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.