Grammar, time, and truth

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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."

Geoff's comment:

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.]


  1. MattF said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:47 am

    I'm guessing that the Andaman Islanders don't need a word for 'time' because they make do with a word for 'signature of the space-time metric tensor.'

  2. Laura said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    "For example, "now" can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season."

    Goodness, what a strange language that must be. I'm studying for a PhD now and I've never heard of such a thing.

  3. Got Medieval said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    The word is 'lahapadriv'.

  4. army1987 said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    Whenever someone points out a supposedly weird feature of some language, producing an instance of the same feature in English is extremely pleasurable.
    (I've heard “Irish is a language of being, ‘I am hungry’ is ocras orm.” What the hell is I am hungry, anyway?)

  5. GeorgeW said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    "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."

    Yes! I had recommended this book to a friend and said, "It is a true story but it reads like fiction." At least, I was half right – it does read like fiction. And, the distortion continues in his explanations.

  6. Rob said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:37 am

    "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." Henry David Thoreau

  7. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:37 am

    Is it just me, or is that second Zeisler quote overnegated?

    [(myl) I think it's logically OK:

    It's not the case that
    [ If [No grammatical tense in L] then [L-speakers don't understand time]]

    But you're right that one negation in the protasis and two in the apodosis is psychologically taxing at best.]

  8. Lane said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    Great post. I followed up on two other points of linguistic interest here: what period is "after I failed to summit K2 in 1993" limited to? And why does he tell us that "'talib' means student in Arabic"?

  9. Ellen K. said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    @Ryan Denzer-King

    As far as the sentence being overnegated or not, I think the problem is that "dispose" has multiple meanings, which, in this context, are opposite meanings. If we take "dispose" to mean "throw away", then it's overnegated. But talking about "throwing away" those concepts doesn't really make sense, and is probably not the intended meaning here.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    @Lane: FWIW, in Arabic, taliban means two students. So, is he now claiming he was held by two students? So, who are the others, parents and teachers?

  11. Rick Sprague said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    "I first visited Korphe…after failing to summit K2 in 1993…." The statement is propositionally true even if his first visit was sometime later.

    "My second visit…was in 1994". Possibly the second visit of that year.

    "I made two visits to [Korphe] in 1995…. And I again made two visits to [Korphe] in 1996…." Presumably, recounting his irrelevant humanitarian trips will foster charitable feelings and distract us from carefully analyzing the truth value of the preceding statements.

    "…'now' can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season." Laura, above, nailed that distinction-without-a-difference. "The concept of past and future is rarely of concern." True, most of us spend the bulk of our time discussing present circumstances. "Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied." If the timeframe is implied, in what sense is it "left out"? Morphologically unmarked? Cf. English.

    "And if a person is a day or week late or early it doesn't matter." Much too broad to be meaningful. Surely, even an hour late with a bucket of water matters to a Balti whose home is in flames.

    Though under scrutiny he did little to exonerate himself, I can't say Mr. Mortenson was lying. But if he is, I have to admire the glibness of his responses.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Another relevant recent post is the one about Urdu's supposed lack of a future tense:

  13. KevinM said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    I like the Spanish – Colombian, anyway – "ahorita," which signifies, more or less, "pretty soon." The idea of there being degrees of "now" appeals to me somehow.

  14. Lane said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    GeorgeW, I understand that "-an" is a Pushtu plural. (I don't know any Pushtu, but I looked it up once.) I do know Arabic. Taliban has never meant the Arabic dual, and tullab is "students" in Arabic. But you probably knew that.

  15. AlexB said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 12:23 pm


    Speakers of Dari/Farsi will tell you that -an is Dari/Farsi plural. I never knew it was Pushtu as well.

  16. Iain said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 12:35 pm


    The thing that's actually intriguing about Irish and Gaelic is that they use prepositions to talk about hunger. Hence

    "Tha an t-acras orm" means "The hunger is on me." Similarly "tha an cadal orm" is "the sleep is on me" (i.e. I'm sleepy).

    Gotta love the Gaels.

  17. GeorgeW said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    Lane: Yes, tulaab is the plural and taalibaan is the dual in Arabic (for student). I don't know about Pashtu. But, our dear Mr. Mortenson needs to decide which language to cite to support his story. He seems to pick, choose and misconstrue as needed

  18. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Other languages do a similar thing to Irish in possessing a feeling. Spanish uses tener–to have–with a noun of a state of being. "I am hungry" in English equates to "I have hunger" (tengo hambre) in Spanish. While one might say estoy cansado ("I am sleepy"), a very standard form is "I have sleepiness" (tengo sueño).

    What I think is especially interesting is that in English we use the copula to equate ourselves to a condition. "I am hungry" is very much different from "I am Bob" or "I am a rocket scientist". What allows English to do that?

  19. Chandra said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    @Mr Fnortner – Spanish and other Romance languages use the copula to equate people to conditions in other contexts, too: "Estoy feliz", etc.

  20. Faldone said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    Auf deutsch, ich habe Hunger, I have hunger, but es ist mir kalt, it is to me cold, for I'm cold.

  21. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    I wonder what it is about Americans and the claim that X language has a different concept of time because of Y word or words?

    For example, when I took social anthropology at San Jose City College, I read an essay in our book (Conformity and Conflict, IIRC) about Whorf and it used as an example that some group of people would take a long time to make a basket and how they didn't have words for the for the same kind of time words Americans do.

    At the time, I took it at face value. But after reading all these posts about it, I can't help but wonder if our fascination with other culture's words for time say more about us than it does about them.

  22. Bobbie said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    Greg Mortenson seems to be saying that his narrative is not [necessarily] intended to be a factual statement but is one of his versions of the truth.

  23. David B Solnit said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    About Balti being "archaic": it is said to retain consonants that are lost or otherwise altered in other Tibetan languages. Don't have time to find a decent reference for this (the Wikipedia entry doesn't look too great), but it is an idea that's been around for a while. So here "archaic" is a bit more specific than just a synonym for "obscure."

  24. army1987 said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    (My guess was that the guy who said that Irish was a language of “being” rather than of “having” was going to give an example such as mac agam / I have a son, but for some reason forgot what point he was making halfway through it and ended up with an example where English doesn't use have either (though e.g. Italian doesn't).)

  25. army1987 said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    Other examples of the same:
    Them: “So in Italian piatto can refer both to a plate and to a course?” Me: “What about English dish?”
    Them: “Italian has so many female-specific insults…” Me: “What about slut, bitch, whore…”

  26. Linca said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    The Moken, although they live in what can be called the Andaman sea, are definitely not Andaman Islanders, as they live on islands off the coast of Myanmar, quite far away from the Andaman islands.

  27. GeorgeW said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    @David B Solnit: I took his "archaic" comment to mean 'primitive,' out-dated,' 'premodern.' If this interpretation is correct, this would indicate a basic negative, possibly paternalistic, attitude about the people.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    @MattF: Thank you.

    If Mortenson is really taking advantage of the ambiguity of "after", it's partly the questioner's fault.

    @KevinM: In Mexican and New Mexican Spanish, ahorita can mean "a little while ago" or "just now" as well as "very soon". I like that too.

    @GeorgeW: I suspect that in this case archaic means pristine. Still possibly patronizing, but positive.

    I think archaic often means showing signs of having diverged from another form a long time ago. Thus when British people hear us Americans say gotten or It's important that she start as soon as possible, we sound archaic to them, and when we hear them say in a week's time or I haven't a clue, they sound archaic to us. Both dialects have features that are archaic in the other, but our own sound natural to us.

  29. phspaelti said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:02 am

    @Faldone: Auf deutsch, ich habe Hunger, I have hunger, but es ist mir kalt, it is to me cold, for I'm cold.

    Actually the German would be "Mir ist kalt." There is no "es" here. ("Friert" has other forms: "Mir friert.", and "Mich friert es.") Dialects also have "Ich habe kalt."

  30. phspaelti said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:10 am

    @David B Solnit: About Balti being "archaic": it is said to retain consonants that are lost or otherwise altered in other Tibetan languages.

    I am sure you're right, but this form of reasoning can always be done for any dialect. English has preserved old features where Friesian has inovated. So English must be archaic.

    As Mark's quote from Zeisler shows Balti has inovated a tense system. So apparently it's the other forms of Tibetan that are archaic. So "archaic" for living languages is never meaningful, and always biased.

  31. Jangari said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:18 am

    one negation in the protasis and two in the apodosis

    I think I'm gonna make a T-shirt that says "two in the apodosis, one in the protasis".

  32. Jangari said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:27 am

    Speakers of Dari/Farsi will tell you that -an is Dari/Farsi plural. I never knew it was Pushtu as well.

    Well, they're not too far away from each other.

  33. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    The claim I remember hearing most often had to do with Hopi, and claimed that Hopi speakers might have an advantage learning Einsteinian relativity theory because of the Hopi language's more relative treatment of time. I suspect the people claiming this had little understanding either of Hopi or of relativity.

  34. Roger Lustig said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    @phspaelti: What's wrong with "Es ist mir kalt"?

    "Hungern" works like "frieren." "Mich hungert." And then there's the German for "methinks"–"mir dünkt." Methinks that inflection is no longer used in any other situation.

  35. Bill Walderman said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    "The claim I remember hearing most often had to do with Hopi, and claimed that Hopi speakers might have an advantage learning Einsteinian relativity theory because of the Hopi language's more relative treatment of time. I suspect the people claiming this had little understanding either of Hopi or of relativity."

    This claim was discussed on this site:

  36. L’Affaire Mortenson, reactions and commentary « zunguzungu said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    […] mean that Mr Mortenson is the only person who has learned about its language. Mark Liberman found a book on tense and aspect in Tibetan languages, which includes a discussion of […]

  37. Collecting “Three Cups of Tea” posts | Good Intentions Are Not Enough said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    […] Grammar, time, and truth – Language Log – Examines Mortenson's claim that the Balti language only has […]

  38. Links of interest: April 29th, 2011 « A Modern Hypatia said,

    April 29, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    […] Lieberman's Language, Time, and Truth speaks particularly to language and culture claims that Mortensen […]

  39. Remont said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 12:48 am

    I guess the process that goes with languages resembles the process of acquisition in business. Small languages are tried to be protected locally but it does not change the process of monopolizing.

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