May 11, 2006

No concept of the future, no yuccas either

Juan Forero reports, on the front page of today's New York Times, on a group of Nukak-Makú hunter-gatherers who have emerged from the Colombian jungle to seek refuge in the town of San José del Guaviare.  They are described as classic primitives, people who "have lived a Stone Age life" and are innocent of the ways of the modern world:

The Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia. They ask whether the planes that fly overhead are moving on some sort of invisible road.

Their conceptual poverty extends, in Forero's somewhat confused account, to at least one basic temporal notion:

When asked if the Nukak were concerned about the future, Belisario, the only one in the group who had been to the outside world before and spoke Spanish, seemed perplexed, less by the word than by the concept. "The future," he said, "what's that?"

But much later in the story, we see that they are perfectly capable of planning for this putatively unconceptualizable future:

That is not to say the Nukak do not have plans.

Ma-be explained that the idea is to grow plantains and yucca and take the crops to town. "We can exchange it for money," he said, "and exchange the money for other things."

Now I don't know what word Belisario used to translate Ma-be here -- yucca is attested as an occasional variant of yuca, the name of a starchy tuber better known as cassava -- but American readers unfamiliar with tropical foodstuffs will mostly be puzzled by the idea that the Nukak hope to grow the spiky agave yucca as a crop.  "Yuca" would have been a better choice, and "cassava" even better than that.

Back to the future.  It's hard to see how Belisario's perplexity was about anything BUT words.  Somebody asked him if the Nukak were concerned about "el futuro", and Belisario asked what "el futuro" was.  End of story.  At this point we can begin to suspect that Belisario's command of Spanish, in particular its vocabulary, is not so great.  And we can begin to wonder what Spanish translations he gave to the other Nukak's reports of their plans for the future: did he use future tense forms?  In any case, the exchange about the future was about a word, not a concept.

So why did Forero report the exchange as being about a concept?  Because, once again, "primitive" peoples are being imagined as deficient in abstract thought.  It's a cousin of "the X have N words (for some large N) for Y, but no word for Y in general, so the X are incapable of conceptualizing Y as an abstract notion".  You know, those poor Eskimos, stuck in an avalanche of highly specific words for snow.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 11, 2006 12:56 PM