The Primitive Language of the Amazon's Pirahã People

The Primitive Language of the Amazon's Pirahã People

Orco
Orco
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History, April 29, 2010

Pirahã people riverPhoto: centripetal notion

The Pirahã are a nomadic hunter-gatherer people living in the jungles of the Amazon with a population of less than 400. One significant property of the Pirahã people is that they are the only tribe which talks their language, named by outsiders the Pirahã language. Pirahã people also lack any kind of social hierarchy and they do not ”write” history, most likely because they don´t write at all.

There are a few very interesting aspects of the Pirahã language which make it not only a unique language, but interesting on behalf of the relationship between language and world view – that is, how language reflects the way one observes the world. The Pirahã language is also unique in that it has no connections to any other living language.

Anthropological linguist Daniel Everett knows probably most about the Pirahã people and their language because he has studied them more than anyone else. In the light of Everett’s research, it is important to understand that because Pirahã people don´t write history or anything else, they probably lack the concept of meta-cognition about their language – that is, they don´t observe their language from a third perspective.

Pirahã can be whistled, hummed or sung with no notable problems or variations. It has been thought that this might be an aspect that is essential to a true understanding of how the Pirahã language functions. This language also seems to lack any words for colors – only light and dark.

Pirahã womenPhoto: Centripetal notion

The most remarkable aspect of the Pirahã language is that it seems lacking in recursion. Recursion is the ability to process an infinite amount of combinations. I bet that everyone who reads this will claim that they could count for as long as they wanted to, if they had an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of energy. This is what recursion is all about.

If the language of the Pirahã lacks recursion, then how might this affect their world view. Does it lack recursion too?

The Pirahã language has only two words, which can be considered as proto numerals: ´one´ is hói and ´two´ is hoí. However there is some controversy over whether these might actually mean one/less and two/more, or more precisely that hói is a small quantity and hoí is a large(er) quantity.

Daniel Everett tried to teach mathematics to the Pirahã people for eight months. No one among the Pirahã people learned to count up to ten or add 1+1.

It really seems that language has some kind of relation with world view, recursion and also memory, and these of course attest to the complexity of the society of its speakers. Language truly is the ultimate tool of the human mind.

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