Friday, August 19, 2005


Living in the Moment

Strange days indeed for linguistics. In the middle of George Monbiot's column in Tuesday's Guardian comes this very, very curious item:

Yesterday I read a study by the anthropologist Daniel Everett of the language of the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Current Anthropology. Its findings could scarcely be more disturbing, or more profound.

The Piraha, Everett reveals, possess "the most complex verbal morphology I am aware of [and] are some of the brightest, pleasantest, most fun-loving people that I know". Yet they have no numbers of any kind, no terms for quantification (such as all, each, every, most and some), no colour terms and no perfect tense. They appear to have borrowed their pronouns from another language, having previously possessed none. They have no "individual or collective memory of more than two generations past", no drawing or other art, no fiction and "no creation stories or myths".

All this, Everett believes, can be explained by a single characteristic: "Piraha culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of [the speaker]." What can be discussed, in other words, is what has been seen. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, in this realm at least, to exist. After struggling with one grammatical curiosity, he realised that the Piraha were "talking about liminality - situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. [Their] excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as travelling into another dimension".
Over on the LINGUIST list, a summary of Everett's piece ("Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language") adds:

Despite 200 years of contact, they have steadfastly refused to learn Portuguese or any other outside language. The unifying feature behind all of these characteristics is a cultural restriction against talking about things that extend beyond personal experience. This restriction counters claims of linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, that grammar is genetically driven system with universal features. Despite the absence of these allegedly universal features, the Pirahã communicate effectively with one another and coordinatesimple tasks. Moreover, Pirahã suggests that it is not always possible to translate from one language to another.

This is pretty amazing stuff, and I'm flabbergasted that it hasn't been more widely reported. It would seem to imply one of two things: that there needs to be some serious beard-tugging and head-scratching over Chomsky's theories across all languages, or -- and I'm taking a wild guess here -- that perhaps the Piraha people are an extraordinary genetic anomaly in the annals of neurology, and share a condition that has left them with language centers in the brain that permanently lack aspects otherwise assumed to be necessary for any language. 200 years of steadfastly not learning any other language might indicate that there's something more fundamental at work here than a simple case of cultural resistance.

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