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May 10, 2006 4:27 AM   Subscribe

Living without Numbers or Time...
The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world -- and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists. [via aldaily.com]
posted by moonbird (43 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because they have no words for numbers, they can't even begin to understand the concept of numbers and arithmetic. [...] Over a period of eight months, he tried in vain to teach them the Portuguese numbers used by the Brazilians -- um, dois, tres. "In the end, not a single person could count to ten," the researcher says.
Fascinating... I don't think I can even comprehend that.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:47 AM on May 10, 2006


Whether phonetics, semantics or morphology -- what exactly makes up this universal grammar is controversial. At its core, however, is the concept of recursion, which is defined as replication of a structure within its single parts. Without it, there wouldn't be any mathematics, computers, philosophy or symphonies. Humans basically wouldn't be able to view separate thoughts as subordinate parts of a complex idea.

And there wouldn't be subordinate clauses. They are responsible for translating the concept of recursion into grammar. Renowned US psychologist Pinker believes that if the Piraha don't form subordinate clauses, then recursion cannot explain the uniqueness of human language -- just as it cannot be a central element of some universal grammar. Chomsky would be refuted.


Wow. It's like someone attempted to prove the central thesis of Godel, Escher, and Bach using actual human beings.
posted by Ryvar at 4:49 AM on May 10, 2006


Previously: one, one.
posted by dmo at 5:07 AM on May 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has done a great roundup of the articles (which are all available to read online) and issues. Best of all he clearly and succinctly demonstrates why statements like "they have no numbers, history, blah blah blah" are utter nonsense.
posted by imposster at 5:19 AM on May 10, 2006


Even if this weren't interesting on its own, dmo's comment made it worth coming in.
posted by yerfatma at 5:22 AM on May 10, 2006


Excellent, moonbird, and thanks, dmo.

I am not an anthropologist nor a linguist, but what I find most interesting is the whole observations about the Pirahã's concept (or lack of) of time and memory. Maybe I didn't read all the links in the threads provided by dmo, but I would have liked to read some data about their environment: availability of food, hunting range, climate, seasonality (if any) etc.

The questions it leads to are: various concepts of paradise involve abundance of resources and the absence of time; could the quantification of time, and the organization of memory and language arise from scarcity of resources? As simple as: if they don't need them, they don't have to "generate" them.
posted by bru at 6:12 AM on May 10, 2006


Can someone fetch Languagehat? I need him to apply his considerable brain to this. When he says this is a thing then, and only then, does it become a thing. Until then, I'll happily sit here with my brain dripping out of my ears.
posted by Jofus at 6:22 AM on May 10, 2006


languagehat wrote about this on his own blog quite awhile ago.
posted by Falconetti at 6:33 AM on May 10, 2006


Best of all he clearly and succinctly demonstrates why statements like "they have no numbers, history, blah blah blah" are utter nonsense.

In the one post I bothered to read, Mark Liberman writes that he's unhappy that people are getting it wrong and then provides a murky analogy. I'm no linguist, but I see that rebuttal as neither clear nor succinct.
posted by peeedro at 6:38 AM on May 10, 2006


I love it. Thanks for the link.
posted by agregoli at 7:03 AM on May 10, 2006


peeedro: Lieberman's saying that people are viewing the cause (lack of interest) as the effect, and the effect (lack of words) as the cause. Could have been put better (and more succinctly).

What I find most interesting is the alleged lack of subordinate clauses and, if proven to be the case, what that says about Chomsky's postulations.

What I find least interesting are the Pirahã. They sound thoroughly boring if the descriptions in that article are to be believed.
posted by Captaintripps at 7:09 AM on May 10, 2006


Google "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" for a lot of related material.
posted by staggernation at 7:33 AM on May 10, 2006


once upon a time i read the first few chapters of the number sense, which said that we are hardwired to know 1-2-3-many, and that everything else is something we have to work at. This works pretty well with the fact that on matching tests they fared well with up to 3 items, and then went downhill as amounts increased from there.

is it possible that human language or whatnot rests on subordinate clauses, but that they just don't use them? Could it just have been socialized away? The Pirahã seem pretty boring, so I wouldn't be too suprised if it was just too much work to keep up alla those extra words.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:43 AM on May 10, 2006


I wonder about the historical context. I suspect the Pirahã, like a lot of tribal people in marginal areas today, are a remnant of some larger, more sophisticated, and far more prosperous cultural group that was shattered by western conquest. There is a long record of anthropologists condescendingly studying such "primitive" peoples without ever realizing that it is the anthropologists own culture that has reduced them to such a state. Cultures like the Yanomami are not ancient holdovers from the Stone Age at all, they are historical creations of the European conquest, survivors of more complex societies forced into primitiveness by the destruction of the old order and the loss of their resources. (Charles Mann does a good job of showing how the myth of stone age peoples developed in his book 1491).

I don't know enough about the linguistic debate to know if this is even relevant, but it seems worth mentioning.
posted by LarryC at 7:59 AM on May 10, 2006


...my point being that the ancestors of the Pirahã almost certainly spoke a richer and more complex language, and that the language being studied now is a stripped-down remnant of that lost tongue.
posted by LarryC at 8:01 AM on May 10, 2006


Thanks Captaintripps, now I get Liberman's point.
posted by peeedro at 8:03 AM on May 10, 2006


Jofus: I have no specialized knowledge about this; in a comment on the first Pirahã MeFi post I linked to my own post on the subject (actually my first; I've since done a couple of others: 1, 2—in the second, I mention the excellent Munduruku word for 'four,' ebadipdip). But imposster's link to Mark Liberman's roundup will give you all the information you could want. (Incidentally, Mark is MeFi user myl.)

I too loved dmo's comment!
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on May 10, 2006


I haven't even finished the article, but my hackles are already raised. From the article:
"The language is incredibly spare. The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don't exist. Apparently colors aren't very important to the Pirahãs, either -- they don't describe any of them in their language. "

I'm sorry but this simply infuriates me. The lack of words/conjugations/tense DOES NOT MEAN these people lack concepts. Many languages lack conjugation and tense, this is not unusual. The perception of color categories without corresponding words has been especially well documented. Things like language and writing can influence cognition and perception (if they are different), but lack of color words does not mean the Pirahã find colors unimportant.
posted by imposster at 8:12 AM on May 10, 2006


I highly recommend reading "Language and the Origin of Numerical Concepts" by Gelman and Gellistel - an indirect response to Gordon (in Science).

They find that his results, and the results of others (including Pica, et. al.), "do not support the strong Whorfian view that a concept of number is dependent on natural language for its development. Indeed, they are evidence against it. The results are, however, consistent with the hypothesis that learning to represent numbers by some communicable notation [number words, tally marks, numerals] might facilitate the routine recognition of exact numerical equality."

The article posted here, as well as Gordon, seem to fail to take these multiple issues into account: cognitive differences in oral/literate culture; experiential routines; and cross-cultural communication.
posted by imposster at 8:38 AM on May 10, 2006


Thanks Mr Hat.
posted by Jofus at 8:39 AM on May 10, 2006


Imposster, one of the theories under review suggests that the lack of words for something does mean that the concept may not exist for a certain person.

Interesting stuff though.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:41 AM on May 10, 2006


I urge people to read the other threads before posting here, this is the sort of claim that leads to heated, yet predictable discussion.

By the way, I got to meet the guy who has spent the most time with them, Dan Everett, and apparently they are far from boring. He says that they have a great sense of humor, although it tends more towards slapstick than clever wordplay, as might be expected. He tells a very amusing story about the time he brought a wolfman mask with him--they were terrified of him, and he says that he might well have been shot dead. When he took it off, though, and they realized what was up, they spent the next week jumping out of bushes and scaring the beejesus out of each other.

He said that another great joke for them was when they went out hunting in the jungles. They walk along for an hour or to, and politely ask him to lead the way back. Apparently the fact that he was completely lost in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest was hilarious to them--how on earth did he fail to see the obvious (to them) landmarks!?

At any rate, it's clear that he has a very strong affection for them, and judging by that they seem like OK folks in my book. For what it's worth, he disagrees with Peter Gordon about a number of things and I tend to believe him.

Everett claims that they have no words for number whatsoever, and that their language has no recursion--a direct contradiction of Chomkskian theories that I don't understand, sadly.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 8:53 AM on May 10, 2006


Er... that would have been "Chomskian". Did I mention that I'm no linguist?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 8:55 AM on May 10, 2006


...my point being that the ancestors of the Pirahã almost certainly spoke a richer and more complex language, and that the language being studied now is a stripped-down remnant of that lost tongue.

I don't think we can go so far as that. While it's certainly happened with some regularity, we should remember that it's the instability of our own cultures that are unusual. Most cultures, historically, have changed very little: the past 10,000 years have seen a lot of changes in a lot of cultures, but I don't think it follows that all cultures must have suddenly thrown a million years of tadition to the wind and come up with something entirely new. 10,000 years with little change is par for the course when we take the long view of human history and evolution. I think Mann overstates his case a bit in 1491: while we have certainly overestimated this notion of "living fossils," I don't think it's fair to assume that all cultures change at an equal rate.

We have plenty of examples of collapse among "simple" societies; e.g., the Ik in Uganda (though Turnbull's account seems quite biased against them). While the social structures and culture of the Ik were shattered, I don't remember reading anything about such dramatic linguistic changes--perhaps someone can correct my ignorance on this?

I simply don't see why language would change in this way simply due to collapse. Whether or not the Pirahã are descendants of a more complex society shattered by the trauma of European contact is a question that I don't think we have any actual evidence for. It may be a very reasonable, even plausible hypothesis, but saying that it's "almost certain" seems far too overconfident. Even then, I'm not sure I understand how that would relate to their language: collapse has a lot of effects, but they're not simply random. Language changes in many ways, but again, not randomly. What in the proto-Pirahã's collapose would have caused a change like that, when no other collapse has caused such a change before?
posted by jefgodesky at 8:55 AM on May 10, 2006


CM: "...the lack of words for something does mean that the concept may not exist..."
This seems to me to be the Positivist Fallacy©. I'm not suggesting it isn't worth studying (clearly many of us find it intensely interesting), but articles I've linked to (as well as color perception research mentioned) demonstrate that we do have concepts for lots of things for which we don't have words, including numbers.
posted by imposster at 8:57 AM on May 10, 2006


The problem I've always had with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it's kind of a chicken or the egg thing.

And while I do think that in many, many ways language shapes the way an individual thinks, I don't believe it's the only factor.

Seriously, if a culture was incapable of understanding concepts that the language doesn't have a word for; then how do you explain the excessive number of adoptions in English. There is no English word for "schadenfreude", and yet English speakers understand the concept behind the word and can readily adapt to its use.

Overall, these are some very interesting articles for the armchair linguist. Thanks for posting.
posted by teleri025 at 8:58 AM on May 10, 2006


Alison made some good points about the effects of experience and aging in the previous thread that are worth remembering.
posted by imposster at 9:02 AM on May 10, 2006


I sure hope this wasn't a typo: "All experience is anchored in the presence..."

Whether or not the Pirahã are descendants of a more complex society shattered by the trauma of European contact is a question that I don't think we have any actual evidence for. posted by jefgodesky

Yup! Why introduce conjecture? This is interesting as it is.
posted by taosbat at 9:37 AM on May 10, 2006


Jefgodesky: I suppose you are right and I am overstating my case. And you make an a good point that we can't assume a horrendous collapse of the social and material culture of a group necessarily causes a corresponding drop in the complexity of their language. Are there studies of this for any groups? Anyone?

Where does Mann argue that all cultures change at an equal rate? Maybe I missed something, but that doesn't seem his point at all from my reading. The point instead seems that 1492 was for American Indians the beginning of a catastrophe so quick and so severe that we have consistently underestimated the complexity of preColumbian societies ever since.
posted by LarryC at 9:59 AM on May 10, 2006


I think the lesson to be learned from the Pirahãs is how taboo can trump anything, even really useful things like counting. I'm not convinced that the Pirahãs are too inbred or stupid to learn numbers or colors (luckily, no one in this thread is saying that, but it did pop up in the older Sapir-Whorf threads). However, I believe that they are quite smart but have an insular, suspicious culture that finds outside elements to be taboo. It is a taboo that is so strong that they have managed to keep their culture and language completely distinct from the ones around them. That is impressive. Plus, they managed to keep an entire phoneme from Dan for months!

I also learned one great Pirahã anecdote recently:

So, a linguist who didn't really know how to speak Pirahã went down to Brazil. He managed to convince several of the tribe members to record one of their myths. It was a major coup, or so he thought. The recording was given to Dan for translation. It turned out that the "myth" was actually a shopping list and they were saying things like "Dan, bring us some fishing hooks next time."
posted by Alison at 10:09 AM on May 10, 2006


And you make an a good point that we can't assume a horrendous collapse of the social and material culture of a group necessarily causes a corresponding drop in the complexity of their language. Are there studies of this for any groups? Anyone?

Well, there's the emergence of the Romance languages after the fall of the Roman Empire, which is probably the best documented example because we know Latin, and we know French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese, so we can compare both the before and after. It doesn't show anything like the Pirahã's language.

Where does Mann argue that all cultures change at an equal rate?

He doesn't, but if some cultures have changed more than others, then that means that there are other cultures might be living in ways more similar to the ways we all lived prior to the current interglacial. This question of "living fossils" gets all wrapped up in issues of ethnocentrism and racism, with people concluding that a culture that doesn't change as much must be "stupid." Of course, one could just as easily take the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and conclude that a dynamic culture is the tell-tale sign of an unstable culture. I think Mann's motivated by a desire to "defend" Native Americans from that kind of racist charge, but he does so by insisting that it wasn't so, and that Native American cultures changed just as quickly as European ones. Some of them certainly did, but I think Mann overstates his case somewhat. The Americas are a big place; some cultures did change every bit as much as Europeans; but I also think that others didn't. The Plains Indians were refugees thrown together around European horses and European guns, but I'd guess that the Shoshone had probably been living like that for a very long time. That "north-south alignment" Jared Diamond wrote so much about helped to maintain the Americas' diversity. I think Mann's oversensitive to the racist claims, and in reaction he pushes his own claim too far, and in so doing undercuts a far more important part of the pre-Columbian Americas: its cultural diversity. Of course, as a counter-weight to our typical conceptions, perhaps the case does need to be made more forcibly simply because it runs counter to what we've traditionally been told, but to my mind, an exaggeration remains an exaggeration, whether it is useful or not.
posted by jefgodesky at 10:31 AM on May 10, 2006


It turned out that the "myth" was actually a shopping list and they were saying things like "Dan, bring us some fishing hooks next time."

Hahaha! Though, the way I read your story, they were recording the story through your friend with the intent for Dan to hear it later - wouldn't that violate some of the theory that they don't do abstract subjunctive thinking?

I often wonder how often the Great Myths and Deep Culturally Important Oral Traditions recorded over the centuries are in fact stuff like this. Or someone who just likes telling stories rambling about kids tales and what he dreamed about last night and just stuff they thought was cool - or resonated with the researcher. Or just the village liar having a good time.
posted by freebird at 11:31 AM on May 10, 2006


Mann's point is not that Europeans and Indians moved with equal or different speed, but that they moved in different directions! The devastating blows of epidemic disease moved them backwards along the path of development. (I know that my use of the pejorative--or at least teleological--"backwards" will offend some.) Population losses of 80-95% in a single generation reduced some fairly advanced societies to much more primitive remnants, followed by conquest and slave raiding that removed the most productive lands from their control and made it dangerous to live in any kind of sedentary society.

So the Romance languages comparison seems off the mark, Europeans societies experienced nowhere near the disruption as native societies, not even in the Black Death.

You are absolutely right that not everyone in Native America lived at the level of the Aztecs or Incas or Moundbuilders. Yet clearly in North America at least most native groups lived a higher level of social organization in 1491 than they did in 1800. So anytime I read about peoples living in "traditional" nonsedentary societies my suspicions are aroused.

You mention the Shoshones. My work deals in part with protohistoric change in the West, and I can say that the Shoshones were living much different lives in the 1800s than they had been earlier. Slave raiding by Indian groups for the Spanish market had a huge impact,
as did disease and the acquisition of the horse.
posted by LarryC at 11:32 AM on May 10, 2006


Tenses and conjugations don't mean anything about the presence or lack of concepts in a language. Chinese has no tenses or conjugations either, but it manages to represent the past, present, and future just fine.

Interesting article other than that annoying little point, though.
posted by koreth at 11:52 AM on May 10, 2006


Or someone who just likes telling stories rambling about kids tales and what he dreamed about last night and just stuff they thought was cool - or resonated with the researcher. Or just the village liar having a good time.

I'd guess nearly all of them. The origin of the story isn't particularly relevant unless you're interested in history--which myth almost never is. When it shows an interest in history, we usually call it "legend" instead. But what makes it a myth--or even a legend--is how it resonates with the people who hear it, if they pick up the story and retell it. Myths probably all start off with a storyteller pulling someone's chain, or just the dream you had last night. It passes into the realm of myth as it is told and retold, reworked, and becomes an expression of a whole community, rather than a single storyteller.

Yet clearly in North America at least most native groups lived a higher level of social organization in 1491 than they did in 1800. So anytime I read about peoples living in "traditional" nonsedentary societies my suspicions are aroused.

I agree, that happened often. Often enough to justify your aroused suspicion. My only point is that, since we're reacting to a bit of "recieved wisdom," we may be in danger of going too far in the other direction, and assuming that everyone must have gone through this process--when, in fact, the culture in question may simply be one of those who saw no need to change.

You mention the Shoshones. My work deals in part with protohistoric change in the West, and I can say that the Shoshones were living much different lives in the 1800s than they had been earlier. Slave raiding by Indian groups for the Spanish market had a huge impact,
as did disease and the acquisition of the horse.


I'd imagine they did, but I'd also think they were probably hunter-gatherers (perhaps more complex hunter-gatherers) before that. Or, that may simply be an assumption born of ignorance of the evidence--you work with them, I only know a little bit about them.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:56 AM on May 10, 2006


Wouldn't that violate some of the theory that they don't do abstract subjunctive thinking?

I'm not sure what abstract subjunctive thinking would be with respect to Pirahã. Do you mean that they don't use subordinate clauses? They still have a sense of time, even if they have to state related events without subordination. From the article:

Instead of saying, "When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you," the Pirahãs say, "I finish eating, I speak with you."
posted by Alison at 12:25 PM on May 10, 2006


I read article. I interest.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:38 PM on May 10, 2006


"In one move, I snatched up all of their bows and arrows, went back to the hut and locked them up." He had not only disarmed the Pirahãs -- he had also startled them -- and they let him live."

Skillz, baby, skillz. Next time I'm about to be killed, I will snatch, disarm and startle the space pants off whatever the hell it is and live to tell the tale.

That is all.
posted by moneyjane at 4:09 PM on May 10, 2006


From the article: Pirahã is likely the only language in the world that doesn't use subordinate clauses. Instead of saying, "When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you," the Pirahãs say, "I finish eating, I speak with you."

Ok, possibly stupid question here: Doesn't the very fact that the clauses are in temporal order (1st: I finish eating; 2nd: I speak with you) convey clause 2's subordination to clause 1? I would have no problem understanding clause 2 as subordinate if I went up and tried to talk to someone who was eating, and he spoke that sentence to me.
posted by footnote at 4:56 PM on May 10, 2006


A subordinate clause is a dependent clause. 'I would like to speak with you' is an independent clause and can function on its own. 'When I have finished eating' is a dependent clause and cannot exist alone. 'When' is a subordinating conjunction.
posted by Alison at 6:00 PM on May 10, 2006


I guess what confuses me (beyond the way we prescriptively label clauses) is that it's possible communicate the fact that "A is dependent on B" without formal subordinate if/when clauses. Just because they don't have those formalities doesn't mean the language is incapable of expressing subordination.
posted by footnote at 6:08 PM on May 10, 2006


Ahem. In English, at least, noun phrases and prepositional phrases provide full recursion below the clause level—no subordination necessary:
NP -> (Det) (A) N (PP)
PP -> P NP
By way of example: 'a yellow dog under a wooden porch beside a rickety house on an unpaved road with fresh oil with a bad smell with disturbing implications about the policy of the counties near the river...'

Conversely, when reading Biblical Hebrew, I find it handy to discard the main/subordinate clause distinction entirely. The most obvious candidate subordinators, 'asher and kii, do not bind clauses to nouns or other clauses anywhere near as explicitly as Latin quo qua que; they really just indicate that one is germane to the other, and you have to look for pronouns in the 'subordinate' clause to guess how it relates to its purported nominal or verbal head. Kii is especially vague, translating as 'that', 'when', 'for', and everything else, and it does lead into clauses that are clearly independent as well as into some that are not.

Meanwhile, when beginning a narrative episode, you'll read all manner of 'independent' clauses (usu. in the waw-consecutive) that express dependent information: 'And it was in the Nth year of King So-and-so of Israel, and it was in Jerusalem, and King Wots-is-face began to sit upon the throne of Judah...' In all of this, you get the sense that the connections between Hebrew clauses are more pragmatic than syntactic—that the functional words are as much discourse particles as they are complementizers or conjunctions.

(Full disclosure: If you want to use a clause in a clearly subordinate way, you can decrease its salience by conjugating its verb as a participle and making it modify a noun in the main clause. But that's not the usual way of organizing your account.)

Weak Sapir-Whorf I can deal with. Strong Sapir-Whorf I find kind of suspect. I experienced Schadenfreude a long time before I learned that any language had a word for it. And when Sapir's primary points of evidence were an invocation of the Eskimo-snow-vocabulary scam and the fact that Hopis didn't have a certain kind of time terminology (specifically, the kinds of words that you don't need unless you have mechanical watches, or maybe a danged good sundial)... Yeah. Not that credible.
posted by eritain at 10:47 PM on May 10, 2006


Weak Sapir-Whorf I can deal with. Strong Sapir-Whorf I find kind of suspect. I experienced Schadenfreude a long time before I learned that any language had a word for it.

Aye. That's where I've ended up standing as well.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:51 PM on May 10, 2006


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