The Pirahã are a remote Amazonian tribe with little contact from other tribes and the rest of the world. There are only a few hundred native speakers of this language which is believed to be only surviving member of the Mura language family (other languages in this family having become extinct in the last few centuries).
Last night I heard Daniel Everett speak about “Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge and the Future” at a Long Now Foundation Seminar. In their own language, the Pirahã call themselves Hiaitíilí with a rough English translation of “the straight ones” (and we are “the crooked ones”). At the end of the talk during Q&A, Everett elaborated on that saying that they consider themselves as living in the most beautiful place and having the best way of life. Others are odd, ugly or “crooked.” They don’t really have great curiosity as to why someone would come live with them to study their language and culture. Of course, he would want to come there: it is a beautiful place and the river has lots of fish. That is explanation enough.
The talk started with Everett imagining what God really thought of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps he destroyed the tower and scattered humans across the earth each with their own language, not in anger, but because he loved the people. He created thousands of “Adams” (as in Adam & Eve), each with his own language, where the unique languages come with the ability to solve unique problems. In a similar vein to David Harrison’s work, he highlighted ways that small human languages, such as that spoken by the Pirahã, encode not just stories, poetry and metaphor, but also scientific knowledge and solutions that are not elsewhere written and cannot be found on the Internet. He spoke of the Wayampi bird classification that groups birds by what they eat, rather than their form (as we do in English), such that a specific hawk was grouped with the Toucans. Encoded in this language was specific scientific knowledge of the local bird species and how they relate to the ecosystem. In chemistry, the Banawá people have special knowledge of how to create poison which they use on their darts when hunting with blowguns. A researcher took a sample in the 1800’s which was tested 100 years later and remained of lethal potency. Repeatedly in his talk, Dan pointed to evidence of how the language is connected to culture and skills. When a new generation starts speaking another language primarily, they also lose the skills connected to the original language.
Is language instinct or a tool? (He posed this question but didn’t answer it.) In related reading, Everett writes that the “case of Pirahã illustrates, perhaps as well as any example ever discussed in the literature, the kind of bi-directional causal relationship between language and culture that Boas and Sapir would have expected us to find.”
Notes on the Pirahã language
Xibipíío: experiential liminality. The excitement of going in and out of experience. The closest translation we have in English is the child’s game peek-a-boo. However, our lack of ability to express the concept should not causes us to devalue it. Part of the resillience of the Pirahã culture is that they value the “now.” It is important to them where evidence came from. They have specific words that reference how you came to know something you are re-telling: did you see it yourself? did you hear it from some else? or did you deduce it from other information? It is a cultural value that information is verifiable (although that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t lie or exaggerate). The Pirahã language (like all languages Everett would argue) expresses a cultural value system, making it hard to communicate concepts that are not valued, such as religion or history that extends beyond the memory of someone you know personally, or someone they know.
Everett also discussed in detail some of the controversial elements of the language, primary in the absence of elements that were previously considered to be universal and a human instinct. The Pirahã language does not express numbers (only small and large amounts). It has no “recursion” (sentence within a sentence). Everetts answer to the one universal property of language is that it solves the social need to communicate.
There was more to this talk than I could effectively capture in a blog post. Everett was delightful and thought-provoking. If you are interested in learning more, you can read his book: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.
What can you do?
- Work to ensure that the land and health of native people are protected
- Learn more and spread the word.
- Give to the Foundation for Endangered Languages