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Pirahã – a primitive language?

September 10, 2010

We like to put labels on everything. We talk about the Western Civilization. We talk about primitive societies living in the jungle away from the Civilization. Their cultures are primitive and so are their languages.

Pirahã is a tribe living in the jungles of the Amazon. Considering a few basic facts about their language it is easy to jump to conclusions. It is easy to label them ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ and to take pride in our own superiority.

Just imagine:

–        The Pirahã language has no concept of numbers. Contrary to claims that the ability to count is an innate property of human brain, those people cannot count. They have hói for “small quantity” and hoí for “larger quantity”. No typo here: the sounds are the same but the tone is different (it’s a tonal language). These two concepts are relative, i.e. the Pirahã can apply either of the two to, say, 6 objects, depending on how many objects they have been shown earlier.

–        The Pirahã language has no colors, just words for ‘light’ and ‘dark’. Again, both are only distinguished by the tone.

–        Although this is still being debated, the Pirahã language seems to have no recursion, i.e. it is impossible to form sentences within sentences, such as ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ Recursion has been thought to be an innate feature of any human language.

–        Along with Rotokas (New Guinea) and Hawaiian, Pirahã has the fewest phonemes of any of the world’s languages – 11. (When spoken by women, Pirahã has one less phoneme – 10. Isn’t it amazing that one sound is reserved only for men!)

–        There is no grammatical distinction between singular and plural even in pronouns.

–        They don’t have the concepts of ‘left’ or ‘right’.

–        They don’t have the concepts of ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. They don’t talk about distant past or distant future.

Does it mean they are primitive or retarded? Well, it’s always worth hearing the other half of the story.

–        As hunters-gatherers they don’t need numbers. Such knowledge is completely redundant in their society, so their language is free from such redundancy. The Pirahã who have had to move to the ‘big world’ have demonstrated a good mathematical ability.

–        They don’t have special words for colors like we do but they use compounds like bi³i¹sai, “blood-like”, which is a no less legitimate way to describe the appearance of an object, isn’t it?

–        They may have no recursion but… who the hell needs is anyway? They say ‘This is the house. Jack built the house.’ Makes sense? It does to me!

–        The ability to form a great number of words from fewer phonemes may well be the sign of a brilliant mind. And their language is musical. All of a sudden their speech turns into singing but it turns out they are still speaking, it just sounds like singing to our ears. Pirahã can be not only spoken but whistled or hummed, and it has a unique kind of trilling sound.

–        No grammatical singular or plural – but who cares? Other languages do without it, as it can be expressed lexically or through context (not sure which way it is with Pirahã). Hey, English has no distinction between the second person singular and plural and nobody seems to care.

–        No words for ‘left’ and ‘right’, but aren’t these the most confusing words we use, because when you stand in front of me and you say to me ‘turn right’ you are actually (most likely) telling me to turn to your left because your left is my right? Now what the Pirahã do use is a system of absolute directions, similar to our North, South, etc. They say, ‘Turn upriver’ or ‘Turn downriver’. Now how do they know where the nearest river is? They have a map of their area in their heads.

–        No concepts of yesterday or tomorrow? They have the concept of ‘today’ and ‘other day’. They have a concentric vision of time. Yesterday and tomorrow are equally removed from the present so they are both called ‘other day’.

–        What I also found interesting is that they have a very complex system of verbs with 60 verb forms, and each verb has the source of evidence mentioned in it, i.e. in ‘Jack built the house’, ‘built’ will take a different form depending on whether you saw it, heard about it or deduced it.

Now to me these characteristics define a language that is very different from the kind I am used to (pardon the recursion :-)) , but is not any more ‘primitive’ than English or Russian; in fact at times it strikes me as incredibly ingenious and elaborate.

They don’t call themselves Pirahã, by the way. They refer to themselves as xapaitíiso, which meansstraight head’. And what do they call foreigners? Right, ‘crooked heads’. ‘Don’t speak another language’ is ‘Don’t speak with a crooked head’. Should we take this as kind advice to have our heads checked?

I learned many of these fascinating facts about Pirahã from this amazing talk by Professor Daniel Everett, who lived with the tribe and studied their language.

Watch it, highly recommended!

If you want to take a look at a real Pirahã man, check this out;

Notice that the guy smiles all the time. They say the Pirahã smile a lot. Happy people.  They don’t have the concept of distant future…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Svetlana R permalink
    September 10, 2010 11:29 am

    First, when I read the account of the Piraha language you had, I thought of Clifford Geertz’s famous article on the Balinese cock fight and how anthropologists in absolute majority of the cases only see what they are shown. However, on reading the following review,

    I thought back to the way we construct primitive. Posing on a high horse of university education, immense numbers of successful students, peer recognition and respect for your degrees, one yearns to be a genius and surpass the geniuses in the field by discovering something new. As Dovlatov said “striving to be a genius foiled their professionalism”. At the same time this man’s effort is a reflection of the universal desire for adventure and discovery and in itself is laudable. So, even though I may not completely buy into his linguistic discovery or, indeed, read the book about pirahas, his effort is laudable.

    P.S. He calls recursion a Matrioshkadoll effect.

    • September 11, 2010 1:11 am

      Thanks for the link, but unfortunately it wants me to pay for a subscription before I can read the article.

      Why don’t other nations have their Matrioshka dolls if everyone has recursion?..

      I’m not sure where I stand in the fight between Everett and Chomsky, but I think whenever anyone comes up with a ‘universal theory’ he/she must be prepared to have it challenged and even to admit one day that it was false. But of course, few people are ready to do that as everyone tries to create something absolute.

  2. jacobtullos permalink
    September 10, 2010 11:34 am

    I heard about this language from a Philosophy of Language course I’m listening to. I was amazed by the lack of recursion part, which was previously assumed to be a commonality of all human languages. Languages like this push the UG (Universal Grammar) enthusiasts to the limit. I heard some people have even called Professor Everett a liar (or mistaken) because of his observations.

    I would never call such a language “primitive”, and with 60 verb forms I couldn’t even call it simple. I’ll have to settle for “unique.”

    Thanks for this post. I haven’t watched the video yet, but plan to as soon as I have enough free time.

    • September 11, 2010 1:14 am

      Thanks Jacob, glad you like the post. Yes, as I mentioned in the other response it’s hard to accept that what you have claimed to be a universal theory may not be as universal as you thought. That said, I’m not taking sides in this debate. I just find Everett’s account fascinating.

  3. Michael Farris permalink
    September 11, 2010 2:31 am

    I’m pretty skeptical about a lot of the Piraha claims for several reasons.

    One – Everett is pretty skimpy with justifications, the little I’ve seen there’s lots of examples that could be argued are recursive and he just says ‘but it isn’t’ without really providing explanations. That is he seems to have some theoretical model that defines recursiveness differently than the rest of us.

    Two – For a while there were some ‘texts’ floating around in Piraha that Everett had supposedly collected with a morpheme-by-morpheme glosses. Some with field experience were calling bullshit as they looked more like various kinds of sentence frames “there’s a jaguar there, the jaguar killed the dog, the jaguar jumped, there was a jaguar there, did the jaguar kill the dog? – that kind of thing) and/or the consultant pulling the linguist’s chain.

    Three – A few experience field linguists say that Everett simply hasn’t done his work properly and hasn’t ‘cracked’ the language yet. That’s not necessarily a criticism – I knew an (extremely brilliant) field linguist who’d worked for decades with a language without having figured out the morphology 100/% (they were at 95% but that last 5% was a killer and involved unpredictable changes that couldn’t be accounted for by any set of coherent rules).

    Four – There’s no evidence (that I know of) that he (for example) asked women “How many children do you have?” His model would predict that they wouldn’t necessarily know.

    • September 11, 2010 2:59 am

      Thanks for sharing these arguments against Everett’s findings, Michael. It’s always interesting to hear from both camps!

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