The Language of ‘Uncivilized’ Cultures

piraha woman martin schoeller
Last week’s (April 16th) New Yorker presented an article The Interpreter by John Colapinto (not online, abstract here, photo above by Martin Schoeller from this portfolio), describing the language and culture of the Amazonian Pirahã.The article reviews the research of ex-missionary and linguist Dan Everett into the unique language of the Pirahã. The language nominally contains eight consonants and three vowels, but words and conversations between Pirahã who know each other well dispense with the consonants and vowels entirely.So, for example, when the Pirahã are introduced to someone new, they talk among themselves and agree upon a name for the newcomer, and then iteratively whittle that name down to a single agreed-upon tone, stress and duration combination, one note. In essence, then, they sing rather than speak, and their language has more in common with music than with language. Or, to put it another way, it has more in common with the language of birds and other animals than with the dominant human languages of the planet, which are so structurally similar to each other that, as Chomsky has put it, an alien landing on the planet would have no doubt that all human languages came from a single root. Chomsky has spent much of his life writing the ‘rules’ to this language, and argues that the human brain is ‘hard wired’ for it.Not surprisingly, the discovery of a language which does not appear to follow any of these rules has stirred up a lot of controversy and denial. Yet a language based on the principles of music seems entirely natural to me, especially for a people who have lived for millennia in a rainforest replete with the musical language of thousands of birds and other species. I suspect that what is troubling the linguistic establishment most about Everett’s findings are these three things:

    1. The language lacks tenses, and therefore suggests that, like wild creatures, the Pirahã live in ‘now time‘, not in the clock time that the rest of us live in. Life in now time does not need tenses or terms related to clock time; in fact they would make no sense to such people. The study of whale sounds indicates that whales, and probably all non-human creatures, likewise ‘speak’ in a prosodic language based on tone, stress and duration (i.e. a musical language) rather than a highly synthetic, syntactic one. We might well discover that the 350 Pirahã, uniquely, might have the capacity to understand and communicate with non-human creatures in their own, related, language. What a remarkable, and immensely threatening to the status quo, possibility! If they tell us what the raven is really saying to us, what basis would we have to argue with them?
    1. The language lacks taxonomy. It has no terms for colours, numbers, or other absolute distinctions or hierarchies. In Pirahã language, everything is relative, contextual. Something that we might call ‘red’, using that abstract construction, they would describe by comparing it to what it is like, right now, in a variety of comparative contexts. The nuance of what aspect of ‘likeness’ they are referring to might be difficult for us to grasp, but if this was your native language it would not be difficult. There is a misconception that indigenous Arctic peoples have dozens of words for ‘snow’, when in fact these words describe practical, useful, necessary qualities of snow in a particular context. The distinction is not taxonomic, it is contextual and pragmatic. This would suggest that language has no need for conceptual taxonomy, and hence complex language is possible (and if so, I would say it is certain) among creatures who are less skilled at (and who have no use for) abstract conception. This is also a terribly threatening idea. It means that the way other creatures communicate might be just as sophisticated if not more sophisticated than our own clumsy, unmusical, unintuitive way. It means our human communications capability is nothing special, and may in fact be inferior. Rather than having developed uniquely ‘sophisticated’ languages because we had the large brain for it, perhaps we developed complicated, poor languages (or, if Chomsky is right, one complicated, poor proto-language) because, like novices trying to work with complicated machinery, we just couldn’t handle our brains very well and weren’t able to come up with simpler, more effective languages. Perhaps our dumb language is like the awkward, inefficient, digital, complicated made-up machine language of clunky old mainframe computers, while the Pirahãs’ and other creatures’ languages are like the music from an iPod ñ natural, elegant, analog, intuitive, at once simple and complex.
    1. The Pirahã have no interest in our language or our culture. Unlike cultures more closely akin to our own, the Pirahã are uninterested in our artifacts or our knowledge. It has no use for them, so why would they want to learn it? They don’t need it. Everett describes how the Pirahã laughed at a King King film shown to them, and clearly understood it, but showed no interest in or grasp of its cultural message. To them it was just pictures, slapstick. It meant nothing. We have nothing to teach these people, for all our study and learning and technology. They tolerate us, but apparently (and I think understandably) see us as an inferior, maladapted species. Repeated attempts to teach them farming have been completely unsuccessful ñ why should they want to give up a resilient life for one of great fragility? They have no creation myth (to them, life has always been as it is now) and hence they have no need for religion. Or for civilization.

calvin natureI sense that wild creatures, including those who visit my bird feeder when it’s convenient for them, feel the same way about us that the Pirahã do. They feel sorry for us, perhaps the same way we feel sorry for big, clumsy, maladapted King Kong, or the dinosaurs.  We’ll put up with these big dumb creatures, but if they were to all disappear suddenly once and for all, that would be just fine with us, too. Perhaps their instincts, much more nuanced and attended to than ours, have made them prophets. We just can’t hear their warning.

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10 Responses to The Language of ‘Uncivilized’ Cultures

  1. Jon says:

    A very interesting piece. I found your ideas about the possibilities of animals having a greater degree of communication ability to be quite fascinating. Great stuff.

  2. Pearl says:

    Well, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t heard of this language and people. This whittling away the excess is quite poetic, a natural extension of culturally embedded understandings. In a way like a taciturn man who is read and who communicates by the inflection of grunts, or like fresh lovers who can scramble over scaffold from thought to thought without speech. To communicate so much on a group-level and without necessarily xenophobia but autonomous culture is a lovely variation.

  3. Pearl says:

    Or had I heard of these people? Are they the ones with no counterpart for concept of numbers and a literacy based in spatial movement through forest and water that seems almost mystical to us?

  4. Cory says:

    Thanks for the link to the Piraha article and your insight. I can only hope that contact with “civilization” doesn’t harm them.Currently I’m in the middle of The Weather Makers. It’s very depressing. It

  5. Zane says:

    Hi David–Thanks for the head’s up on the New Yorker piece and for your writing on the implications of the Piraha language and culture. It is a fascinating story and it left me with more questions than answers. I was glad that, unlike most New Yorker stories, there were some documentary photos, because the story itself didn’t really speak to the spirit of these people and by that, I don’t mean any kind of transcendent soul, but rather their being in the world. But in the photos, they look amazingly content and self assured–the cognitive state shaped by their language looks to give them what zen masters take years to achieve: a state of presence, or enlightenment, if you will. The implication that these people are more like animals (which caused such an uproar in the scientific community, by the sounds of it) seems to me the greatest of benedictions. I do think if humans have hope, it lies down this thin branch of our cultural/linguistic possibility.zane

  6. mlu says:

    If you get Alzheimer’s you may move toward your ideal–in your escape into “now time” you won’t remember who your friends are or why you came into the room. It will be so pure–so much better than life in highly organized society.

  7. lugon says:

    mlu’s comment brings up something interesting – do they remember? do they have conversations about things past? hmmm – whistle – hmmmmm – ugh?

  8. You might take a look at this recent response to the linguistics presented in the NYT article. It is an effective response by an anthropologist and a psychologist to some of the anthropological issues in play in the article and in Everett’s research. Bottom line: the Piraha and their are very interesting. Their language represents the world differently than English does for English speakers. But they should not be exoticized as something so strange as to be barely human. Example: “Our research on Amondawa conceptualizations of time leads us to the speculative conclusion that the absence

  9. Steve Fishboy says:

    Judging by how often this romantic exotification of other cultures comes back, Sapir and Whorf were right about some people conceiving time as non-linear. Most such people, however, seem not to be American Indian.To address the three points made in the article:1. “The language lacks tenses”So does Chinese, among other languages. We see the world through our Indo-European eyes, and thus we consider morphology (inflections, conjugations, etc.) to be the only “real” way of expressing temporal relationships. We seem to forget that adverbs can perform exactly the same function.2. “The language lacks taxonomy”A couple points here. First, I would be very hesitant to come to this conclusion quite so quickly. It’s extremely difficult to acquire a near-native fluency in any language, and a language not previously studied, with no textbooks, grammars or dictionaries, is a tremendous challenge. Second, to the best of my knowledge generative linguistics postulates nothing that requires a taxonomy in order to be true (or false, for that matter). The kind of taxonomy you mention is lexical, and that’s an area generativists don’t consider central to the language “machine”.Third, comparing something to something else, and using the name of that something else to describe things, is universal. Go have an orange and get back to me. Or a plum. Or a wine with an oaky, fruity boquet. Preferably a blood-red wine.I’d strongly suggest that everyone be very careful about exoticizing other cultures. It’s easy. It’s fascinating. It’s attractive. But it rarely if ever leads to correct conclusions.There is a people that live in the central mountains and lush plains of their continent. They started off settling around rivers, as most peoples do, but as they developed trade and technology they began to lose sight of the eternal flow of the river, a metaphor for time. They began to focus on the trading posts along their rivers, and began to see time not as a flowing line, but as a series of points. This affected their language, which has no progressive tenses, no way to express the fluid, flowing nature of time. For them, things either are or are not. Things are either “now”, “in the past”, or “in the future”. Nothing but perfect tenses graces their language, due to their special worldview.These people are the Germans.

  10. Steve Fishboy says:

    Point three from above, plus two bonus points!3. “The Pirahã have no interest in our language or our culture.”There are many, many other cultures that are like this. There is an especially exotic group that takes this to unprecedented extremes, so much so that most anthropologist don’t even mess with them. They’re variously known as “Amis”, “Gringos” or “Murkins”.4. All languages whittle excess away through time. You’ll note that the most common words in any language are short. They’ve been whittled down through time to make communication ever more efficient. Every language has a relatively small set of words that are used with tremendous frequency, and a large set of words that are hardly used at all — more efficiency-seeking whittling (see Zipf’s law for more details). And languages tend to lose their “more baroque” elements over time — Latin-derived languages have lost almost all of their cases (with fossils mostly present in pronouns), English has for all intents and purposes shedded old Germanic cases, conjugations and inflections, etc. Every language seeks an optimal balance of efficiency and reliability. Not just indigenous languages.5. Indigenous people are not simple-minded folks, any more than you or I are. They can have as much fun pulling the wool over people’s eyes as the next folks. Perhaps they are in this case and perhaps they aren’t. I’d urge caution here.Cheers!

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