March 02, 2004

No Future in Canoes?

fish in the smokehouse David Beaver points out that the claim in Jack Hitt's article Say No More in the New York Times Magazine that Kawesqar has no future tense because people who spent their time travelling around in canoes had no use for one is a non-sequitur. I can confirm this because I know a language of people who also traditionally spent much of their time travelling around in canoes that does have a future tense.

Carrier, the native language of a large portion of the centeral interior of British Columbia, is the language of people who were traditionally "nomadic". Now, this doesn't mean that they wandered around randomly. In fact, they had what is called a seasonal round. That means that they went different places at different times of the year. In the summer the most important thing was catching fish, which were smoked and dried for the winter. The most important fish are anadromous fish, fish like salmon that are caught when they run upstream in large numbers to spawn. So Carrier people would go to different fishing sites at different times. Picking berries was another important summer activity, and again, you had to go where the berries were, at the right time. In the winter people would go to a winter camp. The result is a lot of travelling around, but there is a pattern to it, and it is over familiar ground. I don't know anything about the Kawesqar, but I bet that they too moved around as necessary to obtain resources within a familar territory.

Traditional Carrier society was not only "nomadic", but very much oriented to the water. Fish was by far the most important food. Water was the principal means of travel. Even today, directions are usually given with respect to the flow of water. If you're in the village of Tache, 60km Northwest of the town of Fort Saint James, on the shore of Stuart Lake, where the Tache River enters the lake, and you plan to go into Fort Saint James, what you will say is [ndaʔ tisgu], literally "I am going to drive downstream". If you study the distribution of Carrier dialects, you will find that the closely related dialects are those adjacent to each other along waterways. Indeed, the Carrier name for themselves is [dakeɬ] "people who travel by boat". [The symbol ɬ represents a voiceless lateral fricative, the sound written ll in Welsh.]

So, does Carrier lack a future tense? Not at all. It has a perfectly fine future tense. Here is "to go around by boat" in the future tense. The rows give the person, the columns the number of the subject. For example, the form [nʌtiskeɬ] in row one, column one means "I am going to go around in a boat".


Although Carrier has a future tense, strictly speaking it has no distinction between present and past tense. It has something that is similar, but it is really a distinction between imperfective and perfective aspect. To a first approximation, you could translate [nʌske] as "I am going around in a boat" and [nʌsʌski] as "I went around in a boat", but strictly speaking the distinction is between an ongoing activity and a completed activity, and the first, imperfective form must be used when we are talking about an ongoing activity in the past.

Now, if you follow Jack Hitt's line of thought, this shows a lack of correlation between language and way of life. Actually, I don't think that it does. A way of life like that of the Carrier involves moving around, but it certainly does involve planning ahead. You have to know when each species of fish will run and plan on being there at the right time. You have to know when different kinds of berries ripen. The traditional names for times of the year, now used as month names, reflect this. Here they are in the Stuart Lake dialect:

Januarysatɕo uzaʔtime of the big moon
Februarytɕʌzsʌl uzaʔmoon of the middling snowflakes
Marchtɕʌztɕo uzaʔmoon of the large snowflakes
Aprilʃin uzaʔmoon of ground bare of snow
Maydʌgus uzaʔmoon of sucker fish
Junedaŋ uzaʔmoon of full summer
Julytalo uzaʔmoon of the salmon
Augustgesʌl uzaʔmoon of the kokanee
Septemberbit uzaʔmoon of the char
Octoberɬoh uzaʔmoon of the whitefish
Novemberbanɣan nʌts´ʌkihwe go around by boat half the time
Decembersatɕo dinʔaieve of the big moon

Most of all, you have to stock up for the winter. Traditionally, you could do some hunting in the winter, but travel in the winter is difficult and game not all that plentiful. You could fish under the ice, but you can't do that during break-up, when your supplies are stretched thin. If you didn't put away eough food in the summer, there was a good chance that you would starve to death. In such a world, you'd better be able to plan ahead and discuss your plans with other people.

Although the example of Carrier therefore doesn't demonstrate a lack of correlation between culture and grammar, this particular correlation in fact doesn't hold up. No one would claim that modern Japanese culture is one in which it is unnecessary to talk about the future, but Japanese has no future tense, not even a periphrastic one like English. That doesn't mean that you can't talk about the future. Of course you can. You can always make clear what time you are talking about by using an expression like "tomorrow" or "next year". But there is no future tense.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 2, 2004 12:31 PM