uncovers an unusual method of communicating the human concept of time. […] The article examines how the Nheengatú language includes both auditory and visual components to express the time of day, even though it does not have any numerical or written system for telling time. Speakers of Nheengatú talk about time of day by pointing at where the sun would be in the sky at that particular time. For speakers of Nheengatú, this is the same as saying things like “nine o’clock” in English. This practice is notable because many linguists have assumed that users of auditory languages would not also develop visual language like that seen in sign languages, but this phenomenon shows that this is not necessarily the case.

When humans conceive of grammar we might think of categories like nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that people communicate by vocalizing. Research with speakers of Nheengatú reveals that this is not always the case, however, and that in some languages it is possible to communicate some of these concepts, by combining movements of the hands and body with speech in systematic ways. In this case visual elements play a role comparable to that usually played by spoken adverbs, adding information about time to the verbs they occur with.

These Nheengatú physical expressions are the type of visual language we expect to see in sign languages, but for spoken languages it is often assumed that all of the words should be audible, not visual, and that the gestures that come along with speech only give extra, peripheral meanings, and not the main information about the topic of talk. These practices seen in small communities in the Amazon have the potential to change how scientists think about the modalities in which language is expressed, because they show that humans don’t necessarily have to choose between speaking and signing and are capable of doing both simultaneously.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Something similar with Australian languages, famed for not being much into number *words*, but often going with complex finger-counting and gesturing techniques which can express all the numbers you could possibly want, unless you’re Carl Sagan. Which you probably aren’t.

  2. This is fascinating, but if it is just an isolated feature it hardly rises to the “grammar” thing. We can say (in English), “the fish I caught today was this [appropriate hand gesture] big” which does not make hand gestures into “words” of any sorts. Of course, we can lie about the size of the fish without using hands, but “can” and “do” are different things (a shade-of-a-racist Soviet-times joke was that to silence a Georgian you have to tie his hands).

  3. That’s gesturing and speaking simultaneously. But “Alice is [sinuous hand gesture]” actually does replace an adjective, “curvy” or “sexy” or what not, with a hand sign.

  4. I thought about that, but though people certainly do say “this big” without showing how big, in case they do show it they transmit information in a different way than, for example, saying “I love you” and simulating a kiss.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I think the difference is that, whereas in English, it is possible, if dull, to express Alice’s appealing qualities unambiguously without resort to gesture, in Língua Geral gesture is (so it appears) the *only* way of expressing time. So the division of labour between speech and gesture is different, and not just in that one group might gesticulate more than another in everyday speech as a cultural thing, but in the purely cognitive area of conveying dull meaning. So if you’re going to use “grammar” for the whole meaning-conveying system, the boundary *is* different. Like the Australian numbers.

    If your gesture has conventional structure and fits into a particular slot in a spoken utterance which is determined by linguistic considerations there seems a good case for including it in “grammar.”

  6. If gesture, body language and facial expression have no place in English or other Western languages, there would have been no advantage to moving the soaps and other drama shows from radio to television. We get an awful lot more meaning from watching a speaker speak than we do from just listening, and a lot more from listening than from just reading. The added depth of meaning conveyed by tone of voice or visual gestures is not merely “peripheral” — often, it is quite “central.” We are all signing as well as speakingt all the time. Written poetry and prose is great only when it manages to pack into written words all the meaning normally conveyed through the aural and gestural dimensions of speech.

  7. Wow, and this in such a non-exotic language as Nheengatu! Wonder if there’s something similar in the still less exotic Paraguayan Guarani.

  8. Little by little, Mary realized that their trunks were playing a part in communication, too. A movement of the trunk would modify the meaning of a sound, so the word that sounded like “chuh” meant water when it was accompanied by a sweep of the trunk from left to right, rain when the trunk curled up at the tip, sadness when it curled under, and young shoots of grass when it made a quick flick to the left. As soon as she saw this, Mary imitated it, moving her arm as best she could in the same way, and when the creatures realized that she was beginning to talk to them, their delight was radiant.

    Philip Pullman
    The Golden Spyglass

  9. If it’s just a question of “combining movements of the hands or body with speech in systematic ways,” Italians certainly do that, and I think it’s one of the hardest things for foreigners to get right; it’s not just waving your hands around for emphasis or using the insults on those clickbait lists. I’ve been here for almost twenty years, and while my spoken accent is minimal and would never keep anyone from understanding me, my signing “accent” is a mess (gestures that are off somehow, at the wrong height, etc.) and often confuses people.

  10. Yeah, it could be argued that body language is a criminally underemphasized part of language instruction.

    Also, I think that 2005 article falls into the same trap that we see when someone describes Yiddish as “a mixture of German, Russian and Hebrew” – no, it’s Germanic. As far as I know, Nheengatu, as the successor of the língua geral, is unambiguously Tupian.

  11. David Marjanović says

    I don’t speak body language, and I don’t gesticulate (beyond the absolute necessities like “this big”). I have no trouble holding a microphone to my mouth for a whole 15-minute talk – it’s amazing how many people simply can’t do this!

  12. Some modern Greek speakers (particularly people of a certain age) would say “I’ve caught a fish this big,” or “I’ve found in the garden a worm this big,” at the same time using their hands to show how big the fish or the worm was, and then always add “pardon me,” lest they caused the listener to think about the size of something else. Pardon me.

  13. A quick inspection of the globe indicates that the speakers of this language live close to the equator. This is the only place where such signing would be practical, since the path of the sun across the sky doesn’t change much from one day to another. Also, the sun is consistently at a high angle during the day. When you are at a higher latitude, the sun’s daily path is much more variable.

  14. This seems like it could have been very common in hunter-gatherer societies at middle latitudes.

    They might even refer to the time of year by pointing to where a certain star would have been.

    Without strong seasons, time just isn’t as important. Not even worth making up a word for it.

  15. Indeed, the dog days of summer are so named because they occur as Sirius (the dog star, in Canis Major) begins to appear in the morning sky in the Mediterranean area.

    I’m not aware of any other comparable expressions associated with star sightings, however.

  16. @Rick: By “middle latitudes” I think you mean “low latitudes”: the scale is [0,90], not [-90,+90].

  17. January First-of-May says

    A quick inspection of the globe indicates that the speakers of this language live close to the equator. This is the only place where such signing would be practical, since the path of the sun across the sky doesn’t change much from one day to another.

    In a somewhat opposite but similar pattern, Ukrainian indicates the four compass directions by telling what the sun is doing when it is in that direction (that is to say, the words for north, south, east and west are exactly the same as those for midnight, midday, sunrise, and sunset, respectively). No actual gestures are involved, however.
    I’ve read somewhere that an equivalent system exists in Hungarian; don’t know enough about it to comment further.

  18. @mollymooly: The most unambiguous term might be “middle colatitudes.”

  19. @January First-of-May: Latin also equated south with midday, meridiēs, a practice reflected in Italian mezzogiorno and French midi. The word for north, septentriō, referred to the constellation Ursa Major.

  20. @mollymooly

    Of course. Latitudes middle of the way from top to bottom of the globe are not called middle latitudes. This is why languages are so fantastic.

  21. Latitudes are, in terms of e.g. temperatures and prevailing winds, more-or-less symmetrical about the equator, so it’s convenient to be able to talk about high latitudes near the poles, low latitudes near the equator, and middle latitudes in between. It also reflects the magnitude of the numbers, of course.

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