You may have seen a story in the press about the Amondawa (known to Wikipedia as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau), who allegedly have (if you read BBC News) no “abstract idea of time,” or (if you’re foolish enough to read the Daily Mail) “no concept of time” (and, for good measure, “nobody has an age”). I was hoping Language Log would do something on the actual story, but fortunately Stan Carey has filled the breach with this excellent post; core point:

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’”. … 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.

Read the whole thing. And thanks for doing the legwork, Stan!


  1. Mapping time onto motion seems problematic, since motion is just change in location over time. Of course, we do it.
    In fact, whether it’s mapped onto space or motion, isn’t the concept always one of position/movement on a notional timeline?

  2. What concept ? “Time” ? Are you saying that “the concept of time [is] always one of position/movement on a notional timeline” ? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.

  3. In other words, it might make more sense to speculate that “the concept of time [is] always one of position/movement on a notional spaceline“. But what evidence would there be for such a speculation ? Or are we doing synthetic apriori judgements here ?

  4. This sounds like a good [time???] to call in “Love and Death” era Woody Allen.

  5. Completely off topic:
    You know the old joke about the 19th century cook book’s recipe for rabbit stew that begins “First, catch a rabbit”?
    Apparently that joke was already old enough in 1831 that you didn’t even have to tell it, but just refer to it. Nicholas Biddle, talking about how counterfeiters should be punished says “But, as the cookery books say — Let us first catch the rogues”.

  6. dearieme says

    I don’t know what people mean when they say that some planned action should be “moved forward”: do they mean postponed, or the opposite? If the opposite, that’s counter to the idea that time moves forward. If postponed, why don’t they say so?

  7. The joke is often wrongly attributed to Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook, in the form “First, catch your hare”, but it isn’t in her book.

  8. Lord Byron in 1822 is the earliest attribution so far. He’s also the earliest Plato / potato / Aristotle / bottle rhymer. An unjustly neglected poet.

  9. Charles Perry says

    Isn’t “not mapping events in time” what Whorf claimed about the Hopi? Until Ekkehart Malotki showed in “Hopi Time” that they did exactly that?

  10. I don’t know what people mean when they say that some planned action should be “moved forward”
    Nor do I. Either of the two opposite meanings is completely plausible to me.
    that’s counter to the idea that time moves forward
    Maybe. But the fact that “before” can mean both “earlier than” and “in front of” is counter to the same idea.
    Does time move forward, or do we move forward through time?

  11. Already known to Henry of Bracton (13th C).

  12. In my experience “moved forward” is ambiguous. I exclusively use it to mean “preponed”, since to me it feels like the opposite of “pushed back” (which IME always means “postponed”), but I’ve heard people use it to mean “postponed”.
    I suppose the image is that the event being preponed is facing us, or has its front toward us, so if it moves forward, then it comes closer to us (into the nearer future), and if it is pushed back, then it recedes into the further future.

  13. (Actually I tend to say “brought forward” or “moved up”, but I still interpret “moved forward” as “preponed”, and am always surprised when I realize that someone has used it to mean “postponed”.)

  14. I knew that MMcM would show up.

  15. Bathrobe says

    I knew that MMcM would show up.

  16. Bathrobe says

    I’m afraid I found Stan’s post long in number words but short on detail. The crux of the matter is found here:
    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.
    such temporal expressions appear not to be derived from the Amondawa lexical and constructional inventory for expressing spatial location and motion.
    In which case, it would be useful to give a few examples of how these people do talk about time.

  17. And then there is the word prepone, which is characteristic of en-IN.

  18. Thank you for the link, Hat. I’m enjoying the discussion here.
    Bathrobe: My post includes a link to the paper, which offers examples of how the Amondawa talk about time. Since I’m not a linguist, and this is an area I haven’t written about before, I wanted to write a general introduction to the “no word for X” idea and to how these stories are often (mis)interpreted; this called for a rather long preamble, for context. I’m sorry it disappointed you.

  19. Bathrobe says

    Needless to say, it is somewhat startling when the writer of a post suddenly turns up and apologises. No need to apologise. I’m afraid that I don’t check out every link when pressed for time, and that’s what happened this time. My bad. (I also get a bit lazy about checking links because often the interesting links are blocked here in China.)

  20. Bathrobe says

    Properly admonished, I downloaded it but couldn’t open it.

  21. Bathrobe, I mailed you a ZIP of the PDF file, along with an HTML version created from the PDF.

  22. I find the word ‘before’ interesting because it is a spatial metaphor whose chronological, metaphorical usage has superceded (in my dialect anyways) its literal usage. I do a double take when I hear someone use it to mean ‘in front of’.
    Julian Jaynes thought the use of spatial metaphors for time was a key element in the social construction of consciousness, FWIW.

  23. the use of spatial metaphors for time
    As in that stupid buzz-phrase “moving forward”. I hear it every time I turn on CNN. “What do you think the President’s strategy will be on Syria [, moving forward] ?”
    This distracts attention from the possibility that the President’s strategy is retrograde.

  24. I don’t know that “before” was spacey before it was timey. Does anyone?

  25. There are lots,”Let’s move on”, “Going back to the first comment”. Even “going back in time” is metaphorical, as is the phrase “time travel”. Dr Who and his associates do appear to travel, whereas Alice just “goes” to sleep.

  26. Interestingly Sinha et al. reference “before” on p. 5 when they talk about “lexemes that have (nonarchaically) only temporal meanings” — so perhaps my idiolect is more universal than I had thought. Is there any way in English of expressing “chronologically before” that is not a metaphor of spatial relation? I don’t think “previous to” is a spatial metaphor.

  27. Bathrobe says

    Received, with thanks. Now I just have to read it 🙂

  28. smørfly, I’m pretty sure “front” and “fore” originally mean the physical front of an object well before they can mean its chronological front. And actually I think this is true of prae- as well, so that probably nixes my “previous to” idea as well.

  29. Right, “previous” is “on the road before”.

  30. dearieme says

    And Another Thing – why do some people say that “X is not an option” to mean that X is compulsory and others say it to mean that X is forbidden? (Apart from both those groups being unreflective thickos, of course.)

  31. dearieme says

    Is there any way in English of expressing “chronologically before”: earlier? Prior to? – or is prior a “pre” word?

  32. Zythophile says

    Indeed, and the past is the time through which we have passed (same word).
    But in a society (eg an early agricultural one) where the most important aspect of time is its circularity (the return of the seasons after a regular number of days) rather than its linearity (eg children/trees growing from small to large), I’m not convinced “past/previous” would necessarily come to have temporal as well as spatial meanings.

  33. “earlier” is it — earlier and early and ere refer only to time, not space. Thanks, dearieme!

  34. dearieme,
    If two groups use an expression in contradictory ways, are they both thickheaded, or just one? How would you know?
    In my experience “X is not an option” usually means “X is not one of the available courses of action”. (That’s not exactly the same as saying that X is forbidden, but close enough.) One could use the more unambiguous “X is not one of the [or my or our …] options”, but if one hasn’t noticed that some people use the expression to mean almost the opposite then one can’t be blamed for not taking this precaution.
    I have less patience with those who use “X is not an option” where I would say “X is not optional”, meaning that X is not one of those things that you have a choice about. But maybe this practice arose among people who were not aware of the first use of the expression, in which case I see no point in calling anyone names.
    Except maybe cheese-human.

  35. J. W. Brewer says

    I’m not aware of a spatial metaphor buried in the history of “soon,” but invite correction on that question.

  36. Well, “soon”, of course, originally meant “at once, immediately”, and its history is more how the never-ending tale of human procrastination warps meaning, “procrastination”itself containing Latin cras, “tomorrow”.

  37. mollymooly says

    “English has been claimed to have two space-time metaphoric systems: the ego-moving metaphor, wherein the observer’s context progresses along the time-line towards the future, and the time-moving metaphor, wherein time is conceived of as a river or conveyor belt on which events are moving from the future to the past.” (Gentner et al, one of many)
    Also, ambiguity is NOT an option.

  38. dearieme says

    Well, null old boy, my remark is based in part on the empirical observation that I have never heard any of the bright buttons I know say that X “is not an option” but that I have heard it, all too often, from some of the dimmer bulbs of my acquaintance. There is something about “is not an option” that appeals to the earnest, unreflective sort of cove, perhaps especially if his vocabulary is rather limited.

  39. Dear dearieme,
    I don’t like to see a word suffer from guilt by association, but I hear you. Or, no, since “I hear you” is the sort of thing that I hear from the unreflective, let me say “I take your point”.
    By the way, I have also run across “X is optional”, meaning “X is an option”, that is, “you can do [or have] X if you wish”. Not often, but I swear I have.
    It’s a troubled word family, isn’t it. Every unhappy word family is unhappy in its own way.

  40. dearieme says

    I don’t believe I’ve heard “X is optional” but I don’t much mind it. It lacks the heavy-handed flavour of “X is not an option”. I’m beginning to suspect that “X is not an option” is peculiarly objectionable because it is often said by someone posing as a masterly Man of Decision, who – blind to his folly – is emphatically declaring something hopelessly ambiguous.

  41. Bathrobe says

    Having read the article on the Amondawa, I’m left with an unscratched itch. There is reference made to “cultural narratives of the collective past and mythic narratives”. It’s stated that “the Amondawa … are able to linguistically conceptualize inter-event relationships which are, by definition, temporal.” There is a reference to the “well-known” ‘Frog Story’, in which there was “no evidence of the use of locative terms to specify Positional Time, nor of any Positional temporal adverbs corresponding to English ‘before’ and ‘after'”.
    But the language-learner in me wants to know exactly how these people express these things without using locative terms.
    I once asked a Chinese speaker (I’d only been learning Chinese for a while) how Chinese would say “How many pots of tea can you get out of one tea bag?” After a while the reply came back: 一个茶叶袋能泡几次?yī-ge chá-yè-dàir néng pào jǐ-cì (if I remember it correctly). ‘How many times can you infuse a tea-bag?’, where 泡 pào is a term meaning ‘soak’, ‘steep’, ‘infuse’. There was nothing mysterious about it, but it required restating the same concept in a slightly different way, using the linguistic resources of Chinese.
    That’s how I feel about the Amondawa.
    There is a particular passage in the paper that says: “The term for ‘day’ in Amondawa, Ara, refers only to the daylight hours and also has the meaning ‘sunlight’. There is no Amondawa term for the entire 24-hour diurnal cycle. Ara, ‘day’, contrasts with Iputunahim, ‘night’, which also means ‘intense black’.”
    Well, that’s pretty much how my English functions in everyday life. We all know that a ‘day’ begins at 12 midnight, but it’s only in jest that anyone would say “I’ll meet you tomorrow” when they meant “I’ll meet you at 12:30 in the middle of the night”.

  42. It depends on who you are and what you are doing. My household often sits up to 3 AM or later (I usually go to bed then, leaving the rest awake), and my daughter, though not usually my wife or I, will un-self-consciously say “I’m going to school today” at 12:30 AM when she means what her parents would speak of as “tomorrow”, i.e. after sleeping.

  43. My family takes it a step further: I often stay up til 2am, but my father has worked nights my entire life, and tends to go to bed at 8am or later. This leads to utter confusion and occasional use of phrases like “your tonight” or “my tomorrow”. Not that any of us know what we’re talking about.

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