Linguistics in the Amazon
August 1, 2014 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Unlike other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon, the Pirahã have resisted efforts by missionaries and government agencies to teach them farming. They maintain tiny, weed-infested patches of ground a few steps into the forest, where they cultivate scraggly manioc plants. “The stuff that’s growing in this village was either planted by somebody else or it’s what grows when you spit the seed out,” Everett said to me one morning as we walked through the village. Subsisting almost entirely on fish and game, which they catch and hunt daily, the Pirahã have ignored lessons in preserving meats by salting or smoking, and they produce only enough manioc flour to last a few days. (The Kawahiv, another Amazonian tribe that Everett has studied, make enough to last for months.) One of their few concessions to modernity is their dress: the adult men wear T-shirts and shorts that they get from traders; the women wear plain cotton dresses that they sew themselves.
posted by ellieBOA (14 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: This has been covered in some detail before, sorry. -- restless_nomad

Further reading.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:16 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's something really culty about the Chomsky fanclub. The reaction to a scientific challenge wasn't science, it was personal attacks and direct sabotage of the researcher. It's something that makes me think less of his theories.
posted by tavella at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2014

More further reading: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: by Dan Everett about his time with the Piraha. A great read and a great guy.
posted by anadem at 4:43 PM on August 1, 2014

Wow that article was frustrating.

Inspired by Sapir’s cultural approach to language, he 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.

And to think this is the culture that threw a monkey wrench into the idea of shoe-horning all of human potential into a single pattern and throwing away anything that didn't fit. Living in the present and dealing only with reality is so diametrically opposed to throwing out reality that doesn't fit your pre-conceived notion. It reminds me of the "philosopher" character in To The Lighthouse who moons around gloomily trying to map all of human knowledge onto the keys of a piano.
posted by bleep at 5:01 PM on August 1, 2014

They should send some Buddhist evangelists there, they might have more luck... although maybe not.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm meditating. I'm experiencing the now."
"No you're not. You're sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed."
posted by bleep at 5:02 PM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

posted by tractorfeed at 5:07 PM on August 1, 2014

> Double

Well, it's been seven years; "Previously" might be kinder. But I'm surprised the earlier post didn't come up in the process of posting this.
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does Chomsky really not think it's worth preserving endangered languages?
posted by XMLicious at 5:24 PM on August 1, 2014

In terms of the double -- note that there has been a lot of followup in the few years by different researchers, which have confirmed that the Pirahã have no fixed number system, which was the first of the controversial claims by Everett. The early translations of 'one' and 'two' (in Everett's early published work) were misunderstandings because they will sometimes use their 'few' and 'some' terms for 1 and 2 -- but 'few' can also mean up to 6. It depends on the person, the items, and whether they are going up or down. This suggests Everett's scholarship is good and gives more weight to his other claims.

The clause issue is more complicated, because there are no simple counting experiments to set up -- instead you have to have a years-deep understanding of the language, and very few indeed have that and pretty much none of those critiquing the hypothesis.
posted by tavella at 5:26 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Double? Does that mean two, or a few? I'm confused. What is "double"?
posted by symbioid at 5:30 PM on August 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

XMLicious, apparently he doesn't believe that people describing and recording languages and grammar are worthy of Phds, unlike superior theorists like himself.
posted by tavella at 5:31 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

So quickly does a decade pass.... Triple. Or, more to point, Previously.
posted by jokeefe at 6:59 PM on August 1, 2014

Metafilter: “Xaói hi gáísai xigíaihiabisaoaxái ti xabiíhai hiatíihi xigío hoíhi”
posted by crazylegs at 7:42 PM on August 1, 2014

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