What if…?

I think a lot about linguistic relativity– the idea that the language I speak might profoundly influence the way I perceive the world, conceptualize it, and/or habitually act in it is so seductive. Yesterday I was listening to a “Talk the Talk” podcast called “Time in Amondawa,” and I started thinking about what life would be like if I spoke another language. In it, the linguistic Chris Sinha argues that the Amondawa tribe has no term for the abstract concept of “time,” and they don’t use spatial metaphors to talk about it, as we do in most languages (things like “waiting a long time,” or “looking forward to the future”). In addition, as in many languages, their number system consists of “one,” “two,” and “many.” That’s it.

Cultural differences aside, what would life be like if we had no way of talking about time or quantifying anything?! When I think about my thoughts over the course of the day, I think most of them revolve around one of those two things (or often both, when I think things like “I only have 17 minutes to get to this appointment”). Since I mainly define myself by my habitual thoughts, and I do believe that lacking ways of expressing certain concepts can dramatically alter the way you think about them, who would I be? What kind of things would we talk about? Our culture and society have evolved with time and numbers as a foundation. Would it still have been possible to become as advanced as we have without them?

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5 comments

  1. Definitely compelling to think about. We spend so much time talking about time– short term and long term, abstractly and concretely– that I can’t even guess what it would be like speak a language where the word/concept of time is absent. You would have to conceptualize life differently. I think of life as “the time you have on earth before you die”… how could I define it without “time” at all?

    1. I suspect we’d have to define it more by the present. It seems like it word force us to live in the moment a lot more… Kind of a utopian idea, not being able to ruminate on time either in the past or future.

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