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August 21, 2004 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Sapir/Whorf raises its head again in study of the Piraha tribe. I can't stop thinking about this article which appeared in the Globe and Mail Friday.

A study appearing today in the journal Science reports that the hunter-gatherers seem to be the only group of humans known to have no concept of numbering and counting. Not only that, but adult Piraha apparently can't learn to count or understand the concept of numbers or numerals, even when they asked anthropologists to teach them and have been given basic math lessons for months at a time ... the Piraha are the only people known to have no distinct words for colours.
They have no written language, and no collective memory going back more than two generations. They don't sleep for more than two hours at a time during the night or day. Even when food is available, they frequently starve themselves and their children, Prof. Everett reports.
They communicate almost as much by singing, whistling and humming as by normal speech.
They frequently change their names, because they believe spirits regularly take them over and intrinsically change who they are.
They have no creation myths, tell no fictional stories and have no art.

Can any of our anthropologists or linguists comment? I had thought that narrative was the common link in all human cultures....
posted by jokeefe (61 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's the abstract of the article from Science: Gordon, Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia, Science 2004 0: 10944921-0

It's only available on the site for subscribers at the moment.
posted by jokeefe at 3:10 PM on August 21, 2004


aliens.
posted by quonsar at 3:22 PM on August 21, 2004


I don't have any specialized knowledge about this, but there are further links at my post on the story, the most important of which is to this Language Log account by Mark Liberman, where you can find many more interesting facts about these strange people. I have to say I'm tempted to agree with my commenter Joe Tomei that it all seems a bit much; how can one language/culture have this much weirdness? I look forward to finding out more; presumably others will be invading Everett's preserve now that the story's out, and if he's been exaggerating it will all come out in the wash. (If they are in fact aliens, xenolinguists will finally have some informants to work with.)
posted by languagehat at 3:43 PM on August 21, 2004


[this is good].
posted by gd779 at 3:49 PM on August 21, 2004


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has felt intuitively true to me, since I was 15. I picked up 3.5 languages as a kid. English at school from kindergarten onwards and with friends, Gujarati at home with family and relatives, Hindi at school, home and with most friends, Marathi at school, some friends and the hired help. At about the age of 15, I came to the conclusion the language you think in influences how you think. The observations that led to this were foremost direct introspection, then that linguistic tokens don't map exactly across languages even though general informal use treated it that way. A word in one language is considered equivalent to a word in another language, if in general, those terms hold roughly same attributes within context networks of meaning. But of course, they don't have identical attributes. So which language you think in determines how you manipulate and navigate the symbols in the stream of thought. This is not to say that meaning is inextricably linked to language, but language does shape how new concepts fit within your current schema. I'm not going to extract the cause-effect chain because that is still unclear but language certainly makes a difference. I was unaware of the SW hypothesis and hadn't read up on linguistics when I came to this conclusion.
posted by Gyan at 4:00 PM on August 21, 2004


I like that one reason is that they feel that they're better than everyone else, so why would they want to learn things the other tribes/groups use? It's not necessary for them to know that 35,000 is more than 1,768, nor does it apparently affect their life. Their survival really is something. (but you never know what was withheld from the anthropologist.)
posted by amberglow at 4:01 PM on August 21, 2004


I'm not well-versed in psycholinguistics, but I was thinking that this seemed to violate the principles of Universal Language.

Certainly, we can't be turning back to a Behaviorist model-- the whole field of linguistics has been walking briskly away from it since the 60's. There's a lot of evdience amassed that language is innate-- it would be hard to believe (without more evidence than a couple of people's observations) that the field's been moving in the wrong direction for 40 years.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:22 PM on August 21, 2004


I don't have any specialized knowledge about this, but there are further links at my post on the story

I should have known to check your blog first. :D
posted by jokeefe at 4:32 PM on August 21, 2004


Sorry but I think that the study is flawed since it doesn't include women and children in the study.

Who is to say that there isn't any cultural reasons for the lack of male numeracy but that there may be female numeracy.

All this tells us is that males of the tribe lack numeracy (and colour distinguising terms) not anything about the culture in general.

I found it an interesting read as well but I'd be hesitant to make the sort of sweeping generalisations about the langauge that the authors do without a fuller examination of the tribe's language patterns.
posted by pixelgeek at 4:34 PM on August 21, 2004


There is a primitive indian tribe in northern Mexico, almost extinct, who actually show a physiological difference in the brain to most everybody else; that being that they find it extremely difficult to lie--as in prevaricate or not tell the truth. Over who knows how long, having strict tribal taboos against lying, they evolved hard wiring that makes it very hard to lie.
Ironically, while they have been studied to some degree, there is very little information out there about them, except in scholarly journals.
The only other information I remember about them is that they cave dwell.
posted by kablam at 4:34 PM on August 21, 2004


What's even more interesting is that when the children are taught large numbers they do just fine.
posted by raaka at 4:37 PM on August 21, 2004


Everett discusses not just numerosity but other astonishing claims about Piraha language/culture: no embedding, no quantification, no creation legends, no fiction, no deep memory, no colour terms, pronouns borrowed, simplest kinship system, no relativization, no perfect. If even part of this is true it's a huge challenge to conventional wisdom. None of it reads as obviously loony, but I have to wonder whether he's some Borgesian fantasist, or some Margaret Mead being stitched up by the locals, because this is weird beyond most parameters.

--From languagehat's Language Log link. (Try saying that three times quickly.)

I travelled up to the University with a friend yesterday and we spent most of the hour-long trip trying to work this out. They didn't gather data from women and children, apparently, so the results are incomplete in at least that... we also had a good laugh imagining the Margaret Mead-like deadpanning of ludicrous information. But I'm haunted by the idea of a human culture which lacks the symbolic representation of fiction/creation myth/story. Yes, weird beyond belief.
posted by jokeefe at 4:40 PM on August 21, 2004


Wikipedia entry on Linguistic Determinism (Sapir/Whorf) here.

Stuff like this really makes me want to coin a neoligsm a day to keep the ol' brain flexible. I think I currently make up a neoligism a month or so, if that.
posted by skallas at 4:41 PM on August 21, 2004


"Not only do the Piraha not count, but they also do not draw," Gordon wrote. "Producing simple straight lines was accomplished only with great effort and concentration, accompanied by heavy sighs and groans."--from raaka's link.

Straight lines are not natural, nor found in their environment at all--it's no wonder they had trouble with drawing them, but that doesn't mean they can't draw at all. I think Gordon might not be that experienced.

kablam, is there a lying center in the brain? isn't lying connected to abstract thought and creativity? how could their brains be hard-wired that way? (long-lasting social taboos and strictures i get, but not a different brain configuration--they certainly could lie, i think)
posted by amberglow at 4:41 PM on August 21, 2004


While I don't know much about this beyond what I've read here, the links on languagehat's blog, and on the one he links to, I'd have to go with languagehat and his commenter on this one: there's a bit too much weirdness and that makes me skeptical. There must be something else going on? Perhaps it is a Margaret Mead, lie-to-the-anthropologist-type situation? This seems possible, given that they concealed a grammatical sound from Everett for 17 years. But he seems to be a legitimate scholar, based on his CV (found here).

(This is very ungenerous of me, but this reminds me a bit of the movie Krippendorf's Tribe.)
posted by vitpil at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2004


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has felt intuitively true to me, since I was 15.


That the sun revolves around the earth seemed intrinsicaly true as well.


And who says that these problems learning are cultural? Perhaps these people have a genetic anomoly that affects certan parts of the brain? That would certanly explain the 2 hours of sleep, bit.
posted by delmoi at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2004


Kablam, I would like some documentation on this- it sounds like bullshit to me.

This case seems far fetched, just given the extremity of the claims (no distinct words for colors? this would be an anomaly). Not to mention the other wierdness that has nothing to do with language- the sleeping two hours a night, the constant changing of names, etc. Sound to me like they might be messing with the anthropologist- it wouldn't be the first time.
posted by amauck at 4:47 PM on August 21, 2004


amberglow, I wouldn't say straight lines are unnatural. The amazon has more than its fair share of trees, the human form has many straight lines, straight lines are implied through symmerty in the animal, insect, and plant world. Horizons have the illusion of straight lines at many angles of view.
posted by skallas at 4:48 PM on August 21, 2004


or, its possible that the ability to learn numbers, like the ability to learn new languages, gets locked down at a certan age.
posted by delmoi at 4:54 PM on August 21, 2004


but skallas, trees and the human form (or parts of them) etc aren't actually made up of straight lines tho--only to our eyes (and minds, which know that a straight line is pictorial shorthand for the trunk of a very thin tree or sapling, or blade of grass, or horizon, and what stick figures depict, etc. None of those things are actually straight in real life, i don't think, and if you weren't taught that shorthand, you wouldn't be familiar with it). A straight line in the dirt by itself with no context would be very removed from anything they see their whole lives (especially in a non-industrial jungle/rainforest setting), i would guess. Cave paintings don't use straight lines, i don't think (as one primitive example of pictorial representation of things in the world).
posted by amberglow at 5:00 PM on August 21, 2004


Isn't teaching them to draw and use numbers a violation of the Prime Directive?

(hears collective groan, then boos; withdraws abashed, yet satisfied)

/geek
posted by zoogleplex at 5:18 PM on August 21, 2004


[ this is good. ]

lol, stand tall, zoogleplex!
posted by elphTeq at 5:39 PM on August 21, 2004


Isolation creates stagnation. There is a famous case of a tribe that migrated to an Island off Australia with lots of technology and many generations later they had reverted to a primitive tribe and lost all the knowledge. The opposite effect is the more interaction with different cultures, the more transfer of knowledge and information and advancement. It is one of the theories on why New World civilizations did not advance as quickly as Old World, there was less cross cultural interaction.

One reason for this is tribal leaders can control members through control of knowledge and technology. Knowledge is power, we struggle with the same issues with censorship and copyright issues, which are thought to stifle innovation. Take that to the extreme "1984" scenario of controlling what numbers people can use, what language for colors, what stories they are allowed to tell and you end up with a culture like the one described.
posted by stbalbach at 5:54 PM on August 21, 2004


Anyone remember the Tasaday? In brief: Gentle stone age people discovered in Marcos-era Philippines (1980s). World is charmed. Best selling book comes out. Some time later, some small part of the world becomes aware that it is all a hoax. Tasaday fade from collective memory.
posted by Faze at 6:01 PM on August 21, 2004


Maybe they're just stupid and it doesn't extrapolate to other people.
posted by nyxxxx at 6:22 PM on August 21, 2004


If they are for real, it's incredibly interesting. There's a PDF linked off wozname's blog that has far more detail, and it's proving a fascinating read. If it isn't true, it should be!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:24 PM on August 21, 2004


Metafilter: they're just stupid and it doesn't extrapolate to other people.
posted by amberglow at 6:26 PM on August 21, 2004


The combination of linguistic and cultural bizarreness here almost sounds like some sort of congenital mental condition has surfaced and been maintained via closed bloodline. The two-hours-of-sleep bit is especially interesting — it states that the Pirahã don't sleep for more than two hours at a time but not whether their sleep over a 24 (or 36 or 48) hour cycle averages out to a more usual amount.

Also, if after this much time he has still been limited to speaking to adult men, I'm really inclined to think there's more going on here than he is aware of. Perhaps the language he's observed is a single-sex ritual language (isn't there something similar in Australia?) And the following line really intrigues me:
Linguists and anthropologists who have seen both the Everett and Gordon studies are flabbergasted by the tribe's strangeness, particularly since the Piraha have not lived in total isolation.

The tribe, which lives on a tributary river to the Amazon, has been in contact with other Brazilians for 200 years and regularly sells nuts to, and shares their women with, Brazilian traders who stop by.
How exactly can you engage in commerce — even barter — without any kind of counting ability whatsoever? Also, why are the Pirahã willing to "share their women with Brazilian traders" but Everett can't talk to them?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:51 PM on August 21, 2004


A weak form of linguistic determinism seems to me to be inarguable, but people love to argue about it anyway.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:56 PM on August 21, 2004


So how many people are in this tribe? Hrair?

/bigger geek
posted by yhbc at 7:24 PM on August 21, 2004


How exactly can you engage in commerce — even barter — without any kind of counting ability whatsoever?

There's some background in this paper [pdf]. Basically, it says that the Pirahã present their goods to the traders and then point to trade goods until the traders indicate that they've been "paid" in full.
posted by Utilitaritron at 7:42 PM on August 21, 2004


I study this type of phenomena for my doctoral research work. Currently, I am part of a team designing a system that automatically elicits the language typologies of low resource languages, with a focus in minority Latin American languages. I can confirm that there are indeed multiple languages without counting systems through out the world. For example, speakers of Pama-Nyungan (a native language of Australia) lacked a counting system before western contact. With most languages without counting numbers, generally the grammatical numbering system goes by singular, dual, (sometimes trial), paucal (meaning few), and plural (in this case indicating many). This can affect anything from verb inflection to pronoun systems. While I am only a field linguist in the budding stage, I would assume eliciting this sort of thing would probably involve using lots of pictures.

In sociology I remember hearing over and over that “language is the lens through which we view the world.” That is the case with the Piraha people; without a lens for understanding math and a culture that is self-consciously unique they are unable (as adults) to solve counting problems (according to this study). Any indigenous culture that has survived without being radically changed by its overwhelming neighbors must be skilled at cultural isolation and a have a strong self-identity. The Piraha have gone without counting probably because they don't need it and because it’s from the outside world and they didn't think of it. After the brain looses its plasticity, concepts like adding and number comparisons may become nearly impossible for the adult brain to learn. Thus, it is possible to go from not wanting to learn math to being unable to learn math. There is also a chance that the Piraha have knowledge and skills that would be difficult for outsiders to learn and understand.

Anyway, it’s a bit premature to dismiss the Piraha as victims of inbreeding, but for a people so suspicious of outsiders it may be impossible to study their women and children. If the Piraha are resourceful enough to preserve their own culture, then it is their decision to make about levels of access for linguists and scientists. Until they change their mind, we may be left guessing.
posted by Alison at 7:46 PM on August 21, 2004


Gyan:The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has felt intuitively true to me, since I was 15.

delmoi: That the sun revolves around the earth seemed intrinsicaly true as well.


Gyan's well thought out post deserves better than some knee-jerk response. My response, Gyan, as a native bilingual is that while I agree with you in some sense, I've also been unable to separate language from cultural traditions and norms. Jokes don't often translate well but sometimes its because they rely on a commonly understood set of traditions and a common cultural history rather than because the language itself is incapable of generating identical tokens. How can the two (language and culture) be separated?
posted by vacapinta at 7:52 PM on August 21, 2004


nicely put, Alison. What about the no art thing? was the guy an idiot for drawing just a straight line? is no art common?
posted by amberglow at 8:05 PM on August 21, 2004


"There is a famous case of a tribe that migrated to an Island off Australia with lots of technology and many generations later they had reverted to a primitive tribe and lost all the knowledge." - The Tasmanians.

"At about the age of 15, I came to the conclusion the language you think in influences how you think. The observations that led to this were foremost direct introspection, then that linguistic tokens don't map exactly across languages even though general informal use treated it that way. A word in one language is considered equivalent to a word in another language, if in general, those terms hold roughly same attributes within context networks of meaning." - I'm surprised most would find Gyan's observation surprising.

The meanings of individual words - within their native linguistic contexts - may be unique and incommensurable with other similar words from different languages. Is this even open to question ?

Gyan - Gurdjieff's mystical thought (not to hold it up as some sacred ideal, bear in mind) made explicit recognition of linguistic incommensurability before, I believe, Whorf did. I'd bet that the notion was simply an outgrowth of turn-of-the-century relativistic thought.

Yet - as wide as human culture has diverged - there are still shared cores of meaning : linguistic, gestural.
posted by troutfishing at 8:37 PM on August 21, 2004


While the art thing is out of my scope of expertise, I would assume again that this is related to the brain’s plasticity. So, there are several steps to drawing something as simple as a line. First, you must look at the image, recognize it and create an imprint of it in your mind, and then that image must be translated to motor movements before it can be sketched on the page.

Motor skills aren't hard wired. Today I ate at a Taiwanese restaurant with my mother (whose age I won't disclose, but let’s say that she remembers when Kennedy was shot) and tried to teach her how to use chopsticks. The end result was that my mom was unable to eat anything until she received a fork, and it’s not that she wasn't trying. Now, imagine trying to teach someone who has never held a utensil for eating before to eat with chopsticks. They may never learn. It’s the same way that some people can't wiggle their toes individually, while people born without arms can write and type with their toes. Some skills, if never learned before a certain point, might not be learnable to a brain without a basic framework within which to place them.

The same could be true for the Piraha with regards to drawing. In our culture, we play with crayons as soon as we are able to hold one. A few months ago I asked my 2 year old cousin (who is no stranger to crayons) to draw a circle. She can pick a circle out of a row of flash cards, but she couldn't draw one. Why? Probably because she’s never done it before. The Piraha have a culture without writing or drawing and probably without a single crayon or writing utensil, plus they have a cultural memory too short to remember art that is their own, and look down on nonindigenous elements. Imagine holding a pencil for the first time and trying to copy something, imagine trying to imprint something you've never seen before into your brain. It’s harder than it looks.
posted by Alison at 8:42 PM on August 21, 2004 [1 favorite]


ahhh--thanks. i wonder what they would make of a photo of a tree or a painting of one.
posted by amberglow at 9:00 PM on August 21, 2004


It's also worth noting that there is a vast difference between ancient art and modern art. Realism, perspective, use of colour are all new ideas.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:12 PM on August 21, 2004


I must note:

Languagehat speaks Quonsarese!

(or at least understands it.)
posted by mwhybark at 12:07 AM on August 22, 2004


Gordon says this is the first convincing evidence that a language lacking words for certain concepts could actually prevent speakers of the language from understanding those concepts.

Maybe, but that's a bit of a tangent, I'd say.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:15 AM on August 22, 2004


Sapir/Whorf is complete bullshit. If anyone mentions Eskimos, I'll have to kill someone.

That said, I agree with Stav that the commonsensical notion that a weak language determinism is without a doubt real. Emphasis on weak. The whole point of people that make the SW claim is asserting a strong determinism.

The Wikipedia article on language determinism is filled with mistakes:
...as Wittgenstein said, "What we cannot say, we must pass over in silence." That is, the words we possess determine the things that we can know.
"Know" in that last sentence is false. The Wittgenstein quote only asserts that what we cannot say, we cannot talk about. There's a difference.
Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people saw as many bands as their language possessed primary color words.
Color exists in perception, yes, but color perception is a function of human biology, it's not arbitrary and determined by language. The "color bands" that people perceive are very real and a product of perception. That's not to say that every language has words for every color, or even every one of those bands. In fact, as LH will tell us, there are astonishing regularities in color naming across languages (in terms of how many colors are named correlated to which colors are named). Even the ways in which different languages recognize colors is not arbitrary.

I don't think anyone who is multilingual or even studied another language will deny that different languages think about things differently. But the assumptions of incommensurability (between languages) and arbitrariness (of "modes of thought" possible related to language) are both radical and unsupportable. There's oodles of science in the last fifty years, both in linguistics and in neurobiology, that refute this.

SW and the like are examples of the unrestrained relativism that moved into the rest of science, and then into popular culture after the various revolutionary discoveries around the turn of the century. By the middle of the century, whole disciplines extremely distant from physics and math had embraced relativism in, I think, a very naive way. Many of those fields have tempered their relativism, but popular thought still embraces relativism earnestly and with great naivete. Meade was mentioned earlier—how many of her proven false observations still live on in the popular imagination? Quite a few. But cultural anthropology has sailed off into the mists of nonsense, at war with physical anthropology and pretty much anything else that is known as a "science". As the Wiki article implies, the cultural anthropologists and the literary theory types have made common cause and have a vested interest in pushing linguistic determinism, disregarding, for example, what the linguists actually think.

Whorf, by the way, wasn't a linguist or anthropologist—he'd only had a class taught by Sapir. It's not really fair to Sapir at all to use his name in this context.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:07 AM on August 22, 2004 [1 favorite]


But people like saying 'Whorf'!

One reason for this is tribal leaders can control members through control of knowledge and technology

First of all, not all groups have articulated hierarchies like the one you are proposing. Tribal leaders are common throughout Polynesia, less common throughout Melanesia. But the whole proposition is nonsensical: most traditional groups have little division of labor barring the sexual division of labor, and therefore no means for the type of control you are suggesting. Most technologies of such groups are too labor intensive to allow for such a monopoly.

The idea that 'isolation breeds stagnation' is equally suspect: few groups are actually isolated of course, but even groups in relative isolation can change dramatically.

The Piraha have a culture without writing or drawing and probably without a single crayon or writing utensil, plus they have a cultural memory too short to remember art that is their own, and look down on nonindigenous elements.

Hogwash. A single writing utensil? come on. A culture without art would pretty much be unprecedented and obviously the means for art are immediately available.
posted by amauck at 7:51 AM on August 22, 2004


All this tells us is that males of the tribe lack numeracy (and colour distinguising terms) not anything about the culture in general.

I don't see why Everett's findings (assuming they're sound) wouldn't still be intensely interesting, even if it does turn out that the women's culture is different from the men's. He would still have identified a culture -- male Piraha culture -- lacking these traits. If the women turn out to be numerate when the men aren't, that would just raise even more fascinating questions.
posted by rory at 7:52 AM on August 22, 2004


I would be very curious if any natural hallucinogen is used by this tribe. Wouldn't that be a way to break free of language/brain determinism. At least to be used by the shamans.
posted by JohnR at 8:21 AM on August 22, 2004


I wonder if he ever spoke to those Brazilian traders about the tribe--they probably know things he never found out.
posted by amberglow at 9:31 AM on August 22, 2004


"Felt intuitively true to me" does sooooooo not equal "well thought out."
posted by NortonDC at 9:37 AM on August 22, 2004


Dan Everett himself seems to think of this more as the influence of culture on both thought and language, rather than as the influence of language on thought.

See the discussion in this paper (very briefly summarized here, if you don't want the whole 54-page .pdf).

I've tried to clarify the issues using an analogy in this weblog post, in which I imagine an isolated group that loses interest in throwing things, never practices throwing in childhood, and also loses throwing vocabulary from their language. The result would be a bunch of people whose throwing abilities are very poor, and whose language lacks words for different kinds of throwing. But it would be quite odd in this case to say that their language caused their lack of throwing ability.
posted by myl at 9:41 AM on August 22, 2004


I think that perhaps the Piraha have learned to be very, very content in their lifestyle, and have lost the need for complex language. You eat a fish, you lie about, you have a good time, you go to sleep, you repeat 50x365 days a year.

If you've got shelter, food, and companionship, what the hell do you need with language?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:57 AM on August 22, 2004


Or, rather, you don't go to sleep and intentionally starve yourself.
posted by amauck at 10:50 AM on August 22, 2004


If you're intentionally starving your children, they aren't going to have the nutrients for their brains to properly develop. I'm guessing that a combination of nutrient deprivation and inbreeding have probably caused some sort neurological abnormality.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:55 AM on August 22, 2004


myl: thank you for the links. As you say above, your post clarifies a lot of the issues. The throwing example is quite useful.

In your blog you link to Keywords' clarification of Whorf's theory which is quite relevant for the discussion here. I was frustrated by the misunderstanding expressed both here as well as in the news articles about the Piraha (especially because my books and my "Language and Culture" notes are in storage so I couldn't do the requisite research myself). If you understand Whorf in this way then it becomes clear that the point is not to prove linguistic determinism through this cultural example.

What you and some of the other comments here point to is that we really don't know enough about the context and performance of this language. The thing about numbers seems to be the least bizarre thing about this case. I haven't read the pdf you link to above, but I did read the summary of it at your blog. And my hunch is that there's something missing here. Perhaps the language as they present it to Everett is a mode of self-preservation? Or as suggested above a ritual language? At the very least, it seems possible that they are keeping something from him (again, they concealed a grammatical sound from Everett for 17 years, and his explanation for this (basically, "they were embarrassed because it sounds funny to Westerners") seems a little problematic).

Disclaimer: I'm a cultural anthropologist (yes, I have "sailed off into the mists of nonsense, at war with physical anthropology and pretty much anything else that is known as a "science" at least in one person's opinion. But as far as I know, I'm not at war with anyone at the moment).
posted by vitpil at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2004


NortonDC: "Felt intuitively true to me" does sooooooo not equal "well thought out."

A != B ?? Who would have known...
posted by Gyan at 11:22 AM on August 22, 2004


Sapir/Whorf is complete bullshit. If anyone mentions Eskimos, I'll have to kill someone.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I'm not going to get in an argument here (since I don't post to MeFi anymore, and I hate myself for giving in to the urge this time), but better scholars than you have devoted whole careers to untangling the myriad nuances of this issue. It's unclear just what, if anything, "Sapir/Whorf" even means, and what would count as probabtive, never mind whether it's true. Reducing that debate to "it's bullshit" is, frankly, inane. (Linguists experience at least as much irritation at lay pronouncements about S/W (on either side) as we do about references to Eskimo snow words, misuses of "deep structure," "universal grammar," and so on. Until you show some evidence of knowing the literature (good luck, see you in a few years), your dismissal doesn't really count for much.)

Whorf, by the way, wasn't a linguist or anthropologist—he'd only had a class taught by Sapir. It's not really fair to Sapir at all to use his name in this context.

I hate to see Pinker's cheap shots at Whorf become commonly
accepted. Every field has its cranks but it is a lie to say Whorf was one of them. Whorf was as much of a linguist as many people were in those days--JP Harrington, for example, had very little linguistics training but was a prolific documenter of little-known languages, and is still our main source for many extinct languages. Since linguistics (as distinct from philology) hadn't really attained much of a professional status as yet, there was very little training to be had, except in informal ways. Certainly the descriptivist kind of linguistics done in the US was just being born in those days. "A class taught by Sapir" (not to mention a professional association that lasted years) is not a bad place to start. Sapir probably didn't go as far with the linguistic determinism idea as Whorf, but that was a disgreement between friends and colleagues, not some sort of embarassment.

I don't do linguistics anymore, but when I did I worked extensively with Whorf's Hopi and Nahuatl materials and I assure you they are very high quality. Whorf was no doubt wrong on many things, but he is an important contributor to our understanding of the linguistic history of the American Southwest, in particular the Uto-Aztecan family. If nothing else, that should qualify him as as much a linguist as anyone.

(Dan and Keren Everett are also well respected linguists, by the way, not fringey outsiders. I have no idea whether their take on Pirahã makes sense.)

Finally, the whole linguistic relativity/determinism idea complex is quite old, much older than the twentieth century. The best known version pre-S/W was von Humboldt's, but even then it was not a new idea. One place to learn more is George Steiner's After Babel (but don't expect much linguistics).

(Back to lurking)
posted by rodii at 11:24 AM on August 22, 2004 [1 favorite]


Anyone else ever read Julian Jaynes, seems like this follows pretty well with what I remember from TOCBBM about some of the various stages in the development of language.
posted by milovoo at 12:34 PM on August 22, 2004


S/W lives mostly as folk wisdom, as we can see above, and it is in that guise "utter bullshit". It is presented as a strong form of language determinism and relativism, and that's false. It's not complicated, and it's not a controversy within linguistics.

Perhaps it's not fair to criticize Whorf as I did, but I've been hearing that criticism for many, many years now—long before Pinker. From linguists.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:11 PM on August 22, 2004


I'm less troubled about the lack of counting systems-- one fish, two fish, enough for everybody to have dinner, can work just fine-- and about the lack of colour terms. There are many language systems with more or less colour terms than English, and I seem to recall that some languages only give specific names to black, white and red. It doesn't change our physiology: most human beings can see the colours; naming them is cultural.

What I'm perplexed by is that assertion that these people do not have narrative: "Piraha has no creation myths-- its texts are almost all descriptions of immediate experience or interpretations of experience; it has some stories about that past, but only of one or two generations back. The Piraha in general have no individual or collective memory of more than two generations past [...] The Piraha do not create fiction, e.g. fables, fairy tales, legends, etc. And they have no creation stories or myths... there is not a single story about the ancient past told by Piraha... Piraha say, when pressed about creation, for example, that 'Everything is the same', meaning that nothing changes, nothing is created."

This from an article by Everett, available here (note: pdf). Though they may bring in scraps of stories from other tribes in the area, and repeat them to each other, they do not, apparently, embellish them or invent their own. Everett posits that there are then constraints on abstract concepts, and that this constraint is evident in their language, that the language itself, in fact, may function in a way that disallows abstractions-- yet the Piraha also claim to have a close contact with a spirit world. So I'm still perplexed. As human beings we narrativize our lives, our cultures, our days. It's a cultural constant (I had thought). What happens to the individual when there is no foundational narrative of identity? *Is still scratching head*
posted by jokeefe at 1:52 PM on August 22, 2004


God damn it, rodii, if you'd quit lurking so much and comment a little more, I could relax a little and stop trying to fight all the battles. Won't you think of the kittens hats?
posted by languagehat at 3:59 PM on August 22, 2004


rodii!

(Back to lurking)

*cries*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:12 PM on August 22, 2004


Anthropologist walks back to tent " Christ, what a bunch of thickos"
posted by biffa at 5:15 PM on August 22, 2004


INAL, AIWALH !

[ I am not a linguist, and I wear a little hat. ]
posted by troutfishing at 8:30 PM on August 22, 2004


But are they happier than people who can do long division?
posted by Blue Stone at 2:30 AM on August 23, 2004


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