Pirahãs — People Who Speak Funny


(The story of amazing Pirahã people continues from the previous post.)

All the peculiarities of Pirahãs made them virtually impossible target for missionaries. The idea of ​​one God, for example, has been met with incredulity. One? What is ONE?  Explanations that someone had created man, woman and everything puzzled them. The story of Jesus Christ, translated into language sounded funny and unconvincing. Wow, such a great and such a stupid white man! He doesn’t know where people came from. Hearing about a very kind man, whom evil people nailed to the tree with nails, Pirahãs asked whether the white man had seen it with his own eyes. No? Had he met this Christ? Also no? Then how does he know who was this Christ and what happened to him?

For a long time missionary organizations have suffered a fiasco, trying to reason with the Pirahãs and turn them to the Lord. To no avail. Pirahãs pleasantly greeted Catholic and Protestant missionaries, happily covering their nakedness with beautiful donated shorts and delightedly tasted canned food. But the “conversion” never happened.

Since 1977, Dan Everett, the British ethnologist at the University of Manchester, spent a total of seven years living with the Pirahãs. In 1977, Everett was only 25 and fervently religious, ready to do everything that his faith requires, even die for it. Then he understood that imposing your own beliefs on others is akin to colonization — colonization at the level of beliefs and ideas. Everett came to tell Pirahãs about God, salvation, heaven and hell. But Pirahãs were special people, and for them the things that were important to him, did not matter at all. Pirahãs could not understand why this man has a right to tell them how to live.piraha6

Living among these small, half-starved, never sleeping, totally calm, constantly laughing people, Everett came to the conclusion that people are a lot more complex beings than Bible says, and religion does not make us better or happier.

Pirahãs’ life philosophy wasn’t Everett’s only subject of interest. The other one — closely related — was their language, which is not as difficult as it is unique, very different from all other known language groups — the fact that literally turned the traditional idea of ​​the fundamentals of linguistics.

Pirahã language is incredibly spare. There are only seven consonants (p, t, k, ‘, b, g, s, h) and three vowels (a, i, o.) 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. But of all the curiosities, the one that bugs linguists the most is that 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.”7_Pirahã1-533x400

Everett never once heard words like “all,” “every,” and “more” from the Pirahãs. The word, “hói,” comes close to the numeral 1. But the same word also means “small” or describes a small amount irregardless of number. There is no indication they count using gestures — on their fingers, for example. In fact, Pirahã language there is no word for “finger”, only for “hand”, and they never point fingers, using the “whole hand.”

Everett tried to teach Pirahãs count in Brazilian Portuguese — um, dois, tres… After eight months not a single person could count to ten.

Perhaps, Pirahãs are simply dumber than other jungle people.  Everett says no. In his words, “Their thinking isn’t any slower than the average college freshman.”  Besides, the Pirahãs don’t exactly live in genetic isolation — they also mix with people from the surrounding populations. In that sense, their intellectual capacities must be equal to those of their neighbors.

Eventually Everett came up with a surprising explanation for the peculiarities of the Pirahã idiom. “The language is created by the culture,” says the linguist. He explains the core of Pirahã culture with a simple formula: “Live here and now.” The only thing of importance that is worth communicating to others is what is being experienced at that very moment. “All experience is anchored in the presence,” says Everett, who believes this carpe-diem culture doesn’t allow for abstract thought or complicated connections to the past — limiting the language accordingly.

[…]The debate amongst linguists about the absence of all numbers in the Pirahã language broke out after Peter Gordon, a psycholinguist at New York’s Columbia University, visited the Pirahãs and tested their mathematical abilities. For example, they were asked to repeat patterns created with between one and 10 small batteries. Or they were to remember whether Gordon had placed three or eight nuts in a can.


Psycholinguist Peter Gorden: Are we only capable of creating thoughts for which words exist?

The results, published in Science magazine, were astonishing. The Pirahãs simply don’t get the concept of numbers. His study, Gordon says, shows that “a people without terms for numbers doesn’t develop the ability to determine exact numbers.”

His findings have brought new life to a controversial theory by linguist Benjamin Whorf, who died in 1941. Under Whorf’s theory, people are only capable of constructing thoughts for which they possess actual words. In other words: Because they have no words for numbers, they can’t even begin to understand the concept of numbers and arithmetic. (Brazil’s Pirahã Tribe: Living without Numbers or Time.)

Dan Everett is convinced that linguists will find a similar cultural influence on language elsewhere if they look for it. But up till now many defend the widely accepted theories from Noam Chomsky, according to which all human languages have a universal grammar that form a sort of basic rules enabling children to put meaning and syntax to a combination of words.


Everett’s book on the culture and language of the Pirahã people.


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