May 27, 2011

Amondawa has no word for "time"?

Recent news reports about a Brazilian tribe have made the claim below. Blogger Stan Carey nicely deconstructs this claim:

Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?A recurring idea in popular discussions of languages–usually exotic or minority ones–is that they have “no word for X,” where X could be hello, tomorrow, burger, ten, accountability, robin, and so on. Sometimes it’s sheer fantasy, sometimes the language simply has (or has had) no need for the word (robins in the Arctic?), and sometimes it has other ways of conveying the idea–such as a longer phrase, a different kind of metaphor, or another syntactic category.

The point is, it’s not as though there’s a nagging word-shaped gap there that makes it difficult for speakers of a language to communicate with one another, to make sufficient sense of their experiences, and to get through the day without falling apart. If there’s a need for a word, a word will arise.

Irish has no word for yes, but this linguistic lacuna does not stop Irish speakers from agreeing, accepting, assenting, and shouting things in bed. Other idioms and grammatical markers are used instead. The lack of a word for something doesn’t imply the lack of a concept for it, yet this illogical extrapolation is repeatedly made, perhaps for reasons of naïveté, sensationalism, or romanticism, e.g., the appeal of a culture with no word for lying, and other spins on the “noble savage” myth.
Comment:  This kind of language stereotyping works both ways. Natives sometimes claim their cultures had no word for "religion" or "art." If so, they may have had other ways of explaining the concepts. So the claims may not be as significant as Natives imply.

For more on the subject, see 100 Eskimo Words for Snow?

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