Event-based time in three indigenous Amazonian and Xinguan cultures and languages

Vera da Silva Sinha

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21 Citations (Scopus)
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This article reports a field study of event-based time concepts, their linguistic expression and their use in time reckoning practices in three indigenous cultures and languages of Brazil: Huni Kui (Pano, North-West Amazonia), Awetý and Kamaiurá (Tupi Guaraní; Xingu National Park). The results are based on ethnographic observation, interview, conversation and structured language elicitation tasks. The three languages all have rich inventories of lexical and phrasal expressions for event-based time intervals, based on environmental and celestial indices and social norms. Event-based time intervals in the domains of life stages, times of day and night, and seasons are documented. None of the cultures employ metric (calendar and clock) time units, but hybrid calendars representing blends of the 12 months yearly cycle and the indigenous seasonal indices are produced as art works. The number system in each culture and language is documented, and the use of numbers in time reckoning practices, together with notational cognitive artifacts, is described. Metonymic spatial indices for time intervals and temporal landmarks are common, but metaphoric space-time mapping is almost entirely absent. In two languages, event terms can be used in conjunction with some motion verbs (Moving Time), but these usages do not signify motion on a timeline; they are more related to appearance and disappearance. Moving Ego expressions cannot be used in any of the languages. "Past" and "future" are not lexicalized concepts, but these notions can be metaphorically conceptualized in terms of embodied perception and cognition. They are not thought of as "in front of" or "behind" the experiencer. There is no evidence in any of the three languages of a conceptual timeline. The similarities between time concepts in the three languages, and their similarity with the previously studied Amondawa language, suggests the possibility of a cultural areal complex extending over a large part of South America.

Original languageEnglish
Article number454
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2019


  • Amazonian languages
  • Brazil
  • Event-based time
  • Indigenous cultures
  • Temporal metaphor
  • Temporal metonymy
  • Time reckoning
  • Xingu

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