29 November 2008


Daniel L. Everett just released his book, Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, describing his work with the Piraha people of Brazil. Back in August 2004, I'd read about his work as reported in a New Scientist article. The Freethinker just published a short writeup of his story [ via Reddit ] along with a a portion of Everett speaking on a BBC special. BBC has a handful of articles dating back to the 2004 story. Language Log, too, has commented on the Piraha language over the years.

(Small gripe: One of the linguists on Language Log complained about the state of the Piraha Wikipedia article, vocally refused to link to it, and yet didn't take any time to clean it up. Where will the public more likely go to learn: from your specialized blog or Wikipedia? The Wikipedia entry is now quite detailed and shows a history of battled edits. Crowdsourcing 1, academic isolationists 0.)

The Guardian just published a lengthy article covering, first, Everett's loss of faith (he'd originally gone to convert them to Christianity) in the face of the Piraha's general contentedness and disinterest in the spiritual. Much is made of this, and Everett discusses both his conversion to Christianity and his loss of faith in the audio above. The Piraha were almost cruelly dismissive of his belief system. Do tell? In the audio excerpt, Everett recounts how he converted to Christianity after his stepmother committed suicide. The Piraha laughed at the story, telling him How stupid! Pirahas don't kill themselves! (I've always felt there should be special punishment for the coercively arrogant who would wrestle a people's beliefs away from them. Missionaries are, simply, some of the lowest scum of a compassionate society. It's human nature to try to dominate others; but it's one of the more distasteful aspects when it attempts to destroy another's culture.)

Second, the article discusses Everett's notable assertion that the Piraha breaks rules of Chomsky's universal grammar (lacking recursion and ideas of numbers and colors that Chomsky believes are basic parts of a human "language organ"). This assertion is less interesting than the extremes of mental representations that the language and people display. The examples show how wonderfully diverse people of the world are: the Piraha have no history beyond their daily memories, they cannot understand the numeric difference in two groups of objects (a pile of four sticks is no different than a pile of five sticks), they have no government, they have no art or literature. Sortof redefines what a culture is, and that's always nice to encounter so shocking an example of variety in human cultures.

The New Yorker has a more conversational account of Everett and the Piraha, including some very funny stories of Everett and the author's interactions with the tribe. They encounter repeated examples of the villagers' complete disinterest with any culture but their own and any events beyond what was happening in the present. "Crooked head" is the tribe's term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. An entire society of ultra-nationalists. The history of the decades of failed attempts to fully understand the language shows how different it is from other languages--even if it doesn't challenge Chomsky's ideas. The heart of the article:

Inspired by Sapir's cultural approach to language, [Everett] hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people's lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions--and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths.
[ posted by sstrader on 29 November 2008 at 7:10:08 PM in Culture & Society , Language & Literature ]