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numbers and number words
Posted: 01 April 2010 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Interesting. Reader comments below with debunked April Fool speculation.

I found the claim that their language had no tenses hard to credit. Wikipedia says three are common to all languages but with degrees of variation. A byzantine English tense as in “ I would have been hunting by then only it started raining” works equally well as “On that day I hunt not because of rain.” Is this how it works?

[ Edited: 01 April 2010 06:51 AM by venomousbede ]
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Posted: 01 April 2010 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I think we talked about this tribe before in the context of a language without grammar which seems to violate chomsky’s ideas.  But the tribe in the New Yorker article was called the Pirahã.  Not sure of the relationship. The Languagelog link that LH supplies in that thread notes that it is a different tribe with no concept of numbers above three. That tribe (mispelled) is noted in one of the responses in the Guardian article.

[ Edited: 01 April 2010 06:55 AM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 01 April 2010 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Yes. Different tribe with lapsed-Christian missionary linguist in that case.
I added this: I found the claim that their language had no tenses hard to credit. Wikipedia says three are common to all languages but with degrees of variation. A byzantine English tense as in “ I would have been hunting by then only it started raining” works equally well as “On that day I hunt not because of rain.” Is this how it works?

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Posted: 01 April 2010 07:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Your addition was there when I replied. I think, like Chinese according to the Wiki article, and, I would add, biblical Hebrew, tenses are not expressed by the verb.

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Posted: 01 April 2010 09:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Wikipedia says three are common to all languages

Language is not one of the things Wikipedia is good at, in general, though of course there are exceptions.  If said by an actual linguist, “three tenses are common to all languages” would be an example of a Chomskyan or other universal-grammar type overreaching; as a statement in Wikipedia, it should simply be ignored.

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Posted: 01 April 2010 05:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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From the comments page:
*” I was enjoying this article until I got to the bit about drilling holes into monkeys skulls.... :(”

*” If they used lasers, the holes would go right through. So they have to drill them. Silly. It doesn’t hurt them, it only hurts you. You have far too many nerve endings, and too many of them are apparently connected to monkeys.”

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Posted: 03 April 2010 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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LH, how can a language function without basic past, present and future tenses? I can understand that they are formulated differently grammatically but wouldn’t effective communication be impossible with no temporal sense? This is why I was sceptical about the claim that the Munduruku language had no tenses (asserted by a mathematician paraphrasing a linguist?).
The Wikipedia entry I linked to compares how tenses are done and sometimes not bothered with in various IE languages in a table and elsewhere goes into jargon like:
* Near future tense: in the near future, soon
* Hodiernal future tense: sometime today
* Vespertine future tense: sometime this evening
* Post-hodiernal future tense: sometime after today
* Crastinal future tense: tomorrow
* Remote future tense: in the more distant future.

Is this all my bum?

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Posted: 03 April 2010 09:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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how can a language function without basic past, present and future tenses?

Very easily: “I go today,” “I go yesterday,” “I go tomorrow.” We all have blinders from our own linguistic categories; someone who speaks a language that makes distinctions based on formality, or distinguishes inclusive from exclusive first-person plurals, might well wonder how English can function without them.

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Posted: 03 April 2010 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I guess it depends on what you mean by tense. If you mean a grammatical category expressed as part of the morphology of a verb, as in many Indo-European languages, then many languages don’t have tense. If you mean a grammatical category that may be expressed by adverbs or some other part of speech, then pretty much all languages have tense.

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Posted: 03 April 2010 11:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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how can a language function without basic past, present and future tenses?

Damon Runyon made the English language function with little, if any, use of the past tense in his short stories; I remember reading them with great enjoyment, and certainly had no difficulty in understanding what he was talking about.

It’s a common human failing, to suppose that the way one is used to doing things is the only way they can be done.

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Posted: 04 April 2010 05:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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It’s a common human failing, to suppose that the way one is used to doing things is the only way they can be done.

Well said.

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Posted: 04 April 2010 06:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Part of the problem with reading newspaper accounts of linguistic research is that commonplace and technical senses of words are often conflated. This may be just such a case. Grammar has a very specific meaning to linguists, the system of inflections in a language.

Technically, English doesn’t have a future tense. Instead, it expresses futurity though the use of modal auxiliaries, will and shall. This narrow definition of grammar may seem a bit silly, and in most people’s experience the narrow definition is not useful. Hence the mode of expressing futurity in English is commonly called a tense—even by linguists in most situations.

Also, it does not mean that because a language does not have a ready means of expressing a concept, that the people are unable to understand the concept. Example from another thread: Old English had no word for the color orange, instead words like geolu (yellow), gold, and red were used. It’s not that the Anglo-Saxons were blind to a portion of the visible spectrum. Similarly, those Amazonian tribes that don’t count above five can, if the need arises, understand and make use of larger numbers. If they have more than five children, they may not be able to express the number easily, but if one were to go missing you can be sure they would notice.

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Posted: 04 April 2010 09:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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That is why I suggested having no conception of temporal sense in language was impossible. “I go today,” “I go yesterday,” “I go tomorrow.” are ways of formulating this so I was right after all. If the word tense as we know it doesn’t apply it doesn’t mean they don’t distinguish between events in time as I said.

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Posted: 05 May 2010 06:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I disagree with Dave’s view on the interrelationship between words and concepts (appreciating that he has taken this position in his book Word Myths as well).  Our experience of the world is a mix of words and concepts.  While it is possible to perceive the world without a conceptual overlay, the experience is very rare and usually fleeting.  Our normal experience divides the world up—when we see a plate of asparagus, we can’t see it apart from our memory of the the bad, overcooked asparagus that our mother used to make.

And the concepts that we have are not separate from the words we use to describe the world.  If we had a separate word for “curly, blond haired people” equivalent to the separate words we have for different races, the ease of making that distinction would lead to stereotypes and prejudices based on that concept.  It is simplistic to say that a language without such a word has a sensory experience of a person with curly blond hair because our experience of the world is not entirely sense based.  Concepts, which are always based on words (i.e. distinguishing between one “thing” and another), are how we organize and experience our world.

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Posted: 05 May 2010 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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There is some merit to Jim’s position, but it is usually taken too far. Having a word for something makes it easier to categorize it and aids in rote memorization, but it does not seem to have an impact on the ability to perceive and comprehend a concept--we can understand something even if we don’t have a word for it. In other words, specific words help in sorting and memorization (e.g., stereotyping), but don’t affect deeper understanding.

Most of the research in this area has been with colors (because it’s easy to test in controlled circumstances). For example, people who speak a language that has no word for purple may find it more difficult to recall that they saw a purple object a few minutes before, but they have no difficulty whatsoever placing the color in the proper position on the visual spectrum. They can, in other words, see the color purple and can distinguish with great precision objects with different shades of purple, even though they have no word for the hue.

And I don’t remember anything wrong with Mom’s asparagus. The okra on the other hand…

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Posted: 07 May 2010 02:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Venomousbede & others have mentioned languages w/o tenses several times and this has put me on a quest to try to explain the lack of tenses in Mandarin.  Despite more than 5 years of learning the language, I still struggle to get my tense-oriented English-speaking mind to understand the lack of tenses in Chinese.  Forgive me if the following is not clear.  I’ve sometimes spent 15 min with colleagues just discussing the short sentences below. 

When I first started learning Chinese and friends said that Chinese has no tenses, I assumed they just meant “verbs aren’t conjugated”.  The language seemed simple.  To say something will happen “yao” can be used:
Wo yao zou.  (I will leave).  Wo = I, zou = leave
For past tense, the particle “le” can be used:
Wo zou le.  (I left). 

Easy – right?  Unfortunately, not.  I asked how to I say “I’m leaving.”
“Wo yao zou le.” (This doesn’t mean “I will have left”, it communicates “I’m leaving.")

Or if you are bargaining with a store keeper and want to say the price they quoted is too expensive,
you don’t say “Tai gui.” (tai= too, gui = expensive).
you say “Tai gui le.”
However, the negative form loses the “le” Bu = not , shi = to be
“Bu shi tai gui” (is not too expensive).

Although “le” often indicates past tense, what it really is a “change of state” or “completion of an action” and many many other subtle things.  Yao often is used for future events, but not always. 

Often Mandarin & English have remarkably similar sentence structure, albeit Mandarin usually has fewer words.  Sentences in Mandarin don’t always need verbs. 

In the future, I hope I’ll be able to provide more insights & understanding about how a language can have “no tenses.” (Also for future discussion, Mandarin is a very numeric based language).

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