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Title: Languages without Past Tense and the Concept of Past Time
Submitter: Harriet Taber
Description: I learned in Cultural Anthropology class (taught by a cultural
anthropologist) today that:

1. Many human languages have no way of encoding the concept of
past time (e.g., no past tense, no adverbs denoting previous time),
2. Speakers of such languages have no 'linguistic concept of past time,'
and
3. As a consequence of this lexical gap, the speakers of these
languages have absolutely no concept of past time.
(These averred facts were related to practices of ancestor worship.)

The professor, when asked who precisely we are talking about, said
that the above 3 claims are true of 'indigenous languages' and their
speakers; when asked which indigenous languages, he replied 'Native
American languages,' and, when pushed, 'Native American languages
in the Southwest,' and, when pushed still further, 'Apache.' As an
afterthought, he also added, 'and the languages of Papua New
Guinea.'

I know that a grammar may refer to past time using aspect morphemes
(e.g., perfective), but I am not aware of any human language that does
not have a way to refer to past time (claim 1); I am also not aware of
any human beings that do not understand the concept of past time
(claim 3) no matter how their grammar and lexicon work.

Can a linguist who specializes in an Apache language or any of the
languages in Papua New Guinea please confirm, disconfirm, and
explain what this professor might be talking about?

Eagerly awaiting your reply!
Date Posted: 03-Oct-2010
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Syntax
Anthropological Linguistics
LL Issue: 21.3873
Posted: 03-Oct-2010

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