The Amondawa, a small tribe in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, has a unique language: there is no word in it for “time,” nor “month,” nor “year.”
Instead, according to researchers from Oregon’s University of Portsmouth, the Amondawa see events in the context of life stages and transitions. For example, while they don’t celebrate birthdays and nobody keeps track of how old they are, tribe members do change their names to reflect what stage of life they are in and their current role in their community.
As researcher Chris Sinha explained to the Daily Mail, ‘For the Amondawa, time does not exist in the same way as it does for us. We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted or talked about in the abstract. This doesn’t mean that the Amondawa are “people outside time”, but they live in a world of events, rather than seeing events as being embedded in time.”
To Sinha, this means that time “mapping,” using space as a metaphor for time, is not a universal human characteristic as scientists had previously theorized. The belief that all humans conceive of time in terms of space (as in the phrase, “The days passed by,” for example) is called the “mapping hypothesis.”
However, not everyone is convinced that the Portsmouth researchers’ findings are enough to overturn this hypothesis. Pierre Pica of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research told the BBC that the findings are “interesting” but “do not refute the mapping hypothesis.”
Additionally, the Amondawa people are quite capable of comprehending and using “cognitive mapping” to refer to time once they are introduced to the concept. As the BBC noted, this could very well mean that the Amondawa do in fact “ perceive themselves moving through time and spatial arrangements of events in time,” but that “the language may not necessarily reflect it in an obvious way.”
Either way, isn’t it interesting to imagine what life would be like if English didn’t have a word for time?