Language Leaves Amondawa Timeless

by Translation Guy on May 30, 2011

Researchers with Amondawa people

Looks like someone just asked these Amondawa if they had made the filing deadline for their taxes.

It’s just not something people talk about in Amondawa. Time, that is. No days, no months or years to speak of. No ages among the Amondawa, they just keep changing their names to reflect different stages and status. This group was living up the Amazon with first contact just 25 years ago.

BBC interviewed Chris Sinha, a professor of psychology of language at the University of Portsmouth. “We’re really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’,” he said. “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 occurring; they don’t have a notion of time which is something the events occur in.”

Ideas such as an event having “passed” or being “well ahead” of another are familiar from many languages, forming the basis of what is known as the “mapping hypothesis.” No words for time periods of any kind. People still get time, no problem, they just don’t ever talk about it, because it never comes up in conversation. When they learn Portuguese, they have no problem mastering these concepts and incorporating them into their everyday speech.

“The team hypothesises that the lack of the time concept arises from the lack of ‘time technology’—a calendar system or clocks—and that this in turn may be related to the fact that, like many tribes, their number system is limited in detail.”

Theoretical linguist Pierre Pica isn’t biting.

“To link number, time, tense, mood and space by a single causal relationship seems to me hopeless, based on the linguistic diversity that I know of,” he told BBC News. Pica said the study fails to show that space/time mapping does not refute the “mapping hypothesis.”

In other words, 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.

What may resolve the conflict is further study, Professor Sinha said.

“We’d like to go back and simply verify it again before the language disappears—before the majority of the population have been brought up knowing about calendar systems.”

And unfortunately, once that happens, the great wiener of the eternal moment disappears into the Outlook Taskbar motorized cold cut slicer. While it may be soul-crushing angst and may put you in an early grave, you will have acquired sufficient time/space mapping skills to generally show up on time. And that’s important too.


  1. Nina Lawson says:

    Having read the article on the Amondawa, I’m left with an unscratched itch. The language-learner in me wants to know exactly how these people express these things without using locative terms.

  2. 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. Myabe we should adopt this language and all will be clear?

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

    • Ken says:

      Prior to learning Japanese I could have answered that question. But the tense situation in that language messed me up in English, although maybe I was messed up before and didn’t know it even though I thought I did. Does that answer your question?

  4. 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?

    • Ken says:

      I was just reading about that in Guy Deutscher’s new book, and the same thought occured to me. Dollars to tapioca pancakes that they will find the time in Amondawa down the road.

  5. Rob Sherrard says:

    “First, catch your hare”

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

  7. 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.

    • Ken says:

      Did I say that?

  8. Ryan Kucera says:

    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?

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