In "No word for 'lazy hack parroting drivel'?" (4/1/2005), Geoff Pullum quoted an exchange between the anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, discussing the response of some islanders near Thailand to a tsunami:
Ivanoff: "Time is not the same concept as we have. You can't say for instance, 'When.' It doesn't exist in Moken language."
Simon: "And since there is no notion of time, it doesn't matter if the last visit was a week ago or five years ago."
Simon takes the (utterly unsupported) anthropologist's claim that they don't have the same concept of time as us westerners and stretches it to get to the notion that they have no concept of time. That, of course, will link to why they have no word for "hello": they have no idea whether anyone has been away. No concept of time, so no way absence could make the heart grow fonder. Utter, self-refuting nonsense, of course. If the Moken had no concept of time, how would they have known to flee to higher ground when the tsunami was coming, rather than three hours later? And how would they know that time had passed so it was OK to come back to the beach? How can people believe these things?
One answer might be "when they get some benefit from the belief". Back in 2005, Bob Simon got an appealing if incoherent story line. But in a story aired last Friday, 60 Minutes found itself on the other side of a similar discussion.
The context is one of the many questions 60 Minutes raised about Greg Mortenson's inspiring stories of his experiences in Central Asia ("Questions Over Greg Mortenson's Stories", 60 Minutes, 4/15/2011):
Greg Mortenson is a former mountain climber, best-selling author, humanitarian, and philanthropist. His non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), is dedicated to promoting education, especially for girls, in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and according to its web site, has established more than 140 schools there.
President Obama donated $100,000 to the group from the proceeds of his Nobel Prize. Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea, has sold more than four million copies and is required reading for U.S. servicemen bound for Afghanistan.
But last fall, we began investigating complaints from former donors, board members, staffers, and charity watchdogs about Mortenson and the way he is running his non-profit organization. And we found there are serious questions about how millions of dollars have been spent, whether Mortenson is personally benefiting, and whether some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his books are even true.
Among the dramatic and inspiring stories that 60 Minutes calls into question is Mortenson's narrative of how his commitment to philanthropy began:
[E]verywhere Mortenson goes, he brings an inspirational message built around a story that forms the cornerstone of Three Cups of Tea and his various ventures - how, in 1993, he tried and failed to reach the summit of K2, the world's second tallest mountain, to honor his dead sister, how he got lost and separated from his party on the descent and stumbled into a tiny village called Korphe.
Nursed back to health by the simple villagers, he vows to help them in return. But apparently, like many origin stories, this one is a myth:
It's a powerful and heart-warming tale that has motivated millions of people to buy his book and contribute nearly $60 million to his charity.
Jon Krakauer: It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie.
Jon Krakauer is also a best-selling author and mountaineer, who wrote Into Thin Air and Into The Wild. He was one of Mortenson's earliest backers, donating $75,000 to his non-profit organization.
But after a few years, Krakauer says he withdrew his support over concerns that the charity was being mismanaged, and he later learned that the Korphe tale that launched Mortenson into prominence was simply not true.
Steve Kroft: Did he stumble into this village weak in a weakened state?
Krakauer: Absolutely not.
Kroft: Nobody helped him out. And nursed him back to health.
Krakauer: Absolutely not. I have spoken to one of his companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said Greg never heard of Korphe till a year later.
Here's what Mr. Mortenson says in response ("Greg Mortenson Response to 60Minutes Questions"):
1) Did you really stumble into Korphe after failing to summit K2? The two porters who accompanied you on your journey down from K2 have told us you did not. We have three other sources that support the porter's accounts. The evidence suggests that you did not step foot in Korphe until a year later.
GM: Yes, I first visited Korphe village, Braldu valley, Baltistan, Pakistan after failing to summit K2 in 1993, and met Haji Ali, a long time dear mentor and friend. My second visit to Korphe was in 1994. I made two visits to Korphe in 1995, the year we built the bridge over the Braldu River. And I again made two visits to Korphe in 1996, the year we built the Korphe School.
It is important to know that the Balti people have a completely different notion about time. Even the Balti language — an archaic dialect of Tibetan — has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, "now" can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern. Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied. And if a person is a day or week late or early it doesn't matter. The Balti consider the western notion of time quite amusing.
Balti is indeed a Tibetan language — "dialect" (here as usual) means "language variety without political power", and I suspect that "archaic" (here as often) just means "obscure". In any case, according to Bettina Zeisler, Relative tense and aspectual values in Tibetan languages: a comparative study, Balti has developed a more extensive grammatical marking of tense than its sister and parent languages:
Balti and Ladakhi, spoken under Pakistan and India regime, are not mere Tibetan dialects, but have, in contrast to Central Tibetan, generalized the past marker suffix -s for controlled action verbs, have introduced a general Past Marker and thus have fully grammaticalized the concept of TENSE-A, …
"TENSE-A" is Zeisler's jargon for "absolute tense", contrasted with "TENSE-R" for "relative tense". But even "relative tense", which she argues is the norm in most varieties of Tibetan, still allows for keeping track of "the ordering of closely related events" as well as "the conventionalized temporal ordering of only loosely related events". And of course
The underlying concepts of time and order may of course also be expressed by other means, e.g. by temporal and relational adverbs … If the concepts of time and order are not grammaticalised in a given language, this does not mean that its speakers would not dispose of these concepts.
What seems to be most variable here is not the concept of time but rather the concept of truth, which varies not so much across cultures as across individuals.
[Tip of the hat to Peter Seibel.]
Some other relevant posts about the grammar of time: "'60 Minutes' doomed to repeat itself" (12/24/2005); "No concept of the future, no yuccas either" (5/11/2006); "Journalistic dreamtime", 3/8/2007; "'I'm using that present tense but it's also past'", 5/1/2008; "What's will?", 12/10/2008.
For more on the Mortenson story, see Julie Bosman and Stephanie Strom, "‘Three Cups of Tea’ Author Defends Book", NYT 4/17/2011; Gail Schontzler, "Mortenson under fire from ‘60 Minutes’ — Bozeman philanthropist denies allegations", Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 4/15/2011; Spencer Ackerman, "Does It Matter If The Military’s Fave Do-Gooder Sells Three Cups of Snake Oil?", Wired 4/17/2011; Razib Khan, "Greg Mortenson and 'Three Cups of Tea'", Gene Expression 4/16/2011; R.L.G., "Economical with the truth?", Johnson Blog (The Economist) 4/18/2011.
[Update 4/20/2011 — There are worthwhile round-ups at Good Intentions are Not Enough and Zunguzungu. I was especially struck to learn (via a link to Ron Moreau, "We never kidnapped Greg Mortenson", The Daily Beast 4/18/2011) a very different version of Mortenson's supposed kidnapping in Waziristan. According to the description accompanying this article by Mansur Khan Mahsud on "The Battle for Pakistan: South Waziristan", New America Foundation, 4/19/2010,
Mansur Khan Mahsud is the research coordinator for the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. He is from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan and has worked with several NGOs and news outlets as a researcher. He holds a masters degree in Pakistan studies from the University of Peshawar.
Yet he is featured in a picture in Mortenson's book as one of the "Taliban" who alleged kidnapped him for ransom; Mr. Mahsud tells Moreau that on Mortenson's request, his uncle took him to his village in South Waziristan, showed him around the area, hosted him for nearly two weeks, and then escorted him out under pressure from the government agent for South Waziristan, who was worried about Mortenson's safety, despite the fact that Mortenson wanted to stay longer. If Mahsud's version of events is even close to true, the shocking thing is not so much that Mortenson lied about the experience, but that he illustrated his tale with a picture including a literate and articulate man who works at a think tank is Islamabad and was certain to discover the fabrication sooner or later.]